I’ve washed all the dishes. I’ve cleaned out the refrigerator. I’ve sorted my closet by types, then colors, then styles, of clothing. I’ve repotted all my plants. I’ve even read the bios of all 135 candidates running for governor in Tuesday’s special election.
But I haven’t packed.
I’m flying to North Carolina tomorrow. Actually, later today, as it is well after midnight. My grandfather died on Sunday. The funeral is Friday.
I have mixed feelings about attending.
When I was maybe six, maybe seven, I spent a summer with my grandparents in Florida. I don’t remember how I got there. However, I do remember flying home, by myself.
I adored Grandaddy. I didn’t adore Grandmother. She was a disciplinarian. She was strict. She was a high school principal. She gave me academic exercises to complete every day while I stayed with them. Math ditto sheets, smudged blue numbers that smelled like alcohol and were cool to the touch as soon as they were reproduced. Boring, boring stories. So boring that of my own volition I began reading one of the many Bibles resting on an end table.
See, Grandaddy was a minister. No, a preacher. A Southern Baptist, fire and brimstone preacher. When I attended services on Sunday (and every Sunday we did attend not just one, but many, services) and heard him preach, I slumped down, farther and farther, until eventually I was crouching behind the pew, my shoulders hunched into my skinny stomach. I didn’t want God to find me and take me to hell. Because according to Grandaddy, we were all going to hell. I didn’t want to go to hell. It didn’t sound like a fun place to go to. If I made myself small, ever so tiny, God would overlook me. I didn’t like Grandaddy in the pulpit.
I liked Grandaddy in the morning, after Grandmother had left for work. We ate our breakfast together, the breakfast Grandmother had gotten up early to prepare and leave in the refrigerator. Usually it consisted of some combination of cottage cheese, fruit cocktail from the can (“Grandaddy, can I have your cherry?”) and freshly sliced, perfectly separated citrus. Not even in the finest restaurants have I ever had oranges or grapefruits so perfectly sectioned. It was pure pulp, none of the chewy, tough membranes, nor tiny seeds present. At the time I didn’t realize what an act of love Grandmother was performing every morning.
I didn’t realize a lot of things over the years. To me, Grandmother constantly complained. “Don’t do that!” “Watch your mouth!” “You will too come here right now!” “This is my house and you will do what I say!” I much preferred to shadow Grandaddy. He didn’t really say anything. He simply sat and smoked his pipe, smiling as he exhaled a sweet apple-y cinnamon-y smoke.
We visited every year, either at Thanksgiving or at Christmas. As I got older, I began to notice that Grandmother, while still always complaining, always did all the work. She waited on Grandaddy, bringing him his pipe, his freshly squeezed orange juice, his newspaper. She cleaned the house; she cleared the dishes. She also talked. She showed us the photographs from their most recent AARP bus trip and told us, in-depth, more details than we ever cared to hear, about what transpired. Grandaddy sat silent, smoking his pipe, smiling ever so slightly as he exhaled.
Then Grandmother couldn’t do the work anymore. She had a series of medical catastrophes. Stroke after stroke. Brain infections while in the hospital. Viruses attacking her nervous system.
Grandaddy cared for her. Or rather, he tended to her. He gave her her medicines. He took her to doctor’s appointments. He bought her oil paints when she took up painting. And we continued to visit.
In 1994, I got married. I didn’t invite Grandaddy to perform the service. I invited my minister, from my home town church, the one I had gone to for 20 years, to perform the service. Grandaddy refused to come to the wedding, citing that Grandmother was too frail. I tried to explain my choice to him, but he wouldn’t listen to me. I asked my mom if he was being spiteful, or if Grandmother really was too sick to travel. She, like I, thought he was being spiteful. I pleaded, trying to get him to change his mind. He stood steadfast, refusing to come. In the weeks before the wedding, I kept hoping I would receive a phone call, Grandaddy saying he realized he was being silly and they would drive, or fly, up. Or maybe they were going to surprise me and just show up. They didn’t.
A couple of years later Grandmother died. The one thing, perhaps the only thing, I don’t like about living on the West coast is that I’m always 3 time zones and 10 hours of travel away from my family. I didn’t go to the funeral. It just seemed like too much.
Shortly thereafter, my mother came out to visit. My husband and I had just bought a house and she was helping us paint. Day after day after day we taped, scraped, painted, and edged until the whole house was completed. I still remember the dinner. We went to MC2 in the city. A hip, trendy, very cool restaurant that had just opened. We were sitting, contemplating our vertical appetizers, when mother said, “Your grandfather is getting married.”
Both my husband and I were stunned. I uttered a nervous laugh and questioned her. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I need to tell you something.”
What followed next was a story that the most talented soap opera writer couldn’t rival. It involved my grandfather, the church secretary, my grandfather leaving my grandmother, death threats by the secretary’s husband (who happened to be some sort of grand something or other in the KKK), my grandfather appealing to my grandmother, swearing that if she took him back he wouldn’t ever leave her again, until death did they part.
And he didn’t. Leave her. He didn’t cherish her, as would be expected between husband and wife, but he did keep his word. He never left her. Until after her death. When he immediately married the church secretary, whom he had been rendezvousing with clandestinely over the years.
The phrase, “My whole world was turned upside down” most aptly describes how I felt after my mother stopped speaking. So many thoughts clashed in my head, screamed for my attention. Going to hell, the Bible verses he always quoted, Grandmother serving him, he simply passing time, smoking his pipe. I felt cheated. I had the same feeling I had at the end of The Usual Suspects. I had been duped. The good guy wasn’t the good guy. He was the bad guy. And I had fallen for it.
Needless to say, family visits after grandfather’s re-marriage were strained. We never interacted with the new wife, as much her choice as ours.
This is what I face on Friday.
And I still haven’t packed.