Here it is: the entry to the Real Simple writing contest that DIDN'T win. Boo hoo!
The first memory I have of my mother is when I was four years old. I think she had asked to visit me, but she and my father had such a contentious divorce that he didn't trust her to be alone with me, and since I'd only been 18 months old when we were separated, he may have been worried about how I'd fare when I saw her again. All I have now is a vision of us walking up a path in the mountains holding hands. After that, she left again, and only appeared sporadically in my life. My father and my grandmother raised me together, even though their houses were 4 miles apart. Granny did everything for me. I followed her around the house all day like a little shadow and as she used to say, "hung on her coat-tails and got into everything!" In the summers I helped her shell peas, shuck corn, pull weeds and peel tomatoes for canning. In the winters, we'd sit by the fire and watch Wheel of Fortune and The Golden Girls. The commercial breaks were her opportunity to tell me stories, and that she did, one after another all of my life. She taught me the Lord's Prayer when I was three, taught me to iron when I was only ten, expressed her disapproval when I wanted to shave my legs at thirteen, took me shopping for maxi-pads that same year, and helped me to learn to drive when I was 14 and she was 71. When I was ten and came home from school with tears in my eyes because I'd realized that the knuckles of my middle finger was bigger than the other knuckles she patiently explained that I had pretty hands, my mother's hands in fact, and that my knuckle was just the way it should be.
Granny was a simple woman. She wasn't very social. She didn't "keep up with the Jones'. She wore no makeup, had very little money, and lived in a tiny house that cost all of seven thousand dollars to build. But she taught me to believe in myself and in what I could do and experience in the world. Herself a retired seamstress and homemaker, she still believed that I could find my way in life, my own path to success, by never letting anyone else get me down. She rarely went to church in her older years, but she was a Godly woman, often quoting the Bible or simply sitting quietly in her chair reading it.
Her youngest son died suddenly when he was only 28. He had lived with her up until then, and kind of taken care of her as much as she took care of all of us. But when he was gone, I think a light went out in Granny. An inevitable sadness came over her and settled in. She stopped eating enough and grew frail. At sixteen and at the urging of my father, I packed up my room and moved in with her. For the next three years we were two peas in a pod. We'd cook supper for my dad and brother and afterward all of us would sit around the table and talk about our day. When night fell over our little house in the country, and it was just me and her and the quiet ticking of the clock on the wall, she'd sometimes ask me to crawl in the bed next to her. She'd whisper old bedtime stories in my ear - ones that she had used to get me to sleep at night when I was a baby. Or she'd tell me about how much she loved me. She told me over and over again to never forget how much she loved me.
When I graduated high school I earned three scholarships, which was lucky considering how poor we were. My freshman year I commuted to the university, making the 30 mile drive back and forth each day. Every afternoon when Granny heard the sound of my car in the driveway, she'd push open the screen door for me -- eager to have me home safe and someone to talk to. Some nights I'd sit with stacks of books beside me on the couch desperately needing to study, but Granny would be slowly rocking in her chair a few feet away, interrupting me every few minutes with a question or comment. Somehow even as a high-strung nineteen year old, I never grew weary of this. It was as if all my life our hearts had beat in sync with one another. My mother had gone away, but Granny was right there to take up the slack in every way I could imagine, even graciously accepting the crayon decorated Mother's Day cards I'd made for her in elementary school.
A cashier job at the local grocery store had occupied my weekends since I was fifteen and it ws one of those Saturdays while I was scanning groceries for $5.75 an hour when it happened. Granny had gone out the back door of her house to throw out a pot of old beans when she tripped over an exposed tree root and fell hard on the red clay ground. I came home to find the front door wide open, a spot of blood on the floor, and not a soul anywhere who could tell me what in the devil had happened. When I finally got the call that she had broken both a hip and a shoulder I sped to the hospital with tears in my eyes and struggled to see the road in front of me. She was loopy on pain medications and it was hard not to laugh at the crazy things she said, so I laughed and cried all night. It was a lonely couple of weeks before she could come home. She had pretty severe osteoporosis anyway, so taking care of her would be a struggle. Our family got organized really fast. We had a schedule of people lined up to do shifts. We had day people, night people, and weekend people. Just as my sophomore year was about to begin, my father suggested that I move to an apartment in Athens so I could have a more normal college life. There were enough of us to still take good care of Granny, so I took his advice and moved out. My only possessions were the bed frame that my mother and father had shared, a simple bookshelf and desk, the cassette player I'd gotten for my sixteenth birthday, my clothes, and my computer. It took only one trip with dad's truck to move me into the small apartment. My scholarships were enough for tuition and rent, but in order to pay for utilities and anything extra I'd have to work more than just weekends. I found a different job that was closer, scanning groceries of course, and began my life on my own. The first two weeks after I left home I cried every night. I'd get home from class and run straight to the phone to call Granny. She'd talk and I'd cry. She told me I'd be alright. She told me to come home whenever I wanted. I went to class full time, I worked evening and weekends at the grocery store, and as soon as I had a free hour or two I'd drive out to Granny's house and send everyone else home. I'd pull the night shift with her alone so that I could talk to her and be with her in the same way we had been together all of my life. Except now I came home with an arm full of all her favorite foods, Dr. Pepper and cheese puffs included, so she'd eat more and build up her strength. I helped her bathe, transfer in and out of a wheelchair, and I woke up in the middle of the night and fought back tears at having to see her so broken. If I moved her the wrong way she'd holler out in pain and I'd feel my blood pressure rise with the stress and helplessness that permeated the situation we were both in. All my life she'd taken care of me. When the tables turned, I felt a growing sense of responsibility in my own life - to take care of her, to take care of myself, and to take care of my friends and family. This is when I first felt all grown up. Granny is gone now, but I have my own little girl following me around the kitchen hanging onto my coat-tails. I can only hope to do as well by her as Granny did by me.