An important thing to keep in mind: not a one of us has the complete picture. We all see a small piece of who she is. She is a grandmother to me (always will be), she is a mother, a great-grandmother, a neighbor, a friend. She is also a sister. She is a wife and a daughter, too.
She has been unreasonably kind and forgiving – she introduced me to the reality of absolute, unconditional love and support – and she is sometimes easily and unnecessarily mean. She hangs up the phone when she is done speaking and does not say goodbye. She says she is going outside for a smoke, and then takes the opportunity to slip away unnoticed. She burns photographs and artifacts you would rather her keep, and then sometimes, weeks or years later, wonders where they’ve got to.
She hides money for you under the Scarlett O’Hara statue in her living room. She sits in the kitchen with you for as long as you want to, and she answers every question you are brave enough to ask.
I once asked her about the first time she came to Leslie Fry’s farm. What it was like and how it was different. She said she had one stipulation for moving from Covington, Kentucky – the city – out to Weaver Road, Ohio – very much the country – and it was that Pa have a bathroom built onto the side of his house, with running water, a toilet, a bath. She was bringing herself and two teenage boys, don’t forget, who were used to the finer things in life, like indoor plumbing. He said okay.
She remembered coming out to Weaver Road on a day she and Pa had chosen to go shopping for a bathtub and a sink and toilet. When she pulled into the driveway she parked alongside a brand new, shiny red combine, and she knew they would not be going shopping for a bathtub that day. She married him anyway.
I remember the mirror shed used to put her makeup on. A magnification mirror that made my face look larger than it was. I could see my pores, I could see myself closer than I really was. I imagine that’s how she saw me all the time. That she knew me for more than I was.
She likes angels. At one point, she filled her house with them. The first Christmas present I remember getting her as an adult, as someone with a job and with money to spend, was a silly poster in a simple frame. It was a poster of a painting of an angel. I felt embarrassed to be giving it to her really, because it wasn’t like anything that she had. It was a poster. I had posters in my dumpy college apartment, my grandmother did not have posters in her home.
I gave it to her anyway. She hung it up over her bed in her bedroom.
I remember taking long, long drives out to her mother’s house. I feel like we ate fried chicken there, but I might be getting my dim memories of great-grandparents mixed up. There were cousins and aunts and uncles there I’d never met before, who I was told were part of my family. I was very shy as a kid, just like I’m very shy as an adult, and I don’t remember talking to any of these cousins and aunts and uncles. But I remember staying the night at Grandma Cox’s, and sleeping next to my brother David, and I remember him telling me a story to send me off to sleep. He told me the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, but it’s the only time that I can remember, now, specifically, of hearing it. And Dave, whether you remember that or not, I want you to know that I do, and that I will forever.
David tried to take Ma on an Alaskan cruise once. I think she debated it for a while, and then she decided not to go. I imagine the reasons why are many and unknowable for anyone but her, but when I asked her she told me two things. She doesn’t like to go somewhere so far away that she can’t make it back to her own bed at night, and she doesn’t want to spend money on something she can’t hold and see afterward. The experience is not good enough for her. Pictures aren’t either. And I don’t agree with that point of view, but it is her point of view, and I think I appreciated her sharing with me her why-not. But secretly, I think she would have loved it.
She once told me not to expect any monetary inheritance, because she planned on spending all of her money on her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren while she was alive to see it spent. It made her happy. It made her very happy. And I might be tempted to point out that that is an experience she has bought, but such arguments of logic would do no good. The heart wants what it wants.
I lived down the road from Ma and Pa from the day I was born, and as you know, Ohio experiences all four seasons very deeply. Winter is cold, summer is hot. I shoveled her sidewalk in the snow sometimes, but still when I think of Ma and Pa as people and as a place, I think of summer. Watermelon – Pa put salt on his, and I thought that’s how everyone ate watermelon – I found out many years later that some humans are horrified when you do this. Ma in shorts and short-sleeved button-up plaid shirts. Ma on a bench-swing. Ma feeding her cats and feeding Zeke cheese sandwiches when she came home from work, which was after midnight. Pepsi in a can and Pa’s homemade ice cream, sitting on the sidewalk, in that concrete space between the house and the summer kitchen. Pa at the kitchen table, carving up a grapefruit with a knife. Is that even true? I don’t know, but I can see it. I can see it like I’m eight years old and always have been, and like I will never age.
Maybe I’m feeling sentimental, but when I think of her and him and them both, it will be summer for all time. It is always June when I think of Corlene.
If I can speak directly to Ma, for a moment:
You made it very clear that you love me and are proud of me, and what I want you to know is that I love you and I’m so proud of you, too. Of the choices you made that changed the course of your own life and our family forever, for the battles you fought for us, and the sacrifices you made to make our lives better. Everything anyone in this family ever does – it is because of the foundation you built on Weaver Road. I love this place and this farm. It made us.
If I spend the rest of my life turning that fact over and over in my mind, I will still never unravel it.
I can’t properly explain how large you are in my life, so I wrote this for you, and I am going to show it to you, and to everyone I know, and to everyone who will never meet you, I will tell them: you really missed something special. But you are in luck – because I’m going to tell you about Ma Fry.