I asked H. about the finger once, the misshapen right forefinger of her grandmother’s hand that ended just barely past the third joint whose skin stretched smoothly and seamlessly around the enlarged finger.
“I think she was born with it” H. told me. The finger nestled within her hands when they lay peacefully in her lap on our visits and emerged to expertly unwrap foil from the chocolates proffered each time, extracted from countless stashes in drawers and cabinets. I periodically find them in my pockets, red and gold and purple foil-wrapped packages of Grandma’s abundant love manifested in cocoa butter and sugar.
“I was…sugar water..others… outside playing” she speaks with effort. This month everything has radically changed. These visits aren’t so much an easy source of delight in an ever-present source of love in the world. H’s grandmother becomes confused and fearful, in need of reassurance. Today is one of her better days though her speech still comes more slowly than before and she looks inward as often as she looks outward.
“Grandma! Tell me about your mother! You like to talk about your mom!” H. hollers close to her ear. Sometimes it is not clear: did she not hear, or is she adhering to her own cosmically-attuned inner agenda? Today she periodically, for unknown reasons, says “Vodka!” and looks at us sternly. Earlier in our visit H. described a recent trip with beloved friends and colleagues. Her grandmother listened carefully and then responded, very clearly, “Joyride.”
“Yes, Grandma. It was.” H. said. Grandma has lived a good life with love in her heart for ninety-six years, so it makes sense that she can cut right to the heart of the matter. Though the vodka declarations remain mysterious.
”Did your mother have a sweet tooth too?” I gently yell in her other ear. She wakes from her reverie and a story rolls off of her tongue.
“I was…sugar water…others…playing outside.” She looks down at her finger.
“You were stirring?” I ask.
“Yes, I was stirring. In those days, if you wanted candy, you had to make it. I was watching them play out the window and my finger slipped in- at first they thought I would lose the finger. But they saved it. The doctor lived at the bottom of the hill, so I just ran down the hill, and my sisters told my mother, so she was running right behind me. The doctor cleaned it up and at first they didn’t know if they could save it. I went every day after school.”
“Grandma, I didn’t know that” H. says. We are all looking at her finger now.
“I always used to hide it after that. Then Lisa told me it was my special finger, my baby finger. She told me that every time she came, and now I don’t hide it.”
She begins again. “I had a little girlfriend who had a little boyfriend- a boy who was her friend, five, and he told her to lay her finger down on the ground, so she did, and he chopped it off with an axe. That was worse, it was her thumb, and then she thought that no one would ever love her. But we both had people come into our lives.” Another pause, as she listens inwardly, diffuses, and then re-focuses, right on us. “Maybe this is why you came today. So I can tell you this story and you can know you are loved.” S., who has been manfully fending off tears for several minutes, both laughs and tears up and I do as well. I laugh like this when children unknowingly speak remarkable truths and I try to explain to them that I am not laughing at them, I laugh because of how true it is.
“Holy laughter. That’s what it’s called. Tears and laughter at the same time. It’s good. Sometimes at funerals, you have holy laughter.” At the word funeral H. has to look away. I still have some distance, some reserve. As much as I love her she is not my family. I have not known her my whole life. This does not mean she cannot instantly disarm me, even from this supposed ground of safety. “It’s good you came into her life” she tells me. “You came into her life, and you also came into my life.” She looks right at me. Never underestimate the power of a ninety-pound ninety-six year old grandmother in a wheelchair. Holy laughter, I feel you.
“Grandma!” H. says. Our knees are almost touching, H. and I in chairs and her grandmother in the wheelchair.
“May the circle. Be unbroken” she says with effort again, and then clearly, firmly even: “I had a home and now it is gone, and Jesus is my home, and I hope he takes me home soon.” She speaks assuredly and kindly and now S. has to actually stand up and go examine the phone really closely and cry for a minute because it hurts too much to think about saying goodbye to your favorite person in the world. The phone rings, her daughter checking in, and in a confusion of phone cord and oxygen tube and hospital beeper cord and wheelchair rolling we hug and say goodbye for now.
H. and I leave and I appreciate that we have some time on the road between hospital and home. I don’t see old people very much. I don’t hear these stories anymore. At school we have a book called “Grandmother’s Stories.” The book contains stories of all varieties that are framed by the grandmother telling them. Probably some of the young children in my class still hear true grandmother’s stories, but it is not only the very young who need to hear them. How are we supposed to know how to live when we are not informed by the people among us who can offer us stories framed by almost one hundred years of life experience? I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories, told first by her, and then by her children. They were told at her table, over tea and cake, told over our heads, then to us, and now by us. I tell them to the children at my table. I tell my grandmother’s stories of her grandmother.
A sweet tooth, a pot of sugar water, a missing fingertip; a desperate run down the hill, mother trailing after; the rescuing of her finger in later years by her granddaughter, who trims her nails and paints them a different color each time. How we hold each other, how we save each other, how we tell the story.
In a long cold Buffalo winter I warm myself in thinking of my favorites. What I love; what holds the world together, under all the ice. I suggest that holding the ENTIRE world together, at this very moment, are two troves of precious treasure: grandma hands. and baby thighs.
I have witnessed both lately. Grandma hands fall into the beatific category. They encompass all: joy and sorrow, of course; disappointment and deliverance; the miraculous and the ordinary. They are hands that have seen and touched it all. Thank you Jesus: Grandma hands heal.
Baby thighs sit solidly in the Buddha realm. My niece’s thighs at six months looked like a pound of butter had been melted and poured into them- one pound each. I love them. They are dimpled and perfect. Great contact with the earth. They keep Baby from tipping over, sometimes- a kind of centering weight.
On the baby thigh-to-grandma hand trajectory we encompass so many expressions of our selves that it is not even a trajectory; it could be a chart of every cloud formation, ever. Every rock formation, every riverbed imprint- no, better call it the shape of the water in the river: see it now- no, now. We are a multitude in our lives. There is no one place that every body inhabits.
When I think of our bodies in this way, over time, not just mine, but everyone- they become fluid, a stream of mercury flowing and dazzling my ability to pinpoint anything other than 98.6 degrees. What do we do with them? What is our gesture?
Baby thighs demand one thing only: adoration. Grandma hands open, they stretch out even in their sleep to open to the unseen and unknown- these hands bless and also, they receive.
When I hiked across England the wind was so strong that it would sometimes flatten me into the soft grasses. My backpack caught gusts like a sail and without my walking stick, my other limb, I would have gone down many more times than I did. The precarious stream crossings on steep hillsides in blustery wind highlighted the stability and balance of my valued companion, one who walked every step of the two hundred miles with me. Eight miles before the end of the hike my knee gave out and it was only by putting my full weight on the stick that I could continue. From my first steps along the grassy headlands over the Irish Sea to my last tentative steps in the pitch blackness on a trail along the top of the bluffs of Robin Hood’s Bay while invisible waves crashed below, this friendly presence walked at my side.
The stick was about my height, with a jog towards the top where a branch broke off and most of the bark peeled off. I could hook my thumb over the curve for a better grip. After I washed my one bandana I tied it to the top of the stick to dry where it flew straight out like a flag. Not that things dried really; they just achieved a lesser state of dampness, dry in a relative sense in the landscapes of misty lakes and dales and moors. It was on these hills that I first encountered the tarn, a small circular body of water like a coin of sky dropped from above, without outlets or inlets, self contained and unexpected and serene.
When the wind did blow me down the surprising part was how much less windy it was on the ground, especially if I curled up with my pack over me, as I did on one particularly windy peak where I could hardly track the cloud formations with my eyes as they raced across the sky. Protected like a turtle, I ate my hiker’s bar that I bought in the village far below, a concoction of oats soaked in butter and sugar that restored life to my bones and remains one of the best snacks in my memory.
I was talking about these companions with my roommate the other night, these Friendly Presences, objects that help me, every day, in humble and menial ways. I mean, a walking stick just stumps along the ground. No glory there. The plastic dish basin at school is constantly at my fingertips because with this basin we wash our dishes and our hands, I bathe muddy children, collect items, disperse them, soak the feet of tired children in lavender water, soak thick paper for painting, wash paint jars and brushes, collect compost, and deliver things. They are a lot like buckets, which I also have a fondness for.
The basins are in constant rotation and recently one appeared in my house along with my roommate who the other night pointed at the dish basin on the rack and said, “What do you think about that?” at which point I launched into a discourse on the nature of Things as Friendly Presences in my life, much of which is transcribed here, a narrative she was probably not expecting when she pointed at the basin and said, “What do you think of that?”
It is no wonder the Germans capitalize their nouns.
I traveled one summer to fourteen beaches of Puerto Rico with a friend who lived only with Unfriendly Presences. She had a very difficult time, always hitting her knee, or unable to turn spigots on or off.
At the time of her question my roommate was framed in her doorway into the kitchen. The kitchen itself was dim, the lamp on the table illuminating the muted green walls, whereas the yellow walls of her room were fully lit and saturated the doorway around her in golden light. Her hair swept to one side and her silk skirt did too, its hem cut dramatically at a slant. “So I should get rid of it? It’s a crutch?” she said, after I had concluded my meditation on the dish basin.
I was going to argue that these things are not crutches, my walking stick was no crutch, but then I realized that a crutch also might seem like a Friendly Presence, one to be relied on. Once I was on crutches and I did not like them, they hurt, and they were ugly. Neither form nor function succeeded, and they did not meet.
I thought that my roommate in the golden doorway amidst the soft green walls and forms of door and tile and floorboard looked like a Rembrandt, and I told her so, but really I meant Vermeer. Nonetheless it was a Life as Art moment, the whole scene, accented with the one red string of charms that hang in the corner for luck and chi circulation.
The scene contained the qualities of both unreality as well as sharpness and clarity, and perfect composition, though I couldn’t say why. “What is the purpose of painters? What is it that they have to say in the world?” my painter friend writes to me. I still don’t have an answer for her but when I do it will be related to the living painting I saw, a transcendence of the everyday which is not metamorphosis but an unveiling of essence.