Friday, June 19, 2015

Lee Bittly and Deeb

The personal languages of families are such an interesting study. The kids who call grandma Omie, a diminutization of German Oma, for grandmother – or those who use nanna or gramps or mum, mom, dada, baba. Much of it is cultural, as those are – and then there are the baby-names, often those given by baby in trying to pronounce a name.

Phrases are the thing that begin to get really evocative. My family was filled with idioms I never even contemplated when I was small; “put that down the little red lane” meant “eat/drink it” – and I was eighteen or so before I actually quantified the little red lane as my esophagus. It’s a little bit odd, but it was ours. “Applesauce” was, as it is in other families, a way to ask for affection. My paternal grandfather always said to us, “Give me a little bit of that ole applesauce!” and dad said it too sometimes.

“Fine as frog hair” was another of those unexamined concepts; it tended to be used to mean fine as in dandy, and so the application of the fineness of a frog’s theoretical pelt again didn’t occur to me during childhood.

My dad liked to cultivate in his children an exotic menu, too. Sauteed Hummingbird Tongues was a favorite – somehow resembling the more ordinary treat of boxed macaroni and cheese (again, not until later did I think about the actual hollow, tubular tongues of the wee birds) – and braised rhinoscerous tusk might be any number of cuts of meat instead.

My friends, he amusingly forgot and reassigned names for – Henrietta, Bertha, and so on; I believe the occasional little boy in our house would be Aloysius or Agamemnon, or perhaps even Jehosephat on an especially populous day. Apparently our feminine juvenile company was less mythical/Biblical, but Aloysius, I find on Wikipedia, not only is a derivative of that ultimately Clovis-derived name, Lewis, but also the first name of Mr. Snuffalupagus, whom I had no idea owned his own given name. I’m pleased it is that one.

The paternal men were not the only commanders of language in my home; mom had this habit of saying “I reckon” which again meant nothing to me as a kid, and the number of times I asked her through childhood what “Iya rekkin” means is best unexamined, as it gives away a certain slowness on my part. Her mother, whom I never called Granny till I got a bit older (she was grammaw and my paternal grandmother was grandMA; a fine shading of my infantile understanding of identity), I identify most with “oh my LAAAAAAANDS”, a highly handy expletive she used a lot for either astonishment or to try to seem as if she were being shocked. It was good for glee, too. And my grammaw was good at glee. (Better, perhaps, than she was at shock …)

When granny came to see my house for the first time, she walked around the outside, and in the front yard she stook and looked up at its somewhat tall fa├žade, the little group of family having taken ten or fifteen minutes just to get this far in the tour. She peered at me with a wonderful smile and said to me in her gorgeously, lovingly rough voice, “Now, Di-AAANNNE. How many men are you going to have, to keep up a house like this!?”

I miss my grammaw so much. She was with us 94 years, outliving even my father (to her great sadness), and healthy for *generations* of that life. When I was small, she was “soft grandma”. My paternal grandmother was, in my very smallest childhood, slightly-scary grandma. She had darker, cotton soft hair; and she later became grandma-a-few-blocks-away, who put up with visits from me and our family dog with a marvelously forbearing primness. She made sweet rolls my dad and I once walked through snow to share with her, hot, and then brought her and them home to share with the rest of the family.

I made those sweet rolls once. Only once.

It was the last Father’s Day I had a living dad to celebrate.

So many of my family are gone, and I hold tight to my mom and stepfather, with whom I live in the same town. My brother and nieces and their mom are in a different world, but I still tread strangely close to the swamps we grew up beside. All I’d have to do is go right when I leave work, instead of left … to visit the MOTHER earth – the clay and the farm of our mom’s family line, the long-gone house where she was born and the aunt still living there, not so far away.

My dad’s line would be in the other direction, but again; not so far. Major-ville; the creek where my dad’s sister retired to a beautiful home, and those waters of Virginia which run in my blood and in my ink, even as the love poem my applesauce grandfather wrote to my soft-haired grandmother, not only about her, but about their rivers. I have that poem, in his hand, on a perilously delicate piece of paper onto which he copied that old poem years later, and which itself now is very old. He broke an engagement with another girl; impetuously in love with my grandma, his Potomac Maid, he married her instead.

Granddaddy was born in 1895. His younger brother, (1897 I believe, maybe 1898) lived to within weeks of New Year’s, 2000. He almost lived in three centuries singlehandedly, my great-uncle. They both were fine looking men, and my uncle was contracting and building until he was eighty or so; when he broke a foot, the doctor said, “you can keep working but you can’t go on rooftops anymore” and my uncle said, “heck with it then, I’m retiring.” He had to have his food put in a blender in the end, but he said it tasted the same.

His wife regaled us at an anniversary banquet, “I could not have found a betta mayun than (Great Uncle) May-jah. I could have found a PRETTIER mayun. But I could not have found a betta mayun.” Then she told the story of his intimidating the boy who once chanced to tease and be mean to his daughter.

My knowledge of my family’s history is in some ways very strange, and in every way woefully incomplete, filled with lacunae and even misinformation I’ve gotten wrong or only half comprehended or remembered.

On the other side, my grammaw and her sister. Grammaw and one of my great aunts had a habit of looking alarmingly alike, yet JUST dissimilar enough to confuse and confound me as a child. I only half-knew what wasn’t my grammaw sometimes, but I also felt an instinctive … welcome. You could hug a great-aunt even if you were a little kid half confused why grandma was in different skin – and they’d only be happy to hug you back.

My own mom has two sisters, and a brother too, and the only family similarity between all four of them is my uncle’s, to my granddaddy.

Ahh, my maternal granddaddy.

He was a big man – not in girth so much as in presence. He had an enormity and laconic charisma that made him a fascinating figure, even as I was half in awe of him when I was little. He called grammaw Lou. When he became ill, now and then he’d ask her for a “big bowl of cream” (ice cream). He used to put us on the high, metal seat and let us “drive” his tractor. I wish I had known him better.

He and grammaw had two chihuahuas, and she a third after he died; Penny-dawg (yes, Penelope had her name when I first met her, but it was this tiny echo of grandma's beloved pet that *kept* that name for her when she came home at last). He used to call small things lee-bittly old things; I don't know that he said this of their pets, but Tinkerbell and Taffy were certainly lee-bittly old things.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s before I got much past that awe, and even in his illlness he was imposing. Granny took care of him the rest of his life, with a little help, and that seemed such a long time to me, then. But her widowhood was much, much longer; and she had a friend to keep company with. I never actually met Granny’s Ernie. But I am so glad she had him.

Granny’s smile was as strong as the roughness of her voice, vivid as its twang, indelible, incandescent.

So much of my family is gone; my father and all his siblings, my grandparents; I miss them, and sometimes it's hard to really comprehend the extent of absence. That there can be no talks, no hugs; defunct circuits on the family grapevine; no new news. No more.

I miss my uncle's pontifications and his style. I miss the way my aunt reacted when I beat her at Scrabble, her laugh and her great susceptibility to humor. I miss dad's voice; gruff and low and soft, not sharp, around the edges. The way he held on when he hugged, and the immensity not only of his love but of his brilliant, curious, nimble and generous mind. I miss grandma's cooking and having her for a neighbor, and the power of her personality, and grammaw's house and all the times shared in it.

I miss my grandfathers, with less memory, but not less love.

What have I left behind for others' memories ... my older niece and her friends, using me as a jungle gym and swinging from my hair, or playing with it by turns. The perennially (pathetically) late Christmas packages, the hit-and-miss games. The pets and the eyeball-smackingly bright mantel (... the hole in the wall ...), the walks to the park in my neighborhood, and the walks and SANDWICHES when I've gone to visit them. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and Phineas and Ferb - or the time when she stayed the night that Elder and I watched Viking Apocalypse and Suchet as Poirot.

The first time I ever held both of them. The way we marveled at Younger's red, red hair and how her babyhood thousand-mile stare looked like her late grandfather. Her monster-baby growl. Elder's meticulous care and organization, her incredible art, her dancing hula for her grandparents in their family room. The time she said, of her granddaddy being sick, "I wish some people didn't have to be really sick, but that instead we could all be just a LITTLE sick" - dividing the burden, sharing it and bearing it ... perhaps the wisest philosophy there is. Her way with words ("There's lots of darks out tonight") and her little sister's, too; Lee Bittly has been a writer since before she had her letters. The way she gave our whole family the affectionate nickname we call my stepfather. The way she was instantly, undisguisedly jealous in a flash when she found out I am a writer too; *her* thing, *her* need and talent.

I miss them, too.

Good thing I'll get to go see them this summer.

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