My grandmother used to tutor struggling students at my elementary school. She wasn’t trained in this. She wasn’t trained in anything officially. She had just been a young army wife and mother, but she could sit for hours with a child while he sounded out the letters in Dick and Jane, which is a skill beyond the highest education. She would pass me in the hall and wink at me, and sometimes she’d say, “Hey Baby Sally!” and all the kids would say, “That’s your grandmother!”
It makes me proud to know I was never once ashamed of my grandparents. There is no reason why I should’ve been, but kids can be all sorts of unreasonable.
Every year, in every grade, the teachers would ask for professionals to come into the class and talk to the children about who they were and what they did. There was the firefighter, the doctor, the lawyer, and the prison-guard who did a wonderful job convincing us to choose some other profession. But every year my grandmother would also come, as the old person. She would tell us about growing up in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, during the dustbowl and Great Depression, about using the Sears and Roebuck catalog as toilet paper in the outhouse, drawing water from the well and keeping milk in the spring. She would tell us about running to the storm cellar during a tornado and her brother striking a match in the dark to reveal hundreds of frogs all around them. About the neighbors who bore each other’s burdens. About the hobos and cowboys and damn government workers. Babies were born at home, and graves were dug out back. She told the truth. Polio, Tetanus, Rabies, Tuberculosis. She made living sound risky— but worth it. I remember, what was so impressive to us all, was that she made it. There standing before us was a woman who survived. And with all her own teeth too! But she loved and was loved by many who didn’t. This was a possibility we weren’t prepared for.
When one of the other speakers walked out, we would cherish inflated ideas about our futures and exchange high ideals of life as autonomous adults who nobly saved the world in our power suits. A marine biologist gets to swim with dolphins, we thought, and an archeologist brushes a dinosaur skeleton in a cute safari outfit. We could dream and then we could move on to swapping notes and lunchables.
But when my grandmother left the room, I believe I was not alone in feeling something else. There was no class for what she went through. We didn’t believe we would ever experience anything like the antiquated life she knew, where people mostly stayed home and didn’t have enough toilet paper, where there wasn’t tons of meat in the store and a good neighbor was the finest asset, but we knew we would get old, if we were lucky, and that beautiful and terrible things would come to us, just being alive. My little grandmother would laugh and walk out the heavy door, leaving twenty ten-year-olds quiet in their cooling skin.
I haven’t thought about those kids in awhile. One is still my good friend. One is in jail, though not as a guard. As far as I know, we are all still alive, and so is my grandmother.
I went to see her this morning. We sat in her backyard and told each other all the old stories. I asked her if she had any advice for me, about anything. She said, “What would your grandfather say?” which is an answer she would’ve never given when he was alive. I laughed, because I remember what he said. Days before he died, I asked him. He called me close, and closer and then he said, “You got to turn things right to tighten them and left to loosen them. Don’t forget.”