While I was in NY visiting family, I was very lucky to attend Grandma’s 85th birthday party. Dad, Lydia and I went to Grandma’s around 10 and Dad’s two sisters had everything pretty well set up. We stopped on the way to pick up the buns and meat platters and I set to cutting the buns when I got to Grandma’s while Lydia helped them finish setting up. The day was cold, rainy and terrible. We were all afraid that Grandma’s friends might be hindered. Regardless, the Aunts got the picnic tables placed under the awning where Grandma usually parks the car, the food fit inside on the buffet and the drinks on the porch. It worked out rather flawlessly.
The slow drizzle of rain lacked the terror of wind so it wasn’t unpleasant and around noon Grandma’s friends started flowing in. Most of them, of course, were white haired folk of varying degrees of wisdom and frailty. In the middle of them all and as timeless as ever, Grandma stood dressed in a pair of sleek white pants and a striped blue and white top, turquoise drop earrings and a matching pendant, black thick glasses framing her eyes and her hair white and fluffy around her uncompromisingly beaming smile. I can honestly say I’ve never met anyone with the grace and energy that she exudes. Years ago, I went to visit her several days after she had a pacemaker put in and even though she had a giant wad of gauze protruding from under her sweater, she was still running around completely unencumbered, putting together an impromptu dinner. She truly doesn’t miss a step.
So, of course, at her own 85th birthday party, you would find her cutting the cake and serving out slices. She was good enough to let her daughters do most of the party preparations though, knowing how important it was to them to let them take care of everything. She still whipped up a giant helping of her classic potato salad and baked bean casserole, made with no lack of irony with “Grandma Brown’s” baked beans from a can.
I sat down to eat my endless plate of various beige albeit tasty casseroles with Grandma and was pleasantly surprised to find myself with some of the ladies from the Outlook Club. These ladies are an inspiring bunch, really. I’ll admit I would otherwise fall prey to the perception that all older people in this backcountry area of the world are content to be stuck in their ways, unyielding to a natural curiosity of the outside world. I remember them getting together when I was young, building their knowledge with short meetings on any topic that came across their path and feeding themselves with long lunches and open minds. It appears that even a decade and a half later, from the perspective of my short lifespan at least, they are still inquiring just as strongly as ever.
Towards the end of the party, the rain dried up a bit and the sky stayed a clear gray. I sat on the back porch with a couple whose names I never caught. I spoke mostly with the wife as her husband, a tall man bent with a cane, sunk into a quick nap in his cozy secluded chair. We started with the usual small talk about the weather and how it was nice that it was beginning to clear up, how the gray wet day actually made Grandma’s flowers look so much brighter. Then she told me a story about the Copper Beech tree on her property in Virginia and later about her son who lives in Hong Kong with his Filipino wife and children. She knew quite a bit about China actually and as we talked more it was clear that she was quite sharp though she and her husband have been inadvertently quieted by time.
When she left, I had a minute to ponder the situation of the aging, which is admittedly hard to grasp at my point in life. It’s difficult to see a group of people nearing the end of their days, many struggling with the loss of basic hearing or sight and of course, some with even more serious issues. Their existences have been reduced to survival and memories and often the conversation comes to things that are lighter to grasp like the weather or the goings-on of their families. I look out into the sea of white and gray hair and I try just for a minute to visualize what they all would’ve been like forty or fifty years before at the peak of their liveliness, when they weren’t heavy with the natural weight of age.
I wouldn’t even have recognized my own grandmother probably. The woman I know as a grandmother is, presumably, a rather different person than she was as a mother, a wife, a sister, and a child. We as individuals are a culmination of our entire lifespan of experiences, but it seems very rare that any one other person will get to experience all those incarnations. Even though that is the natural state of our relationships with people and is likely unchangeable, part of me finds that deeply tragic. That as much as I love my grandmother and wish to know her, I will never truly know the full person she is.
That’s one of the many reasons why we have stories. The woman I talked to on the back porch began to brighten when she told me the story of the Copper Beech tree that her kids and all the neighbors’ kids used to climb, even as it was clear the trees eminent removal weighed heavily on her. She beamed when she told me that once in awhile, a child or two still come to climb the tree. It’s these small moments of glow, so much more likely in conversations with the older generation than the younger, that can carry a person into legacy even for a complete stranger.
Grandma has told me plenty of stories. They come just like the story of the beech tree as quick antidotes over dinner, little slivers of stories that come out when she thinks of them that I piece together over time to try and get a fuller glimpse of her story.