Think Back

The stories of three women.

Think back. Don’t worry. Trust me. Just follow my lead for a moment. I won’t make it difficult. I promise.

Think back on your life and make a list. Make a list of people — five should do, maybe 10 — of people who’ve had a hand in making you who you are. Most will probably fall before your 18th birthday, and your parents don’t count. Your brothers, sisters, stepsisters, pets and imaginary friends don’t count either — they’re no-brainers.

Make the list. These are the people whose faces, when you think of your life’s earliest, intelligent fumblings, rise up out of the mist like hot breath on cold glass.

Take your time. I’ll wait.

Have you got it now? Good. Now, answer this: Are you happier than when you started? Are you sadder? Angrier? What emotions do these people make well up in you? When you think of these tools that hammered the shape of your life, what form do they take? And when you pull them out of their attic boxes, will you hold them softly with reverence, or try to shatter them against the hard edges of your memory?

Woof — deep question, eh? My apologies if this is the first thing you read in the morning. You can only reach a certain depth before that first cup of coffee, lest you find yourself floundering in dull half-sleep.

No need to go any deeper. You can tuck that list away and think on it another time. As for myself, I’m constantly surprised who makes it onto mine. Some faces are recent; some have been set in stone for years. A few make me sad, while others bring a wellspring of joy.

And most, not terribly surprisingly, are women. Three in particular feature prominently. Let me tell you about them.

If you’re expecting some kind of soulful confessional rife with backseat adventures and early sexual exploration, sorry. These three I think of are family, and out of my age bracket at that — ranging from 69 to 98. This is a different kind of story.

Let me give you a little exposition. I’m the only person in my family in my particular age group. On my mother’s side, the next oldest is 30; the next youngest is 16. On my father’s side, the next oldest is 40; the next youngest hasn’t even reached puberty. When my parents were both still working, it fell on the older members of my family to look after me after school and during those short, sweet summer months.

I spent much of my childhood with a select few who could remember four wars and a dozen presidents.

Ruth was my father’s mother. Tall and strong, her corners had been ground sharper over the decades. By the time I was old enough to fashion memories, her husband had been dead 30 years and any softness had been scoured from her. She could be — simply put — a mean, old woman.

She bore with pride the worst parts of my father’s personality. She could be brash and rude. She had a temper with a wicked-short fuse. And, even with family, her patience wouldn’t fill a thimble. I remember this most from when my parents would drop me off to help her clean her house and I inevitably did everything wrong.

Window frames can only get so clean, and then you’re just tearing away at the paint.

She wasn’t a wealthy woman. None of my family ever were. She kept a tiny one-story house on a small bit of acreage on a beaten-down back road. If you ever called her poor, though, she’d take her vacuum cleaner upside your head. It wasn’t pride, or naïveté, or shame, but an odd, very strong kind of nobility that only a working woman who’s seen too many years can possess without sounding false. She worked for so many years as a waitress in restaurants and diners and cafés that her knees were shot, her feet constantly sore, and her hands swollen and gnarled by arthritis.

Her strength could put kings to shame, and her bitterness could bite the tail off a pit bull and send it yelping. And she stayed that way until chronic pain and sickness put her in her bed for good. She died in a care facility 30 miles from her house. I didn’t make it home for her funeral.

Years later, covering a meeting of local delegates, a state senator — one of the longest-serving in the General Assembly — recognized my name and asked, “Spotswood? Ruth Spotswood?”

I told him, yes, that was my grandmother.

“Why, she helped me get elected first time out,” he said. “She organized fundraisers and meetings and got me that district. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”

Not too shabby for a bitter old waitress.

Toy was my mother’s mother. And Toy wasn’t her real name. Her real name was Celia, and if you wanted to piss her off, just call her that. She earned the nickname “Toy” when she was a baby. She was tiny and petite and looked more like a toy than a child, or so I am told.

She stood only about 5′ 2″, and I overshot her by the time I was 12. Of the three grandparents that I knew, she was always my favorite. She was small and docile and funny. During the summer, I’d spend many of my days at her house watching cartoons or playing in the creek behind her and my grandfather’s house.

Sometimes she would watch or walk with me, or she’d spend the time reading from a giant stock of romance novels or putting together one of her endless supply of puzzles. Watching her, I learned to start with the edges and work my way inward, and always look under the sofa for those pesky missing pieces. She did the sort of thing that you expect grandmothers to do, and maybe a little more.

It was from her bookshelves that I first discovered Erle Stanley Gardner and Louis L’Amour. I never dipped my hand into the Harlequins. She was the one who took me to the local library — residing in the upper story of an old firehouse — and waited patiently as I picked through the tomes for books on space explorers or time travelers that I hadn’t read before, or had only read once.

I am convinced that I received my wit from her. Every night at seven o’clock, she’d watch the only two shows she never missed: Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. She loved word games, and so Wheel of Fortune intrigued her, but I could never get into it. Jeopardy, though, I loved — even if the questions were beyond me. It always amazed me how many answers she knew without having to ponder. Damn, but she was smart.

She was the matriarch of my family. When she died, she had three children, five grandchildren (of which I was the youngest), and a dozen great-grandchildren. She was the magnet that brought the family together when we could. She kept track of the disparate family, the cousins and nephews and distant relatives scattered across the country. She knew who had given birth and who had died and who was dying.

She was so proud that I was going to college. So few of my family ever did.

When she died a year after my grandfather, it was long and painful and the only time I ever sat deathwatch. There are only so many things that the numbers on a heart monitor can tell you. Cleaning out her attic, my mother and her siblings found more than 200 puzzles. They kept their favorite and gave the rest to charity. Most were missing at least one piece, anyway.

Nora was my great aunt, Ruth’s husband’s sister, and the oldest person that I ever really got to know. She was also just about the smallest person I’d ever known. She was only a hair over five feet, and she weighed no more than 90 pounds.

She was compact, frail and had the pale-dark features that only those of Irish descent can pull off without makeup. She and her husband Jimmy helped Ruth take care of my dad when his father died, and helped take care of me 30 years later.

For the 21 years that I knew her, she never stopped moving. Even though she looked like a skeleton stretched over with skin, she moved like a miniature juggernaut — always working, never stopping. She’d wake up at five in the morning, work in her garden until noon, break for lunch, and spend the rest of the day outside raking leaves or doing housework until the sun went down. Jimmy, who had a stroke when I was too young to remember and couldn’t speak, only managed a slow shuffle. Mostly, he sat on the couch watching TV with me, or in his rocking chair in the breezeway.

He died when I was 13. He had lung cancer, but Nora asked us not to tell him. She didn’t want him to worry.

After that, I spent more time at her house. Every Friday evening I would come over after school and stay the night and spend Saturday with her. Sometimes I’d catch her, years later, sitting in the kitchen, having long conversations with Jimmy.

She kept moving, though, never stopping, always working.

Her blood was so thin that she kept the house unbearably hot. The only reason she ever put in her air conditioning units was because we visited so much.

During spring vacation my sophomore year, I went to visit friends in Long Island. On my way back I called my mom who told me that I should come over to Nora’s, that she was sick.

When I got there late at night, Nora had set three places at the table — one for her, one for my dad, and one for Jimmy. And she was in the middle of making her eighth sandwich. She was asking me where the stove was.

Someone had moved the stove, she said.

After that, we hired a nurse to take care of her during the day. The nurse was a harsh woman in ghostwhite who treated my aunt like a child — not letting her leave the table until she’d finished a plate of potatoes too big for her tiny, bird’s stomach — and put out her cigarettes in a cup of dirty water in the breezeway next to my uncle’s rocker.

We put Nora in a rest home not far from our house. I only saw her intermittently after that, during the summer and during breaks from school. While there she had a series of mini-strokes. Eventually she didn’t recognize anyone but me and occasionally she’d call me by my father’s name. Her stick-thin body became bloated by inactivity and her eyes a pale, inhuman blue from cataracts.

She died a few months short of her 99th birthday.

My list is certainly an odd one. Most of the people on it are dead. Does that make it a sad one? Sure, but not terribly so.

Is this all there is to say? No. I’m not even sure it’s all correct, but it’s how I remember it. I don’t think they’d mind. After all, old people do seem to have a rather centered, relative view on life that I’m sure was passed, via osmosis, to me.

They also have an excellently fucked-up sense of humor. On Toy’s tombstone, by her request, was inscribed the message, “Buried before her time. Please dig airholes.”

Just kidding. Sorry, Mom-mom.

Thank you.

Article © 2002 by Steve Spotswood