The other morning I was sitting at my desk dunking an Italian butter cookie into my coffee. I stared blankly into my mug as bits of cookie became coffee-logged and surrendered themselves to the pool of liquid. I sit with a mug of coffee and a cookie or piece of toast whenever I am missing home or feeling stressed. Coffee-dunked carbohydrates have always been very reminiscent of my childhood.
Between sips and dunks and soggy bites, I fall into memories. Suddenly, I’m 10 years old again. I’m sitting at the island in my mother’s new kitchen watching my Gram butter a toasted piece of left over Italian bread from last night’s dinner. As she finishes and puts the butter knife to rest on the counter, I sit up straight and stick my hand out to receive the fully coated piece of toast. She hands it to me and then places herself in the chair next to mine.
I am 10 years old and have no business drinking coffee, but am allowed to occasionally when good bread needs to be toasted and good toasted bread needs to be drenched in coffee and sugar. I mimic Gram’s motions as her wrist dances her bread-filled fingers in and out of her mug. She takes a bite, places the remaining unsaturated toast onto a napkin, and then flips the page of her magazine. I continue to dunk and bite my way through my coffee and bread without the leisurely toast-to-napkin rests. The single piece of toast that would last me barely 2 minutes could last her an hour or two. Gram has always had a way of making a meal out of a single bite.
I am 10 years old and hang onto words much longer than either of us can make our toast last. She doesn’t know it, but every story she tells I write on a note-card in my mind and tape it to the forefront of most memories. She was 18 when she cut her hair, which used to be much darker than this, a shade closer to mine. She bought herself her first car because she needed to get to work, but it was a convertible because looking cool was just as important as functionality. Her grandmother spoke in English broken by quick-tempered Italian. Her and I made a deal once when I was 5; that deal is the reason she stopped smoking. I regret to admit that it was not the reason I stopped sucking my thumb, however. She used to pal around with a girl named Ginger. Ginger was really popular with the boys, but my gram didn’t have time for all that. When she met my Poppy she was not sure she liked him, he was an arrogant SOB. When they started dating she grew sure of loving him, but he was still an arrogant SOB at times. She’s never loved another man. She went on strike once when my mom was growing up and refused to do any cooking or cleaning for them. She never used to buy herself anything, but makes a point to now when she can. She keeps the palms from last Palm Sunday in the sun visor of the front passenger seat in her car. Her mother used to color Easter eggs every year, each egg its own unique and pure shade of a pastel. When my Poppy passed away she was only 55. She’s never loved another man. She has a way of making a whole meal out of a single bite.
When most people tell stories of their grandparents, they think of stories with 4 different people, or maybe 2 or 3 if loss found their family before they did. When I think of my grandparents, I only think of Gram. My grandfather or Poppy, passed when I was 5 years old. I have fleeting memories of him that flicker off and on as I grow farther from the 5 year old who knew him. My other set of grandparents were distant from my sisters and me. I don’t pretend to understand why they were not in our lives nor do I dwell much on their absence nor do I extend much forgiveness to them for it.
I don’t know if she knew that she was taking on the role of all 4 grandparents. That when she was gone traveling, she was the wild grandmother exploring cities and learning new people. That when she was staying with us, she was the cautious and caring Gram who tended to our scrapes and babied us much longer than we deserved. That when she took us traveling with her, she was the fun, adventurous Grandma who brought us to new places. That when she was back home in New York, she was the hardest working woman I know.
When I was 15, she sold and gave away most of her belongings and left the only place she’d ever called home to live with us. 6-8 months out of the year she lives with us and the others she splits between visiting family in New York and staying with her other daughter in California. Her gypsy-like traveling habits have weaved their way into our family’s culture. Conversations about packing 3-4 months worth of stuff into one carry on and debates over who’s getting Gram from the airport this time are a part of how we are now. While it is sad that I have really never known any other grandparent, she has stretched herself thin to make sure that my sisters and I know her completely. She has been a grandma, a friend, a roommate, a cook, a life-coach, a nurse, and a therapist.
As I’m writing this, dunking cookies into coffee and watching as parts break off like clouds, my grandma is preparing for her next trip. Sometime tomorrow, Gram will be on a plane flying from New York to Charlotte. I can’t even count all of the times the words “Gram’s on the plane” have left my mouth over the years. Gram is 73 and is probably better at flying than I am. She knows the in’s and out’s of most of the big airports in the U.S. I think Gram’s traveling soul not only brings her closer to her family around the country, but also brings her closer to those whom she has lost to the sky. Like maybe all the things she’s ever lost are swaying up there in the clouds, hung like fixtures in God’s mobile, dancing for her. I think angels are drawn to the sky. Like maybe flying through clouds is the real visit. Like visiting home for her now is visiting the clouds that heaven occupies and telling them she’s not ready yet, but is happy to fly by.