…There, in her overflowing garden, moving expressively as she tells me about the Old Country, how she used to jump as a small girl from a cliff into the Black sea, and swim like a fish. I am only four or five, and I listen as a child to a storybook.
Her hands are punctuating her stories… How she came to America around 1910 with her family of mostly lazy brothers. How at 10 she left their new home to set out alone by train – not yet knowing the language – hoping to find her older sister, a mail-order bride, and her farm. How when she found her, poor Rose, overworked by a decades-older husband, was worn out and sick – dying at the too-soon age of 24. In my mind, I imagine her child hands, smoothing her sister’s hair away from her tired face, wringing out cool cloths to place on her forehead, holding Rose’s hands in her own and promising to take care of her two small children.
She tells me about a day when she was 13 or 14, racing alongside a runaway horse and wagon carrying her two tiny nephews, Rose’s boys… How she managed to grab hold, pull herself up, grasp the reins and bring them to safety. My mouth is an “O” as I picture horses frightened into running, nostrils flaring as they bolt blindly — like in a tumultuous scene from some wild western — unbelievably stopped by… a young girl. My Grandma.
“You will write my stories some day,” she tells me, those hands holding me close. I try to memorize, record her words and tales in my heart, if not yet with pen and ink. But they are elusive… like snapshot photos that flash across my memory…
“Mother was an unusually compassionate child,” mom tells me about her as she braids my hair. As I listen, she is painting more images of the little girl from the Old Country. How at first, they lived among immigrants of many nationalities, unable to communicate much…and how she loved to help these people any way she could…even without words. I could see her hands back then when children ran more freely – playing with the small neighbor children to keep them occupied while their parents found work. Sewing and mending for others. A child herself, helping to clean their meager homes, putting flowers in a vase to pretty up their rough-hewn space, making dinners out of nothing for them, making home a welcoming light to these weary workers. No money exchanged. Just generosity and care that transcended language, age and background.
Later on, I imagine her own work-weary touch, slaving 14-hour days in a cannery, as a young teen. Then, her creative touch as she became active in theater and met her future husband, a singer, who had escaped alone from the Old Country to America by ship at 13.
I see again her hands kneading dough with joyful purpose in her sunny kitchen, creating our favorite melt-in-your-mouth delicacies – as she rose at the crack of dawn to have these treats ready and waiting for us every time she knew we were coming. And serving us “tea” in her cherished English demitasse cups with the pretty yellow-blue-and- rose pattern.
I see them dipping handmade doughnuts in an enormous pan of bubbling oil. Or cracking an egg into a delicious lemony chicken broth. Designing her own elaborate needlework tapestry patterns that graced the seats of the old-fashioned claw-foot chairs in her living room, or watering her favorite pink and purple violets on the dining room window ledge. Showing me how to gently pick strawberries. Or arranging detailed decorations for a friend’s wedding shower. Hands…always doing.
I see them smoothing her apron, grabbing her grandkids close even when we wriggled, making courses of meals for holidays, waving playing cards with her old friends as they talked wildly in a language that was like a strange – almost scary – secret code I couldn’t understand. Or her fingers wiggling and beckoning me to take her hands, and dance together Greek-style around the living room, to Rosemary Clooney singing on TV. Or serving us in the breakfast alcove, uncovering her parakeet to greet the day, then fluttering with delight as that bird would clearly enunciate words she’d taught him…Good morning, Pamela sweetheart…
And lastly… I see them as she grew older… her fingers absently opening and closing to grip the back of the car seat as she listened to us in back. And…after her stroke… holding and squeezing a red rubber ball… or reaching for our hands to look into our eyes.
She wrote her memories across my mind, weaving them into my own… and, as I remember… I see God’s pen, using her hands to write her living letter in hearts… all along her life. And now, as she predicted… I have written some of her story for you…
She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and she laughs without fear of the future.
When she speaks, her words are wise,
and she gives instructions with kindness.
She carefully watches everything in her household
and suffers nothing from laziness. Her children stand and bless her.
- Proverbs 31
© Pam Depoyan
Imperfect Prose at Emily Wierenga’s place