Galt California. It sounded like an affliction involving pain and inflammation, but instead it was a sleepy little cow boyish town with a small golf course and one main road. I thought Fresno was nowhere. One thing is certain, amazing things do happen off the beaten path in these nowhere towns you didn’t ever think about before.
Driving to Golden Living to meet our grandmother produced all kinds of feelings I’d never before sat with. The warmth of the sun was comforting. There was a flicker of teasing panic prickling my skin a mix of anticipation and nausea. Mainly it was radiating from Candice…My cousin was a bundle of nerves sitting in the passenger seat next to me. Would this spontaneous calling lead to a dry well much the way Philomena had ended her search for her son? Part of me even hoped that she was busy or out to lunch, but I was fully anchored by “if it was meant to be, it shall be.”
It is funny how fearlessly I usually delve into life like a journalist, intrigued and excited to talk to strangers, uninhibited like a news reporter on assignment. So much of my life after twenty is devoid of listening to those unspoken urges, because there is really no time for it with families and kids. I had blown out my hair, taken special care to look pretty, lips summer red, bronzed my skin with powder, muted my 43 year old dark under eye circles bulging from exchanges of childhood stories flush with shared tears from nowhere and everywhere. The upside down corkscrew in the roller coaster was just ahead. What a rare, emotionally matched treat; to have two walking wounded products of abandoned fathers side by side, hand in hand announcing they were the indeed, real deal, in the flesh, offspring of her deadbeat sons- sons who sent nary a birthday card nor a child support check, something we had buried deep and would not reveal in the toothy smiles of our first greeting with Lucille. To say that we felt courageous speaking to this woman, this stranger that was my grandmother, our grandmother, well…the only real testament to the power of it all was me shouting in the hot car as we were driving away from Golden Living Nursing care, after our meeting, “WE did it, we are so fucking brave, we did it! My cousin Candice was fully engulfed in tears.
It had gone like this. We had walked in holding our breath and our pee….we took about ten minutes stalling looking for the bathroom to make sure we were prepared to sit a half hour uninterrupted. We had to mentally prepare to be known, be witnessed, be outed as people-finally. We were ready to turn over stones, heavy ones, but age had made us strong enough to muscle those stones that blocked our way; stones that had so long ago been turned for us. We were like toddlers taking first steps. It would surely open avenues for more treasure seeking. To find answers to questions we wish we didn’t have inside gave us our lost voice. Our faces tried to hold in the truth…..how dare your lack of inquiry about us reinforce our lack of self worth, that we don’t matter, we’re here and we matter, a lot. We genuinely heard and listened to this woman’s stories, sometimes distracted by the several shades of violet purple hues in her hair a frilly service at Golden living where they clearly treat you like gold. It soothed me as I recalled Maya Angelou and her poem about wearing purple when she grew old.
Many topics prevailed on this road trip one stood out aside from filling in blanks. “I thought about moving to Washington but I never did” she told us. “Kids should know their grandparents” she said, she showed us cuties that belonged to her sisters kids hmm a sister? Her daughters child, their names-she clearly liked kids. Her grandmother status was clearly validated enough already. Then like a tropical storm or a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock The Birds, emotion flocked us after talking just a few minutes. How shitty it was…….the hand we had been dealt. It stood to attention before us all like a uniformed soldier holding a gun. We told her who we were, words were replaced by gasps to suck back tears. I was to learn later she thought we were sisters, not cousins. Who would want to fully go there, confront fact-her two sons had feared parenting as much as they feared putting down the bottle. We weren’t chosen. They had histories colored with alcohol abuse, too busy numbing to confront what was missing. I questioned Lucille about how much she had drank, she was a two drink gal and her skin told the tale she lived a moderate life. We listened, and the only time I chimed in was about wine and wine country and how I’d gone to Napa for my 40th birthday, she had never been. She showed us pictures of the man she may have been quite very friendly with in times her husband was shrouded in satin weakened by his fetish obsession. It’ not every day an 85 year old women brandished this kind of honesty straight up. She alluded to cozying up to a music producer California, cowboy type pictured on her wall, but this is just speculation. She’d several times gone back and forth on how she decided not to divorce her husband who had been their neighbor- her and Grandpas’ neighbor, a man she would come to witness bleeding out from his head, passing before her eyes. The one she had taken to sleeping with, perhaps looking for a livelier experience than staying home to parent her four kids. She had learned about his affinity for dressing up shortly after Vegas trips to do servicing business to hotel pools. But alas his crossing dressing was not a one time deal she explained that her friend, caught her husband at the Goodwill trying on a shiny sequined wedding dresses. She pointed to the musician in the picture, “he was a good, good friend to me. “ She told us tales of how she liked to go out, sing Karaoke, dress up, be the center stage, belle of the ball, which seemed obvious. She explained, the pictured friend on her wall nearest these other grand kids worked closely with the Country Singer “you know the one who sang “mama Tried” Irony overcame me. I too had a thing for old school country, and had just been to see Merle Haggard in Washington at our Winery, not a drop consumed of course. I had even bought a shirt that said “mama tried” One of the old school country greats, she spoke of, Buck Owens whom I just played on the record player with my sister as we enjoyed some old time fun. We were kindred souls. The outlandish expressive hair, the love of singing and music, the story of how she wore an off the shoulder dress just last night to the Friday gala event at the Nursing Home. She boasted her pearly, newly pierced ears, she resonated no fear, all FUN….My cousin agreed I’d met my twin, just add 40 years!
Several remarkable things happened in that room. We saw pictures of our aunt, we had a moment where we all wondered in unison where did the disconnect happen? Who were the wives that didn’t let us in? Why now, when life is nearly over, who were the keepers of us that held us tight like secrets? How could so many years go by without questions? It hung in the air before us like smoke and choked us with real, very unexpected tears. Together we shared a moment, a sad hot, dripping, stinging moment of regret.
Every day is capable of producing profoundly remarkable moments that change who we are forever. This was out of left field, this visit with our grandmother. It was remarkable, like a Special Olympics player breaking a world record, it just was heartwarming stuff. Candice and I are both in our forties we have rich life tales with nuggets of survival, escapes of close death, near drowning, seizures, blood transfusions, comas, car accidents, chronic illnesses, we were and are anything but bland people. But we listened for a ½ hour that turned into two and oddly we felt whole again. We cut into Bingo time and off Lucille shuffled in her walker, I didn’t even get a picture of me with her, we had stayed too long, but not long enough.
Karma was right out front with us as sure as the hood of our car, as sure as the belly of the Buddha, big spiritual presence at our heels as sure as the earthquake that was to happen hours after our visit. We drove three hours in front of it, pressing at twilight to get to Medford, our halfway point back home safe to Seattle. The day before I had helped Candice pick a nice bottle of red wine in the supermarket. When in wine country even a recovering alcoholic like myself can appreciate that she knows the grape is a good souvenir for a cat sitter. I had done so much personal research on wine why not? It had been three years years since I had even been in the wine section at the store. I read labels and paused to note vintages on wine…..it made me bit pale in the face. I medicated the pit where my father “slugged me” with proverbial sucker punches at aged two. I numbed it nicely with wine for years until it could no longer quench my thirst.
The next morning when I awoke at the Best Western to hear the news of the Napa earthquake I winked upward at the sky with my coffee in hand, the only drug I imbibe, caffeine. Just then an anorexic girl walked by me to get her coffee, food, the poison that Candice abuses with her lack of imbibing. “Yes God, I muttered to myself, I hear you.”
On this trip I had finished reading AE Homes. May We Be Forgiven. A lovely garnish on a perfect road trip in seek of the F word. The writing mimicked our trip in a way. Wacky, zany, spiritually rooting, full circle stuff that needs addressing, needs outing. It was a brilliantly written novel the perfect accoutrement to our trip, like red lipstick and scarves like wine and cheese, okay…just cheese it fed the heart. Lucille had ultimately paired up with a neighbor when our fathers were teenagers and was actually the first model of how to abandon a person and look out for your own needs before others. As hard as that is to put out there, tis true and what comes around goes around. Looking past that little nugget, the only thing I knew of her before we met, I had let it go. In order to make room for stories, important life lessons, forgiveness would be at the forefront of all my mature adult interactions it was key to healing. This woman I had just met filled a hole I didn’t know I had.
In our short visit we learned a few things. Lucille spent many years of success in the pool business but the story she shared with us for whatever reason, was the one that pained her; the one where her friend confided indeed she had seen Lucille’s husband standing in a dressing room in men’s shoes and a wedding dress. Her candor was sobering, and familiar to me. She was forthright beyond the generation of depression era button lipped, secretive savers, she was so much more. Her deep warm character was genuine, and there was something imperfect about her that the writer in me loved the most. Her candor was true beauty despite her obvious selfish ways, I had met a kindred soul that was my grandma.