I saw a funeral van parked in front of a Los Angeles house today, as two men carried an empty stretcher inside. “That old lady must have died,” my son said, as we drove past. I thought about my mom being carried out this time last year and my father’s mother, Lottie, before that.

I never knew Lottie as a young woman. To me, she was always the white-haired, square-figured woman with wire rimmed glasses and a kind smile, living on the top floor of my uncle’s farmhouse. Lottie gave birth to three amazing men, all of whom rose to the top of their professions like cream. Still, I knew nothing of her young life, not a single thing. I saw no photos of the lovely woman she must have been, the young wife or the delighted mother – not a single image.

Lottie kept our photos on the kitchen table, laid flat, under thick glass. Every time she wiped crumbs from her morning, noon or evening meal she spoke to the photos like they were real people. 

To my oldest sister, the conversation went something like this. “Hey, sunshine, we got a little snow here yesterday. One of the cows came up lame so we called the vet, but Johnson Hollow road iced over. Glenn got the tractor stuck near the pond trying to clear a path and had one heck of a time getting it out. His gloves were froze solid by the time he hit the house and he was cussin’ up a storm  How are things in Philadelphia? Are they good? Ya got a nice clean face now. Can you feel that, me scrubbin’ up your face today?” 

To my brother, Doug: “Had a new bi-plane delivered to the airport this morning. The fella who bought it has more money than brains. Wants your dad to teach him to fly, but that fella won’t last. Your dad tested him out, dipped down, then spun a few times over Schweitzer’s field. The man lost his lunch right off the bat. I know you’re clear over there in France with that little bride of yours but we’re thinking of ya over here. I just wiped mashed potatoes off your forehead. Did ya feel that? “

Lottie spent most of her days rocking back and forth in her bedroom chair, watching life from her upstairs window, the glass old and wavy. She watched seasons change, cars motor by and the birth and death of each annual harvest.  

After she reached one hundred, she asked me to pray for the end of her life. I put my twenty year old hand over her weathered and gnarled one and agreed. But I lied, because I could not imagine life without my grandma Lottie. I wanted her to keep rocking in that tired old chair for decades to come. But two years later, when I’d become just another photo under glass, a funeral van pulled up to the farmhouse in the same way and she was gone.

My Grandmother’s Hair

She was alone in the upstairs bedroom of the farm house, my father and his wife tending her in a hands-off kind of way.

Grandma Lottie is pretty much gone, they told me. You can go in but she won’t notice you. She just lies there day after day waiting to die.

I opened the tall wooden door that led to her bedroom, noticing the familiar resistance of the latch and the slow turn of the crystal doorknob. I peeked into the dimly lit room through a small opening as I gathered courage. The doorway extracted me from my own world, beckoning me forward into the quiet nothingness of hers. She slept in a large double bed to my right, which seemed too big for her diminishing body. Soft light cast afternoon shadows near her vanity reflecting remembrances of a well-ordered life. I smiled as I studied stacks of neatly folded and ironed handkerchiefs piled near the lamp. They stood like small embroidered trophies to a feminine life from another era.

I don’t think she’ll take note of you, my father repeated, closing the door behind us. I opened lace curtains that moved inward on a quiet breeze, whispering her name as I sat carefully on the bed. There was no response. Okay, I thought, I know you’re still in there and I’m going to find you. I pressed the clasp on my long leather case, removed my silver flute and assembled it. I held it to my lips, playing low and slow, to ease my way into her hiding place, hoping to coax her spirit gently back and awake. Her body startled in surprise at the unexpected sound, her head turning to face the music. I had her.

I stopped for a moment to trace the lines of her lips with my fingers as she began to smile. Encouraged, I played and played until my fingers tired. When I moved to close, an expression crossed her face that begged me onward, but I had no more. I dismantled the flute, snapped it back inside its velvet nest and crawled into bed next to her. I dove into my memory and found songs we had shared from my youth. I placed my lips inches from her ear and began to sing.

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,

I’m half crazy all for the love of you…

When I got to the next line, she joined me with a voice that came from far away, a voice from inside her private world, a voice that sounded like it was traveling through endless time and space to celebrate life for one more familiar moment. 

It won’t be a stylish marriage, we sang together, I can’t afford a carriage, but you’d look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two..

I sang until I was sung out, all the time stroking her hair and offering words of remembrance and love.  Having worn myself thin, I lifted from the bed and headed toward the door. Thank you, she whispered.

My father peered into the room in disbelief. She’s singing in there, he said. I’ll be damned! She’s just lying in bed alone, singing.

 I listened as her 100 year old voice cocooned around her body like a lost blanket:

From this valley they say you are going

I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile

for they say you are taking the sunshine

that brightened my path for awhile.

written 2-27-08