Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Nice picture, huh? I'm the little girl out front. The woman against whom I am nestled is my maternal grandmother, Lucy. My big sis, big brother, and my little brother are all there, too, smiling out of the past and hurling memories at me with such force I am nearly overwhelmed. When Mom took this snapshot, I'm sure she never imagined it would be displayed as it is now.

It's the mid-1950s. Grandma was losing her sight to cataracts, and there was no surgery back then. My grandmother was my lodestone--and as she coped with her impending blindness, my esteem for her grew. With her Ozark Mountains, one-room schoolhouse education, she mesmerized me with poetry: Wordsworth, Longfellow, Shakespeare, Poe. She could recite, completely from memory, hundreds of pieces of poetry. She said that memorization was simple when one listened to a dozen children, in several different grades, reciting their lessons at the front of the class.

She wrote poetry herself, as well as desert history, and published numerous chapbooks of her works. Her love of language and her appreciation for knowledge, her need for it, guided everything she did. Blindness was an inconvenience. A bump in the road  she hated but endured.

I remember her hands. If a turtle had hands, they would look like my grandmother's. Wrinkled, scarred, the palms so soft they felt like chamois, even they looked wise. As Grandma's eyes went out, I was more and more convinced that her hands could see. I watched as she snapped beans, braided her hair, sewed on buttons--a myriad of tasks.

She lived out on the California desert, near Yermo. She'd carved paradise into the sand, her small acreage dotted with trees and shrubs. Her place became a haven for everything that walked, flew or crawled.  Grandma used a cane by then--sometimes, two canes. In addition to the cataracts, arthritis had come calling, too, and her knees were almost gone, her elbows and shoulders on fire. But she neither needed nor wanted help.

Seldom addressing the dim wold of shadows within which she lived, she went on as she always had. When we drove the 80 miles across the San Bernardino Mountains to visit, which we did often, one of my favorite things to do with her was water."Let's go outside," she'd say, making me a conspirator in her need to escape into nature.

She led the way through the cluttered house, her cane tapping on the hard floors. She'd admonish me to 'keep still' as we went out. "You never know what we might see." Jackrabbits drank from the waterers she'd scattered about and loped off at our arrival. Roadrunners, lizards, and coyotes visited, too.

Snakes worried her. Sidewinders often coiled in the cool shade of her trees, or came to drink in the wells she'd dug around them. Often, she traded her cane for a hoe, just in case. She had a grizzled crew of outside cats, who were not only mousers, but snakers, too.

She counted steps, knowing precisely the distances she needed to walk between trees, dragging the waterhose along with her. She'd stop, reach out and tap a tree trunk with her cane or her hoe and point the water dead into the well.

"But how do you know, Grandma?"

"Know what?"

"Where you are? You can't see."

Her smile was always just a little bit smug, a whole lot proud. "Well, I have 23 trees around this place. The first one is at the end of the house. I can feel the sun when I step out of the shade of the patio. I can feel the breeze coming off the dry lake and from that I can tell whether it'll be a scorcher, or not. I keep that breeze coming across me from the right and just walk on to the next tree. My body tells me when I've stepped into its shade."

And so it would go, Grandma telling me how she got on, and me learning so much from what she didn't say. My love for her was absolute, my pride of place at her side whenever the opportunity arose.

Eventually, cataract surgery became an option, and so we drove out to the desert and brought Grandma back with us to the hospital in San Bernardino, where a team of doctors operated on her eyes. Afterward, for many days, she lay inert in her hospital bed, even her busy hands stilled,  her head  held rigid with sandbags, her eyes covered. And, in the end, her ability to see was restored.

She handled this restoration with the same off-hand attitude as she did everything else. But I caught the softening of her features and the brightness of her eyes when she looked at her suddenly much older grandchildren. Her family and her beloved desert had been restored to her. It was a miracle that still leaves me breathless.

I have, however, always known that my grandmother saw more, blind, than most people do in a lifetime.

Lucy Burns McShan Coke was the last person buried in the cemetery at Calico, a ghost town in the Calico Mountains above Yermo, now operated as a tourist attaction by San Bernardino County. It's a wonderful little town, full of mystery and history. I strongly recommend it as an adventure if you're ever wandering around out that way.

If you do go, stop by the cemetery and tell Grandma I said hello. She'd like that.

1 comment:

stoneage said...

Hey Linda,
Had to copy this for Bill! I know he'll love it. Glad to see you blogging regularly as long as the books keep coming also!
Linna Mae