Jan. 28, 1922 – June 18, 2003
My grandmother was Bertie Davenport Conn, but I never called her that. To me, and to all of her grandchildren, she was Gammy.
She had been sick for a long time. Her heart first gave out on her a few years ago, and things started to go downhill from there. She began to lose her health and her short-term memory. The doctors said she had the beginnings of Alzheimer’s, but I chose not to believe that. I believed that she had gotten to a point where the who, what, when, where and why no longer mattered. Time meant nothing to her. There was only the moment before her. Sometimes I could see she was really frightened, that she didn’t know where she was or who all these strangers were around her. Other times, I thought she might have been blessed. She lived only in fond memories and fantasies.
One of the last times my great-aunt Georgie saw her, she said Gammy was lying in her bed, reaching her arm up into the air as if she were picking at something. When Aunt Georgie asked her what she was doing, Gammy looked at her like she was crazy and simply said, “I’m picking raisins from the sky.” I didn’t see anything wrong with picking raisins from the sky, and I’m glad Gammy didn’t either.
The night before she passed away, I knew I was going back home to Pineville, but it was for my sister-in-law’s wedding, not a funeral. I told my wife that I didn’t know if I wanted to visit Gammy. I didn’t know what to say to her these days. Every conversation with her was the same. I would tell her that we were just in town for a brief visit. She would ask us where we were coming from, and we would tell her Lafayette. “What in the world are y’all doing there?” she would ask. In her mind, Lafayette was an entire world away, even though it’s only an hour and half drive. We would explain to her that we both had jobs down here and it’s where we lived.
Now, I regret what I said to my wife. I wish I had the chance to explain to Gammy, one more time, why I was living in Lafayette. I wish I had the chance to hold her soft, delicate hand in mine again. I wish I had the chance for her to look at me one more time and ask, “Reese?” as if she vaguely recalled me from the dream she had been living.
I wish I had the chance to hug her one more time, afraid that I might crush her small bones. I wish I had the chance to kiss her on her forehead and to tell her that I love her. I wish I had the chance to tell her how much she gave me and that, no matter how long I’ve worked or how hard I’ve tried, I have never been able to repay her for what she did for me.
In high school, I would drink coffee with Gammy after school and tell her my dreams of writing and my fear that I would never be able to make a living at it. She encouraged me and never once tried to steer me down a different path.
The first and only short story I ever published was about her. It was about a boy who comes home from college to the comfort of his grandmother’s kitchen and how he is unable to communicate with her the way he once did. He wants to tell her about the things he’s learned and all the things he still doesn’t understand, but he can’t find the right words. Instead, he eats the plate of chicken and rice she sets down in front of him. While they’re eating, she places her hand over his, and he thinks to himself that maybe there’s no reason for him to explain himself, that somehow she already knows and that sometimes there is no need for words.
Later in her life, Gammy began to write and publish her own poetry. Here’s what she wrote in her biography for the 10 poems she published in the 1998 winter edition of Treasured Poems of America: “My inspirations and themes come from my life, past and present, and from people in my life or (who) have passed through it. As a child I wrote airy tales in my mind of great riches, when assigned unpleasant chores. In maturity I have attained the greatest riches attainable; my experiences while bringing up my son and daughter alone, being widowed when they were children, have enriched me beyond comprehension. They continue to enrich me through their very busy lives and their wonderful extended families. Writing poetry affords me a great release of emotion and gives me energy and resolve. I hope soon to complete a story I am working on. I will continue trying to write poetry.”
I wonder what story she was working on. Her entire life was a story, filled with tears and laughter, that she wrote as she went along. I have to believe that even though she didn’t have a pen or paper, while she lay in her bed, picking raisins from the sky, she was still trying to write her poetry.