A few of you who read this blog regularly will remember that I met up with a friend of my mum’s a couple of months ago. She and her husband, who live in Texas, were up visiting Sudbury for a nursing school reunion. She had found me through this blog, and through articles about my new role as poet laureate here in town via various online publications. Well, today in the mail, I received a fat little envelope full of six beautiful cards, including one from Wendy herself. The other cards are all ones that my grandmother had sent to Wendy and her husband, Carl, over the years. Seeing my grandmother’s handwriting made me get weepy. (I know…if you know me, you know that I’m a tearful girl. Always have been, always will be.) My grandmother was my best friend, so seeing her handwriting on coloured envelopes caught at my heart.
Gram died in December 1998. It really seemed to start a rush of deaths in my family through the late 90s and into the next decade. Most of them took place in December, usually close to Christmas. As you can imagine, while some people love the flurry of Christmas, I tend to shrink from it. There’s no need to rehash the dates and the people I loved who went away…I know who they are in my heart and I think of them all very, very often. My grandmother, though, was different. I spent a lot of my youth with her. When I was little, and my mum was working, I would stay with Gram Ennis at 350 Wembley Drive. My own parents weren’t really very openly affectionate, but Gram would always welcome me with a hug, and wouldn’t let me leave without another one. She had a fantastic sense of humour, and a sense of compassion and kindness that stuck with me. She also taught me that handwritten thank you notes are not an option in life, but a requirement. That’s something I’ve carried with me through my life. At university, I would take the bus from the campus and go and have supper with her, helping her with cleaning or laundry as she got older. We would spend afternoons chatting over cups of instant coffee (she loved Nescafe!). She was a grand storyteller and was the first person to give me a lined journal to write in. She knew, before I even had an inkling, that I was going to be a writer.
Reading through the cards tonight, after marking some essays for my class, I got a bit weepy again. Just seeing her distinctive cursive writing, and how she would slant the return address across the seal of the back flap of an envelope, made me smile. Inside, she signed off as she always would: “Love and the best always, Alice.” The ‘and’ is my favourite part, always, because she wrote it on a slant, from left to right, from top to bottom. It was a distinctive thing, like a writerly and cursive fingerprint on my heart. I miss her.
In one card, she wrote about how she ‘was slowing down somewhat.’ (I’d never heard her admit that her health was a worry when I was in my twenties. She didn’t want to worry any of us. Maybe she worried more for us than I knew, as we all grew up, and as she could be proud of what her own children had accomplished. She had been a single mum in the years when that wasn’t fashionable or accepted in Irish Catholic circles.) Her first fall happened in 1994. She had broken her wrist. I still remember that. They had to put in some space-aged metal contraption that stuck out from her arm. She looked a bit like a robot, and she hated it. What it meant, though, was that things were beginning to slow down for her. She was born on June 21, 1911, and married my grandfather on the Coronation Day for King George VI in May 1937. I always thought that was cool, but I was kind of a monarchist back in the day. (I might still be a ‘closeted monarchist,’ but that’s a post for another day, I think…) After that fall in 1994, well, there were a couple of others. She said she had slipped on her floppy slippers, I still remember that, but really…later…we learned that she was having tiny strokes. One time, my boyfriend and I walked in to find her on the floor in the kitchen and took her to the hospital. That was a terrifying night. Later, a big stroke would mean that she couldn’t communicate for a year or two before her death, and I remember visiting her at the nursing home and sitting with her, trying to find her in there, somewhere behind her confused eyes. I used to sing Irish songs to her and she would sing along with me. It was what we could share together, even after her words were gone. I loved her. A lot.
In her card to me, Wendy wrote: “I know that December will soon be here and that it is a difficult month for you, remembering the loss of your parents. Hopefully it is a small comfort to think of them up there with family and friends, looking down on us with pride and joy.” I’ve only just met Wendy, but she has enough of a sense of me already to know that December is the month I most dread. Right around my birthday, a veil seems to fall a bit on the world around me. I normally always see the light and beauty in things, but there’s an ache that intensifies in my heart in late November and throughout December. For me, it’s a month of losses, like a string of rosary beads. This year, for the two week break, I’m headed off to some cottage, somewhere near a lake, where I can just be with the dogs and read novels and poems and hopefully finish the last draft of my own novel. It’ll be Dad’s fifth anniversary and I can’t bear to be here in town. A couple of friends have already said that they find it hard to understand why I’d go off on my own, but the memories here sometimes can be more harmful than healing.
I’m blessed to have met Wendy and Carl. I know that much. In Wendy’s emails and in the packet of letters and cards that arrived here in Sudbury this afternoon, well, I felt as if I just had a little sliver of my grandmother’s soul visit me. I would, if I could, give the world to hug her just one more time and tell her how glad I am she is such a part of who I am today. Of anyone I’ve known this time around, well, my grandmother taught me lessons of kindness, compassion, and offered me the sense that there was magic in the world. Those gifts, those lessons, are ones that I carry every day.
I know Wendy reads these blogs of mine….so thank you, Wendy, for this gift of Gram’s spirit. She lifted up off the page tonight and I feel she had a hand in me meeting you this year. Small mercies. Bright stars. How blessed are we to have met one another?
In one of her cards to Wendy, Gram Ennis wrote that she would keep her family in her prayers. She used to say the rosary every night. I know because I remember that, when I slept over, she would often get a fit of the giggles in the morning when a rosary would slip out of an elbow of her nightgown in a haphazard way. She told Wendy, in that little card, that she always prayed for “all my friends and relations.” Her heart was big and endless. I loved that about her, that generosity of spirit that reached out and pulled you in. Her soul was vast. I miss it.
So, tonight, I’ll say a prayer for “all my friends and relations,” in memory of my Gram.