an Essay by Melissa Kiefer
Each time she found out the tumors had grown in her brain, she baked a pie. My Grandma Mildred and I never talked about real things. We talked about the squirrels in the yard and hummingbird wings and the weather. We spoke the language of blueberry, coconut, and lemon meringue when we couldn’t articulate our frustration. The kitchen was safe. We forcefully threw flour on the counter. We punched the ball of dough. We rolled out anger disguised as submissive domesticity.
When Mildred passed away, I didn’t want her tiny collection of jewelry. The rings fell off. The clip-on earrings made my earlobes throb. I just wanted the jewelry box—the box that unraveled me in its memory and melody and spun me with a song. I wanted the simple act of lifting hope open. When life slammed hope shut, I could crack it open, just barely, and hear the lullaby.
My favorite aunt took the music box, and if I couldn’t have it, I wanted it to be hers because she needed the hope inside. I received two different, important items instead: Grandma Mildred’s wooden rolling pin and her old flour sifter. She’s in the muscle memory of pie-creating. She’s with me when I sift through the sand of my students’ lives and help them run pure water over caked-on mud. See this random what-do-you-call-it? It’s the treasure you’re supposed to own and write. Please don’t try to be anyone else. She’s in all blooming life and in every verse I’ll learn and know. She’s the reason I’ve realized that extending grace makes me strong.
I call my maternal grandmother Linda Lou, and she did not own any tangible thing I wanted. She’s just in me like good-time laughter and the swivel in my hips. She’s my everything that’s southern, sweet, and intensely difficult—in me like mess and chaos. At the same time, she grounds me every time I bend down to touch the earth and crumble garden dirt and believe, passionately, something has to grow. She’s the story of Norma Jeane bearing the uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Monroe.
Grandma Linda Lou’s blonde hair was styled and sprayed and perfectly set every week at Fresh as a Daisy salon. Even as a child, I admired glamour. I couldn’t wait to make the big parade into town, to sit with her and listen to voices gossip like dripping molasses. I loved looking out the window of her white car, hearing her tires roll over ancient brick streets in a town where a church is perched on every corner and the population somehow remains steadily at 1,900, where nature is something sultry and wild and human nature must be restrained by an old-fashioned etiquette, where the Mason-Dixon line should spike up to include the bottom fourth of Illinois.
Linda Lou told me stories in the car. She told me stories everywhere with big, expressive eyes and energetic inflection in a way that made me wish I could write the same way she could tell. My hometown boasts the third oldest library in the state. Old women still return steamy romance novels in paper bags. When I was young, I remember my mom borrowing a non-steamy book from the library. The book was meant to be funny—satirical, sarcastic. I didn’t like it. Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Woman’s Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral poked fun at the comfort food of casseroles and gave detailed instructions about which flowers and music were appropriate. I recalled the book when I drove my mother to the local flower shop to pick out the perfect casket spray. Before my mom could pull a picture of cascading gerbera daisies and red roses from her purse, the florist gave her a good forty-five second hug. Because everyone knows everyone. Because my mama lost her mama.
After the florist appointment, we drove to the home Linda Lou died in (barely twenty-four hours before) in order to clean it. It’s what we do when we’re upset. We clean. We sweep. We shake out the dust. I washed the sheets she died in and the cups still stained with her Maybelline lipstick in Royal Red. I watered her roses so they wouldn’t die, too. I scrubbed the toilet. I found washrags crusted with blood. “Bless her heart,” my mother said as her face crumpled. “She was in more pain than she ever let on,” she sighed as she tried to tidy the piles of hospital bills and Medicare and Medicaid paperwork.
The collection agencies and bill collectors continued to call. The phone seemed to ring without stopping—an abrasive cadence to our cleaning as I wiped down the vanity and the sink and pulled the sheets tight. My mother would hold the telephone to her ear for five seconds then throw the phone back onto the receiver while mimicking their fake professional voices: “No, Ms. Fewkes is not available. Ms. Fewkes is dead.”
As deeply as I know she’s where I get my spunk and sparkle, I’ve also inherited from my mom’s mom the same low self-esteem and obsession that comes off as self-absorption and vanity and the presumption that people are cruel and untrustworthy. She’s in the part of my brain that panics and fears and offers desperate prayers in the middle of the night. Like her, I automatically jump to worst-case scenarios. I learned to fear change and choices and transitions. Now, I’m trying to unlearn all of the learning because Linda Louise Fewkes worried about a thousand things she didn’t need to worry about—because they were not the nine-inch tumor growing in her gut.
What I have already learned is that sometimes there are no lines between mother, daughter, and granddaughter. We’ve played the adult. We’ve also played the child. My grandmothers have fed me and I have, in turn—both honored and embarrassed—spooned food into their mouths, too.
When either of my grandmothers babysat me, I’d sit for hours examining my hand-painted collection of Russian dolls, the kind that fit inside of one another. They increase or decrease in size depending on my perception. The dolls symbolize an important truth: we carry our matriarchs inside of us. They carry their children inside of them. It all depends on how you look at it. The idea of these dolls both terrify and fascinate me. I possess the best and worst of my grandmothers and mother—claustrophobically dwelling inside of them. Or are they heavy with the burden of me? I believe in the influence of women, of ghosts. I am afraid to carry a daughter, to bear a baby girl. What if she doesn’t want to carry me inside her shell forever?
I eavesdropped, like a child, during the funeral planning of my Grandma Mildred. I was upstairs folding programs, assembling gift bags, and finishing other wedding preparations I wanted her to be there to see, wanted her to have the blessed assurance that in eleven days I’d walk down the aisle to a man who knew my worth. My dad, uncle, and their dad sat downstairs in the living room dumbfounded. They didn’t know what song to pick for the service. I looked over at my wedding dress then stomped down the stairs. I wanted to spew out the words: “Her favorite hymns are ‘In the Garden’ and ‘He Leadeth Me.’ She loves Psalms and Proverbs just like I do. She wants to be buried in her red suit. How do you not know your own mother? How do you not know your own wife?”
I was not trying to shame them. I was simply a naturally observant grandchild who did not understand this gap of knowledge, even regarding a lady who never seemed to have much to say. Women know other women. Sometimes we hate to admit the fact. We don’t have to know every secret to know the beauty and pain of a life that exists so separately from men. I cried for her.
At the funeral service honoring my mother’s mom, I did not cry during the funeral song that had been carefully selected. “Mama Loved the Roses” sounded comical to me. I only thought of Grandma impersonating Elvis, the way she bent her knees and grooved to bluesy melodies, called the King a hunk.
In the receiving line at the visitation, I stood 5’4” in heels and in my slimmest black dress. I was shaking because I hadn’t eaten, not only because I was grieving, but because I was too nauseous and nervous to keep anything down. “You’re too thin, Honey,” Mom said. I weighed 102 lbs. I wanted, I swear, to shrink into nothing, to become the tiniest of those Russian dolls. I was unsure of how much space I deserved to occupy, how much heaviness I could continue to hold. “Oh by the way,” my mother added, “you and your cousins are pallbearers.”
My volleyball star/runway model sister showed me the back page of the program that labeled us as such, along with the traditional cousin photo snapped at Grandpa’s Christmas Eve party three years prior. I’m nearly hidden in the picture—stretching on tiptoes between a cousin who is a professional body builder, another cousin who’s in the military, and two other burly cousins who are farmhands. We were pallbearers. All of us.
My cousin, who was about to leave for Basic, leaned in to whisper loudly enough for all five of us to hear, “How about this: we’ll carry all the weight and Melissa can just sit on top, straddle the casket, and wave like the queen. Grandma would like that, don’t you think?”
I don’t know what the etiquette books say a proper southern lady should do when someone cracks an irreverent joke and nearly the whole receiving line heaves with laughter—big belly laughter that made me squeal and gasp for breath and cross my legs so I didn’t pee. I didn’t care. I needed the peculiar southern gothic humor at that moment. I needed to not care about fixing my makeup and wondering what the town thought and keeping quiet and acting like a lady. I needed the strange cousins who didn’t really speak or get along or talk about real things but who shared the same grandma whose eyes would have sparkled bright.
My tears fell, finally, when I felt the weight of her gray casket. My knees buckled, my arm muscles trembled, and my legs shook with each step. I felt as though all of gravity was bearing down on me, impatient with a desire to get her safely down inside the crack of earth. While my mother ran off to check on the funeral dinner at the church, I kept glancing back at the gray casket. I opened my fist of bitterness, blew the red rose petals so that they floated in the air for a moment and then scattered to the ground to mix with the dust, and I felt my heart crack wide open with an absurd and joyous grief.
A few months after the funeral, my sister chose to get her foot tattooed with a giant rose. One of my cousins moved into the house that my mom completely remodeled for Linda Lou, and I hope roses still bloom there. My mother makes sure the flowers on her grave are perfect and cries on holidays. Me? I don’t know how to honor my grandma. I only know that mysterious joy still finds me three years later dancing in my kitchen because my mashed potatoes finally turned out creamy (like hers always did) and laughing when salty teardrops fall into the bowl. My kitchen drawers are messy, but I know where to find Grandma Mildred’s rolling pin and flour sifter. I know that if I found all of my mismatched measuring cups and measuring spoons, they’d still fit inside of one another. I know for certain that the light in my life floods through every chip and crack and broken place.
Mom wanted to take me to visit the gravestone she designed for Grandma. I didn’t want to go. She pointed to the etching on the stone and said, “See the rose?” I loved her because of her thorns. When we left the cemetery, I gave her gravestone a wink. I don’t know why. It just felt right.
Melissa Kiefer earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Murray State University. Her articles and reviews have appeared in New Madrid, LA Family Magazine, and Evansville Living Magazine. Published in Hippocampus Magazine, an excerpt from her thesis “The Police Officer’s Wife” was noted Most Memorable and shared over five thousand times. Melissa teaches literature and composition courses at the college level and creative writing and drama classes at a high school in southern Illinois.