There is probably nothing harder than writing a poem on demand. As one who has sat in the seedy dive bar of my poetic thoughts with the three ton elephant of a love's birthday breathing down my neck, I felt sorry for Elizabeth Alexander. You remember her, the Yale professor who was tapped to commemorate Barack Obama's inauguration as the first African-American President? How could she possibly come up with anything to say that was more profound than the moment itself? It couldn't have helped that she was writing it for probably the finest orator of his generation. Poor, poor Maya Angelou, who broke a 30 year moratorium on poets by performing a piece she wrote for the event at silver-tongued Bill Clinton's inauguration. No pressure there. And Robert Frost, who not only had the difficult task of writing something for Mr. Ask-Not-What-Your-Country-Can-Do-For-You, but then he lost half his pages in a gusting wind and had to wing a different poem from memory. By all accounts, the winged poem was better than its more pedestrian counterpart.
My sister sent me a terse little email about three weeks ago that said only, "Granny is not doing well. Machelle (our aunt) asked me to contact you about writing a poem for the funeral program." At first I got mad. I was mad as hell because she told/asked me in what I thought was a callous way. I was angry because something seemed inherently wrong with talking about Granny as if she was already dead, as if we'd given up on her. But the truth is, she's been waiting almost 20 years to get back with her husband, who died way back when I was in high school. And after thinking about it a bit more, it struck me as somewhat disingenuous and maybe even dishonest to have spent the entirety of my adulthood away from Alabama, only to criticize my relations' handling of a difficult situation from afar. So I shut up and got to work. I sat in the seedy dive bar of my poetic thoughts and dredged up memories and tried to figure out how to come up with something so profound that it adequately captures the magnitude of her life and all the spiraling circles of those it touched.
Now, I probably spent more time at Granny's during the school year than I did at home. We lived in Clio, which is 30 minutes from where we went to school, so my sister would drag me over there to hang out with the grandparents while she did her myriad after-school activities. She kept a schedule in high school any medical intern would be proud of, and I, being a year young for my grade, was an unintended beneficiary. Looking back, Granny ALWAYS made me feel welcome, even during play season, when the practices stretched until 9:30 every night. I know there were probably times when she wanted to go to bed early, or wanted a little time to herself, especially since she was spending every minute of her days taking care of her ailing husband (who we called PawPaw--that's grandfather, for you non-Southerners). But she smiled and welcomed me, fed me, asked me what I wanted to watch on TV. I grew to love The Addams Family and The Monkees and Andy Griffith, and I was fascinated with the cable channel that showed local weather and announcements. Granny taught me to cuss (she would deny that she ever did, but she was a champion cusser, and I learned through osmosis). To love the old folks' network (CBS). I'm still partial to it to this day. To pour sweet tea out of a two gallon jar without spilling it. To be content with the slow sweetness of sitting on the porch swing and talking. To swat flies with deadly efficacy. That the kind of love worth having stuck around through poor and really poor, through good and bad, through ruddy health and the last stages of Alzheimer's and everything in between. That little 110 pound woman all but singlehandedly cared for PawPaw at home as he forgot where he was, who she was, who he was--almost everything except that he constantly wanted to smoke. When he died, she wanted to go, too, but it wasn't her time yet. What's that old line from Byron---"The heart will break, yet brokenly live on."
I decided a while ago that everyone gets their own brand of heaven. Everybody who makes it gets to stay forever in the place where they were happiest. For Granny, she will be on her first date with PawPaw. They will be young and beautiful and strong, and she will ride in the rumble seat to Pea River at Snellgrove's Mill. The air will be sweet and cool and heavy with honeysuckle and anticipation. She'll see him climb up the tressle bridge and walk out to the middle. He'll look back to make sure she's watching, and she'll squeal as he dives off into the murky water below. She'll think he's gone for sure. Then his head will pop up and he'll laugh and call her to join him, and she will. So that's where she is now, up on that tressle, inching out to the middle. And she's about to join him, about to leap off without pain or fear or hesitation.
So yeah, the Alexanders and the Angelous and the Frosts might have had more folks listening, but Granny's story is at least as profound. And I'm trying to make sure I tell it right.