Bessie's hands

By Marianna Edmunds | May 05, 2010
Marianna Edmunds

I felt her hand in mine, her long bony fingers with flat nails evenly clipped. She held mine even though she didn't know it, so close. I knew she was trying to stay with it, my grandmother, Bessie, of 93 years.

Over a decade ago, this was, and I wanted to talk to her about a dilemma I was facing. I wanted her wisdom. Always the best sounding board, critic and fount of information, she was the adviser for her 11 grandchildren and countless others; she was the wisest, strongest, and most opinionated person in my life, and I liked her opinions. They often went against the grain, of her husband, her children, her generation. But this day, I needed her counsel, which really meant her support. I wanted her to tell me it was all right not to marry him -- a very smart and charming man I'd been sort of engaged to off and on for a while -- to tell me to follow my persistent instinct, that marriage for me now might end up being a prison or something I'd leave. After all, didn't she have an affair once, out of desperation, in a frozen marriage?

I was just getting started in my life's work, doing what I'd discovered I really loved; it had only been a couple of years and it was all coming naturally, the craft of telling stories, other people's stories, molding them, making them "films," making them mine. Yes, perhaps it was vicarious, but I had some pretty good ones myself too -- Africa, malaria, getting lost on Kilimanjaro, stranded in Athens, switching places with my identical twin, inoculating thousands of Maasai as a volunteer, climbing the Tetons, serving Anna Freud a chocolate sundae in Jackson Hole -- I knew a good story and loved getting it told. And producing for a mass audience, this was definitely intoxicating; yes, it was heady wine, so to marry now -- while it was about time, and certainly he was appropriate -- committed, devoted, responsible, held a good job -- would have put the brakes on everything, bringing to a halt all the big things I was certain were in store if I kept going. Not to mention the lasting contribution, I thought quite naively, I wanted to make. Oh my, wouldn't she agree it was not a good idea to say yes?

But no, she liked him, and he liked her, Bessie, my grandmother, and she was ready for me to marry and have children, give her great-grandchildren, because they were sure to be smart -- she said -- and how she loved smart young people. Not sure they'd be beautiful but I was sure she would call them beautiful, especially if they were daughters. She loved her granddaughters -- all nine of us; she had always embraced us more than the grandsons, taking us into her wonderful world of stories and past adventure.

Now, she was slipping away in this nursing home, the kind of place I had never experienced before she had moved here, never seen what existed inside those pale pastel walls, punctuated with crosses and framed angels, what moved along those quiet halls and lived in those silent rooms, such history, such rich stories, memories now fading, but once again, she was introducing me to a new world, a new experience, new knowledge, and new wisdom. But today there would be no advice, no counsel (today), her opinion was silent.

She hated losing a grip, as her hands clasped me with a desperate strength. Oh my beloved dear Granny -- such a titan at so many family gatherings and dinners where she would invariably give the main toast, the best toast, the funniest toast, recall the best story, often more than once, and then frequently launch into singing "Jesus loves me" in Chinese, since she and my grandfather, an architect who couldn't serve in World War I due to a bad knee, had gone to China in 1920 to build a college in Canton, crossing the Pacific by boat with my father, just six weeks old.

Bessie had been the fortress, the matriarch, the family pillar, my grandmother, and now all I held were these long, elegant, bony, prominently veined hands. So soft, so pale, so lovely. Could she see that I was crying?

 

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