My Grandma was a cool old bird. She told stories, laughed easily and heartily, was a terrible cook but a gifted quilter. She played piano by ear and all we would have to do was hum a few bars and she would pick it up right away. We would sing along for hours and she never seemed to get tired. She took us camping and taught us to play cribbage. She was a terrible gossip but mixed names up so much that it was a harmless pursuit, as nobody knew who had done what to whom after she’d mixed things up so badly. She was joyful and full of life. She devoured Harlequin Romances, sometimes reading 2 or 3 in a day, and would tell me all of the juicy bits, whispering with scandalized glee.
I had the privilege, in my early 20s to look after Grandma while my grandfather was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack. Grandma had heart troubles of her own, so leaving her alone was not an option. At the time I doubt I would have called it a “privilege”. It was summer and all of my friends were back home from University. There were parties and celebrations, beach days and all manner of shenanigans, and there I was on the other side of the province, taking care of my grandmother. But I loved her, and my grandfather had asked. I would never even consider saying no to such a kind, generous and loving man. He was my hero, after all.
Our days were simple. They would start with me waking up, usually around 8 am. As a young adult my preference would have been to sleep until past noon, but each day, as the birds began to sing, Grandma would wander into my room, sit on the side of my bed and start talking. She would talk and talk and keep on talking until I would finally open my eyes and rise for the day ahead.
After eating our breakfast she would have me set her hair in pin curls, preparing for our daily visit to see Grandpa. Even after more than 50 years of marriage she still wanted to look her best before seeing him, making sure her lipstick was straight, her Evening In Paris perfume dabbed on each wrist and behind each ear, and her shiny polyester dress was tidy.
One day as I was winding her white hair into tiny curls, Grandma told me something that has had a lasting and profound effect on my life. She told me that as she had gotten older, as her peers had passed on she had reached a point in her life when nobody called her by her given name anymore. She was “mom”, “grandma”, “Mrs. Burley”… and even Grandpa called her “Mother”. She said it so matter-of-factly, as if she were mentioning that she’d given some old coats to the Thrift Store.
I was appalled! How could something like that happen? To my young, burgeoning feminist ways it seemed as if her true identity had been washed away, leaving only the masks she wore. I couldn’t imagine living my life where nobody actually saw the real me. I swore to myself then and there that I would never let that happen to me.
I am older now and my understanding is deeper. I answer to “mom” and “mrs”, “ma-am” and “aunty”. No “grandma” yet, (which is good because my girl is only 17. I am more than willing to wait for that honor). My husband calls me “Sweetie” and has only ever called me by my given name when speaking of me to another person.
But I am still most certainly, Brenda. You see I have discovered the secret to keeping in touch with the very essence of who I am, outside of the roles I play. The real Me, who was born during youthful slumber parties, who once went skinny dipping in Cottonwood River with my best friends, who remembers falling in love for the first time then having my heart broken… Real, open, funny, vulnerable, feisty and crazy Brenda, has been kept alive and well. It’s been pretty simple, really, to keep in touch with that crazy chick. Here’s my secret:
I have girlfriends. A whole great big circle of them.
I have some I share all my dreams with. I have a few who are as crazy and weird as I am. There are friends I’ve known for decades, yet never met face to face. Some friends share my passion for reading and we talk for hours about the books we love as if they are beloved children. I have my foodie friends and we love to share our passion for all things delicious and juicy. I have friends who lean on me. And I have friends I lean on. We tell each other secrets and then we keep them. We get together in groups, or pairs to laugh and to cry, to hold each other up and keep each other from falling. We celebrate each other’s successes and soothe each other’s disappointments. We are always on each other’s side and we will gladly hate each other’s enemies. We tell each other that we are the best singer/dancer/juggler in the world, even when our talents are questionable. We sing each other’s praises and as our nests empty we teach each other how to fly.
We are a circle so strong and vast and magical that we will ever be unbroken. My girlfriends, who have seen all of the facets of who I am and love me anyways, I keep them close and cherish each one, for I know that to be truly seen as only our friends can see us is a gift.
And by and by, when time disappears and we are able to reach across the veil, my grandmother will join us. We will open our circle and our arms to embrace her and sing out together: “Welcome, Hazel”!