“It Takes All Kinds.” Live and Let Live Lessons from a Southern Grandmother.
My mom passed the phone over to my dad, who put into words what I think we all must have been feeling: “She doesn’t have to fight anymore.” It had been eight years since my grandmother Harriet was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and at least two since she’d been living bedridden, and for the most part clearly unhappy, in a nursing home in Maryland.
My parents were by her bedside when she passed, a moment my mom later described like a change in the room’s temperature. My grandmother died a few weeks after September 11, another American tragedy I’d watched from far away since I was out of the country that fall.
Harriet was the only grandparent I ever really knew; all the others had died of heart attacks or stroke by the time I was a few years old. She would come up for Christmas or we’d visit her in south Georgia, occasions when we’d usually head as a family to Wakulla Springs, a State park on the Florida panhandle. The park is known for a glass bottom boat tour in the freshwater lagoon, great for viewing the fish, and the alligators. One day years ago tourists apparently caught side of an alligator swimming directly underneath the boat, with a man’s torso hanging out of its mouth. It’s a morbid story that’s stuck with me for many years, some kind of anecdote about the South as equal parts beautiful, and menacing.
After myriad phone calls back and forth between my mother and her siblings down South, negotiating worries and mutual responsibilities about Harriet’s encroaching dementia and what to do about it, my grandmother was eventually dragged kicking and screaming up north to live with us in the DC suburbs. I was fourteen when she moved into our guest bedroom, and soon enough I got used to having her around. On summer afternoons we’d walk the dog around the neighborhood or sit out on the porch chatting while she smoked Doral cigarettes. The smell of tobacco wafting upstairs from the ground floor guest room started to seem normal, comforting almost, until she lit her wastebasket on fire one too many times from putting out her cigarettes in tissue paper, setting off fire alarms in the middle of the night.
At that point Harriet was moved, grudgingly, to an assisted living facility on the other side of the neighborhood, where she refused to make any friends, and kept on lighting wastebaskets on fire. When a stomach infection landed her in the hospital, the emergency surgery left her permanently bedridden, or mobile only in a wheelchair, and also almost overnight, shrunken, frail and confused. From there we moved her to a nursing home nearby, and tried to visit at least a few times a week between us.
After Harriet’s death in Autumn of 2001, my mother organized a memorial service in DC for friends and nearby family, but my grandmother was a southerner through and through, so there was never any question about where her final resting place would be, it was just a matter of when. It took another half a year or so to organize the family road trip that would deliver her back to Georgia, so one late Spring day my younger brother and I piled into the car with my parents, an antique red wooden box holding my grandmother’s ashes, and set off for Atlanta and points further south.
Before we left my mom had carefully parceled Harriet’s ashes out into three or four zip-lock bags, the first of which would be buried in her hometown of Thomasville, Georgia. The rest were earmarked for stops along the way, to be scattered across the South, reunited with past chapters of her life. I spent much of the drive staring out the window at the small towns, tobacco farms, vineyards and orchards that make up much of the rural byways of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Even though I’d only graduated college days before, sitting in the backseat of my parent’s car I felt a bit like a kid again, happy to not be behind the wheel. My attitude about the South up to then had always been a bit wary; a nice place to visit for short amounts of time, and an intimidating place for people like me.
“What’s my name? Puddin’-n-Tame. Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same,” Harriet would say sometimes, especially on a good day, as a reflex or maybe for lack of anything better to say. When I asked my mom about it, she said it was a rhyme Grandma used to recite to her as a little girl.
“Okay, so what’s his name,” I’d say, pointing to my brother, or to my boyfriend Maurizio, who’d started coming along with me on a few of these visits to the nursing home. The first time I introduced “my boyfriend” I was as nonchalant as possible, but as I should have expected, she brushed it right off.
“Well nice to meet you then,” she’d say on a good day. “And what was your name again? Maurice?”
“Nice to meet you as well ma’am. Actually it’s Maurizio, but call me Marco.”
On other days Harriet was just as likely to curse at me, or at nobody in particular. It’s one of the reasons I always brought ice cream to share, her favorite and mine, Cherry Garcia from Ben & Jerry’s. But on the bad days even ice cream couldn’t seem to numb the frustration I think must be unique to somebody aware of the fact that she was slowly losing her mind, with nothing she or any of us could do to stop it. These were days Harriet would cry and talk incoherently, or try to lift herself up off the bed but be unable to do so, and I could tell, or at least I thought I could tell, that she probably just wanted to die.
On days like that my brother and I would often slip off and smoke cigarettes outside, which we’d now taken to buying ourselves, since the days of filching them from Harriet’s purse were past. By then, for better or for worse, my grandmother had forgotten how much she loved to smoke.
In a day and age when most young women were raised to stay at home and entertain, Harriet flew the coop. After college she bounced around the South and ended up in Palm Beach, working in landscaping. Apparently she worked for a time at the Kennedy’s old family compound, and had more than one story about Joe Kennedy and his flirtatious ways. There in Florida she also met and fell in love with a soldier, my grandfather, who flew fighter jets in World War II. When he came back they built a family together, living with three children in Birmingham and then later Atlanta.
After most of the kids moved out my grandfather then left her for a woman many years her junior, as was the new fashion in those days, and Harriet moved to Tallahassee to start her own business, drinking a lot along the way. In Florida she dated a bit, and at one point apparently joined a nudist colony. In between she spent hours walking along the beach, collecting seashells she made in to all manner of knickknacks that she sold at a kiosk in the local mall. With these statuettes, picture frames, and whimsical sea creatures Harriet was able to make a decent living off of America’s love affair with kitsch, an affair that helped fund her modest retirement condo back in her hometown, on the same street as her sister and ailing parents.
Thomasville, Georgia is textbook small southern town charming, Spanish moss dangling off many of its trees and home to a beloved “Big Oak” in the center of town, apparently one of the most ancient living Oak trees east of the Mississippi. We met up there with Harriet’s sister Virginia, along with her son and his wife, and drove out together to the cemetery. In the sweltering heat we all took turns digging out the red Georgia clay with shovels brought from Maryland and Atlanta, where we’d picked up my aunt and uncle along the way. The do-it-yourself burial was my mom’s idea, and if anybody objected they were at least too polite to say so.
At the foot of the grave my mom wrapped the red lacquer wooden box with Harriet’s ashes in a white silk cloth, and laid it in the ground next to my great grandparents grave. At the last minute, mostly in deference to our Georgia kin who were clearly mortified by this pagan burial ceremony, I decided not to toss in the the pint of Cherry Garcia I’d brought, which by then was melting down to a thick soup anyway. Instead I recited some bits from a poem I’d written about Harriet, but a few lines in the tears welled up and I couldn’t see straight enough to keep reading so my dad finished it, folded it in two, and placed it in the grave. My mom laid some seashells and threw in a pack of Doral cigarettes for good measure, along with my my grandmother’s mink stole. We left the cemetery unhurried and said our goodbyes to family. Later that night my brother and I walked over to the high school near our motel and raced around the track until we collapsed on the football field to catch our breath, both of us drenched in sweat.
“It takes all kinds,” my grandmother might have said if she’d been at the graveyard herself that day, her measured response to just about any situation, usually delivered with the flicker of a knowing smile. When my mom left the South after college she made a pointed effort to leave much of the it behind her: the accent, the family troubles, the racism, and a broader culture she often described as skeptical of creativity, and resistant to change. I often expected Harriet to fit that mold, but she always surprised me with her laissez faire attitude.
One lazy summer afternoon while she still lived with us, we sat watching a trashy daytime talk show together, Jerry Springer or maybe Ricky Lake. The cast of characters was predictably saucy and the drama of the day involved men sleeping with men behind their girlfriend’s back, and vice versa.
“What do you think about that, Grandma? Men with men, women with women?” I asked, testing the waters. I was young enough to know, but not old enough to comfortably accept, that I fell in to the same category. “You know, gay people.”
“Well it takes all kinds don’t it?” she said, looking over at me while she reached over for her pack of Dorals, unfailingly just at arm’s length. She wasn’t supposed to smoke in the house and she knew it, but my parents were both at work and I wasn’t going to snitch on her. I grabbed one of her plastic lighters, of which there was always an abundant supply laying around, and lit up her cigarette. Harriet wasn’t the judging kind, and I wasn’t either.
The day after the burial we drove to Alligator Point, a sleepy peninsula on the Florida panhandle. Before they died and it was sold off, my great grandparents owned a house on a thin stretch of land between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico that we used to visit in the summer. Some of my earliest memories are from out there, of watching the full moon over the sea, or sitting on the old dock jutting in to the bay behind the house, fishing or crabbing with Harriet.
Alligator Point is vintage Florida, a place where gleaming retirement condos or time shares never quite made it, and in some places the road is even crumbling into the sea. When we pulled up to take a look at the old house, it looked like a miniature version of what I remembered as a kid, though it had never really been anything more than a squat two-bedroom bungalow atop a concrete block, with a screen porch to keep the mosquitoes out. My mom took one of the zip lock bags from the glove compartment, and we crossed the coast road down to the water.
My mom emptied Harriet’s ashes out over the water and the wind scattered puffs of grey down the shore. We all said a few words but mostly stood in silence watching the waves break for a few minutes, then made our way back to the car. Driving back to the motel my dad grabbed a tape at random and slipped it in the player, and “Goodbye My Friend” by Linda Rondstadt started to play. The briny air whipped in through the the open windows and the water opened up beside us as we drove back over the causeway to the mainland, and my mom started to cry.
Later that night I couldn’t sleep, so I walked over to the gas station across from the motel and bought a beer and a pint of Cherry Garcia. I came back and parked myself out on one of the wicker chairs on the motel porch, and with nobody else around sat there eating it slow, savoring the blend of cherries and chocolate in the comfort of a Southern night.