To my grandmother, they were always "the girls." Girls, though none of them would see seventy again. In a way, they still were girls to each other. They had grown up together, raised families together, buried their husbands together. They knew their age, yet they did not see it when they were together. Then, they were still the girls.
They all had pet names for each other. One day, I realized why. They all hated their given names. They all had the misfortune to be born during the era of ugly girl's names. An entire generation of Agathas, Ethels and Mildreds, compelled by a moment's fashion to bear those names for a lifetime.
My grandmother made a point of having me meet them all, or having them meet me. I was never quite sure which. Many an afternoon she would bundle me into the car for lunch at Helen's or Eunice's. There I would sit, eating thin sandwiches and sweet pickled watermelon rind, speaking when spoken to, mostly listening.
She wanted me to see her with her friends. To know that she had a life of her own. To know that she existed beyond the limits of wife, mother, grandmother. To know that she knew people with interesting stories to tell. People who had been places and done things. People who had lived.
She outlived them all.
I saw my grandmother cry exactly three times: for her brother, for his wife, and for my grandfather. When the last of her "girls" died, I thought I might see it again. Perhaps she did cry, privately. I don't know. To me, she seemed to find a certain peace, as if she had been given permission to complete her own life. She had outlived her husband and all her friends. She had raised her children. She had seen all her grandchildren into adulthood. She had even become a great-grandmother. Eunice had been her last tie to the past. Now she was truly free.
Nana can still walk, but only with great difficulty. She prefers to conserve her energy. In the back-bedroom, we are setting out her clothes for the week. From an antique wheelchair, she gestures toward the closet.
Take the cream colored blouse and hang it on the rail, Christopher. Over there, next to the brown one.This one?No, not that. That's too nice. I want to be buried in that one. The other one.Buried? You're feeling morbid today.Morbid?!? I'm eighty years old, Christopher. It's not morbid, it's reality. Get used to it. Now bring me to the kitchen. I want to make a bread pudding before you go.
It is a ritual. We have made countless bread puddings. I know exactly how she will tell me to prepare it. She knows, too. She knows she could just ask me to make it and I would. We will not do that. I will take no steps without her instruction, not even setting out the eggs and milk. I will be her grandson. She will be my grandmother. We love each other too much to do it another way. We will do it together.
Nana is uncharacteristically excited. She has given me an extra long shopping list. My cousin James and his wife Ginger will be flying in for a wedding. They will bring their daughter, Cassie. Nana will finally meet her great-grandchild. She knows this will not happen again. She wants to be prepared. She confirms with me several times that I will be there to help her entertain.
My cousins arrive. I serve coffee and pastry. We pay court to our grandmother as we get acquainted. I do not know them at all well, yet it is not uncomfortable. Sometimes blood is enough. Cassie entertains herself on the kitchen floor. She has just turned one. We pause our conversations now and then to watch her, and affirm to each other that she is a beautiful little girl.
My grandmother's face has an expression that I have not seen before. I cannot place it. It is in her eyes. As she watches Cassie babble and play, she is transformed. Her face shows more than pride, more than happiness, more than even love. I look from Cassie to my grandmother and realize what I see. It is joy. Pure joy.
We attend the wedding together. I wear my grandfather's tweed suit, complete with vest and watch-chain. She wears her too-nice cream colored blouse. I have a cream rose boutonniere. She wears a matching corsage. She will be the matriarch. I will be her escort. We will make the most of the time we have. We will do this in style. She gently chides me over my cigar and cocktail, while enjoying a second glass of chardonnay herself. She knows we will both get home safely.
The evening winds down. The band plays Moonlight Serenade. We both love this song. We look at each other and know that we would dance if we could. I give her hand a gentle squeeze. That will have to be enough.
It is a pity that these moments have to end, but they do. Life goes on. We are compelled to complete the circle. Hopefully, we do the things that need to be done, in style, with love, together. Hopefully, we make the most of the time we have. That is all we can do. Forever and always, that will have to be enough.