|Apr/May 2010 Nonfiction
My grandmother is a casualty of the 1960s. When she was in her thirties, her husband, a high school English teacher, had an affair with another teacher at his school. Or at least that is the story my sister told to me years ago. They lived in sunny northern California, and it was the time of free love and sexual experimentation. My grandmother also taught English at the same school and all three of the kids attended there. Her youngest son was the first in the family to find out about the affair. He was actually in his father's class when students starting whispering about the affair between Mr. Earle Bird and Mrs. Someone.
That's one of the few things I know about my grandma's husband—that his real name, Earle Bird, refers to an idiom ("the early bird catches the worm"). The other things I know about him are that he was adopted, enjoyed road trips, and made chocolate pudding for the family on Friday nights when they watched The Addams Family together. He loved hiking and one time in my grandparents' courtship, he took my grandma up the side of a mountain, and at the top, he opened a can of mandarin oranges for them to eat. My grandma was delighted to be introduced to a food she had never tasted before. I also know that he had depression, and after divorcing my grandma, he lived for a few years with Mrs. Someone before he shot her and then himself to death.
My mother attended his and Mrs. Someone's funerals when she was seven months pregnant, and I was born less than six weeks later. They brought me home from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day saying that I was the blessing they were most thankful for that year. They called me Becky Boo for the first time, a nickname that I carried with me throughout my whole childhood and which still resurfaces whenever I help my mother in the kitchen and she says, "Thanks for your help, Becky Boo." I cannot bring myself to ask my mother how it all happened, but my sister tells me that that day, the day of the funeral for Mrs. Someone, my mother discovered what real shame felt like. Despite hers and my grandmother's innocence in the matter, they still claim that walking through a crowd of Mrs. Someone's grieving family is the most humiliating walk anyone could ever travel. This is surprising to me—how is it that they can feel in any part responsible for that tragedy?
But my grandmother likes to tell about different parts of her life, and these are the parts I like to think of, too. She was born and raised a Utah farm girl who loved her parents. Her mother died from polio when my grandma was ten-years-old. Her most vivid memory of her mother, she always tells me, was during WWII when she came home from school one day to find her mother ironing clothes and sobbing as she listened to the radio reporting that a plane had bombed a schoolyard and that little children had died. She was a tender-hearted person. When she was really sick and didn't have the strength to walk, my grandma's daddy would carry his wife in his rough farmer's arms from the automobile to the movie theater, and my grandma would run ahead to hold the doors open for them. I like to think of them sitting side by side eating popcorn and laughing as they watched that week's picture.
I do not know what her husband's funeral was like for my grandma, but I do know that she is able to talk about her experience. She went to years of therapy and wrote in journal after journal until she came to terms with what happened in her life. She continued to teach high school English and though she never remarried, she found love in her children and in the state of California, where she swears she will be buried when she dies or else! To this day, she is still the expert on every film made in the twentieth-century and when she visits, she takes my siblings and me to the movies and buys us all the popcorn we could not possibly finish in one movie's time.
I mention all this about my grandmother's history because I find myself with the unusual task of deciding what to say at my grandmother's funeral. I call this task unusual because she is not yet dead; she still hobbles around the house with enough vim to describe every detail of her future funeral down to the flowers she wants displayed and the song she wants sung. But she has been particularly concerned about her death of late, perhaps because more and more of her friends are dying, and one by one she grieves over them. She has asked me to speak at her funeral, which is another curiosity since I am only her third (possibly fourth) favorite grandchild—and that does not even include the great-grandchildren who are too cute as infants to take a eulogy seriously.
I don't know if I can do my grandmother justice in death, for there are many years that I could not see firsthand. I meet my younger grandmother only through the stories she tells me: a little girl in overalls with her daddy at the farmers market, a teenager with coke-bottle glasses riding her horse to her favorite reading tree, a young woman who nearly flunked out of college and was a bridesmaid eleven times before she was married. This is Doris. The familiar name of my grandmother seems strange on a little girl. Other things, too, seem unfamiliar as I try to attach them to Doris. Here is the orange in your stocking from Santa, the malt you made at your first job, the powder blue car that broke down your third year at school. And here is the nickname from your father, Doris: Mary Sunshine.
I wonder how much is okay to fill in when I do not know the details. Aged memories are passed on to me orally, are re-birthed with freshness that I must catch and lay out to dry as they sit, blinking with new eyes; secondhand memories given a second life through eulogy.
But I am not even sure that firsthand memories would be much better. Sometimes I dig through my storage bin to find my childhood scrapbook to try and remember who I was. In the front slipcover is a picture of my twelve-year-old self holding my sister's dog. I am standing under a hanging basket of pink geraniums squinting at the camera and the sun behind it. My hair is pulled back in a ponytail and I am all lines: long, thin legs protruding from too-short shorts and a flat chest behind a yellow t-shirt. There I am—Becky Boo. My own nickname is as unfamiliar to me as my grandmother's.
I initially look at that young girl in the photo as I would a stranger, so long has it been since I knew her. Yet the longer I stare at her, the more I feel the joining of Becky and Rebecca across losses, changes, deaths, illnesses, everything that separates us. I try to tell her how I got to be where I am, to fill in the gaps, to make some coherent story of my life. And eventually when I see that girl standing there under those flowers, white and bone-thin, wearing oversized socks and shoes, dog-in-arms, squinting, I feel more like myself than I do as I sit in my stuffy attic looking through my scrapbook.
I suspect my grandmother asked me to speak at her funeral because she thinks I am a storyteller like herself. Will she care that I cannot move beyond secondhand re-tellings of her life? I don't know if my grandmother actually ran ahead to open doors for her parents, or if she was really a bridesmaid eleven—or was it ten?—times. But I figure the accounts she tells me are true; reconstructed memory is sometimes better than actual occurrences. From Mary Sunshine to Doris Bird, Becky to Rebecca, it's all about trying to breach the gap between ourselves and someone we once knew, to try to save our lives with story. I know that the reconstruction of my grandmother will be incomplete, but the point is that there will be some coherency, and despite the errors I will inevitably make, it will be true.