Bunny Love

23 May

If it’s late spring it must be time again to get the farm box, and you know what that means: TURNIPS. Oh turnips, so grubby, so acidic, so darned turnipy. I’m a passionate vegetable lover and I barely tolerate them, to say nothing of those in my household who are less enthusiastic about side dishes anyway, i.e. everyone else. I had managed to use up the greens from our first couple of farm shares, but the bulbs were rattling around in the crisper getting ever less appealing. So I did what any social media junkie would do: I asked Twitter for advice. “Hive mind! I have a turnip emergency. Do you eat them? Do you LIKE them? If so, how do you prepare them? Help! HELP!” I got pretty standard suggestions–mash them with heavy cream and butter, roast them with salt and pepper, etc. One of my commenters joked, “Do you have a grandmother to call for advice? Turnips are grandmother food.” A difficult thing about grief is the way it can sneak up on you. I found myself tearing up over Twitter, because in that moment, a moment that took me by surprise because I’d never said it to myself just that way, I realized anew that I don’t have a grandmother to call anymore.

I never knew my mom’s mother, as she died before my parents were married, but this time last year I was singing at the sweet family funeral of my dad’s mother. Bunny was born in 1920, and she lived a long, productive, beautiful life. She served as an officer in the WAVES during World War II, and she was an art major, cattle farmer, sheep midwife, ardent conservationist recognized for her service, devoted gardener, crack tennis player, mother to eight healthy, happy boys, and grandmother to 23 adoring grandchildren, of whom I am the eldest.

“Grandmother” conjures up the stereotype of a powdery old lady with time on her hands to spoil you. Bunny was an original. The farmhouse we visited frequently to see her was loud with boisterous dogs and stained red with Virginia clay. There were no fresh-baked cookies–the snacks at her house ran to dried apricots, with Wheat Thins for special occasions. She made a mean avocado and grapefruit salad, one I have tried endlessly to replicate, and can’t get quite right. She was brisk and cheerful and busy; I don’t remember her sitting down except to eat until she was well into her 80’s. She was also still driving to deliver Meals on Wheels in her 80’s. We used to tease that if she’d just stay home long enough someone might bring her a meal. She would swing by our birthday parties in her tennis whites, off to meet up with her foursome of ladies at the club. She didn’t often catch a performance of one of my school plays, as she and my grandfather were generally “in Ireland that weekend,” or something similar. In one of my favorite pictures of her, she’s fly fishing in waders and lipstick.

Growing up, holidays and family dinners were a crush of festive faces. Bunny never failed to give a squeeze and affectionate kiss, but there were flowers to arrange and people to feed and dishes to wash. I didn’t spend much time alone with her until I moved back to my hometown as a parent myself. That July it was just pregnant me and my two year old daughter in the new house, as my husband stayed behind for an extra month getting things organized. After a few weeks of sheltering from the scorching heat with a bored toddler and a huge belly, I confided in Bunny once when she buzzed by between errands that I was having a rough transition.

“Oh deary, I’m sure you are,” she said. “I remember it was a hard time when we moved from New York to the farmhouse in Virginia. We had 5 boys under the age of 10, and Steve, the youngest, was just 3 weeks old, and there was no electricity.”

“Oh my goodness,” I gasped, shamed and awed. “How in the world did you live through that?”

“I have no idea,” she twinkled. “It was so horrible I’ve forgotten the details.”

Once the kids were in school and I had a couple of mornings free each week, I volunteered to help her with a project. She was coming up on 90 years old, and she felt the pressure to put her papers and pictures into some kind of order so the family could make sense of things after her death. We worked through the jumble, sorting it into accordion folders marked by decade, just the two of us for a few hours a week, side by side in her quiet basement. We’d each enjoy a cup of the weak coffee she drank, thinned with skim milk. I loved to look over and see her absorbed in an old letter–a love letter from my grandfather, or a long college missive from her only son to proceed her in death. She’d read aloud passages from her diaries, like the one in which she described the birth of their fifth son–how the quiet time in the hospital with just the new baby and her husband was the first time in months they’d been able to talk, how she hoped that one day they might be blessed with a girl (spoiler alert, diary: wasn’t gonna happen.) I’d ask about an old picture, and she’d exclaim over how much she loved the suit she’d been wearing, how she’d had another one made the same but in rose, where she’d gotten her earrings, how they were heavy and uncomfortable (she always wore clip on, never pierced her ears.) I asked her about a snapshot from a beach vacation with friends when she would have been in her 70’s–the ladies are laughing into the camera, their arms draped around each other. Bunny went through each face, “She’s died of cancer, she has Alzheimer’s, she died the year after this photo was taken…” Bunny buried a lot of friends, but it’s a testament to her lovableness and zest for life that she was always making new ones.

I also got to witness small everyday moments in my grandparents’ marriage, going strong in its seventh decade. Bunny went to the gym 3 times a week, (AT 90), and her PT recommended rowing as a good core-strengthening exercise. My grandfather is an avid sculler, and had an erg for home use. She asked him to teach her how to use it, and I watched as he patiently, cheerfully walked her through the machine step by careful step. He’s a long-winded explainer, but she never rushed him, just listened respectfully. She wasn’t great with technology, but he didn’t condescend to her. I was struck by how polite they were to each other. After a farm and sons and two careers and countless joys and sorrows, their graciousness remained intact.

When Bunny was diagnosed with lung cancer, they thought she might have as long as a year, but it was over within a few months. In her final weeks she was laid up in a soft nest of pillows on a hospital bed in the retirement facility clinic, her twinkle muted but still in evidence. She was paid a steady stream of loving calls, and she turned to each visitor, even if she’d already seen you that day, even if she wasn’t feeling that hot, and clasped both of your hands, smiled into your eyes, and thanked you so much for being there. She made sure to say the things in her heart to each person, inhibitions falling away as time grew short. I saw her almost every day in her last weeks, and she never once failed to tell me that she was proud of me, that she thought my children were so special, that I was a great mom (and that she wasn’t sure she would have been a great mom to a girl, which amused me in its ridiculousness.) As her discomfort increased and her sickness deepened, she was purified by the pain, stripped to her essential self. I spent a night by her bed tending to her–I’m so glad I had that chance, as she died 2 nights later. She woke every hour or so, restless, uncomfortable. As she emerged into consciousness she would first ask, “Where is Jim? Is he all right?” After I assured her he was being looked after she would ask if it was morning yet, to gauge whether she’d made it through another night. Then she’d motion for a spoonful of ice, nibble it down and murmur, “Ah, bliss, bliss,” as the water cooled her throat. I’d apply a little lip balm, and she’d smack her lips appreciatively, then sigh as I smoothed her hair back. Once, she reached out, swept a piece of my bangs out of my eyes, and said softly, “You are so beautiful.” As the day dawned she asked me to raise the curtains and crank open the window. The fresh breeze blew against her skin and she closed her eyes and smiled. When she opened them again, she said, “Another day. It’s a wonder.” She paused, and then, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad, even when we don’t want to.”

They weren’t technically her last words, but they are ones I will always remember.

On the occasion of her engagement.

On the occasion of her engagement.

How she looked when I was a kid.

How she looked when I was a kid.

The picture that ran with her obituary.

The picture that ran with her obituary.

19 Responses to “Bunny Love”

  1. Mickey Kampsen May 23, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

    Wonderful story! Just superb and what a tribute…

    • amomynous2 May 23, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

      Thank you, Mickey. 🙂 I’ve been writing it in my head for a year. It’s a relief to have it out.

      • Peggy van yahres May 24, 2013 at 2:04 am #

        Thanks so much for getting it out of your head for all of us to enjoy

      • amomynous2 May 24, 2013 at 2:06 am #

        Oh, I’m so pleased you read it! Thank you!!! XOX

  2. Mickey Kampsen May 23, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

    Wonderful story….really lovely…thank you..

  3. Mrs.Pitt Damon Tatum (@GDRPempress) May 24, 2013 at 2:43 am #

    Oh, my heart. How I feel the love you have for her, forever. If someone would ever write something like THIS, for me… I can’t even imagine not feeling it in w hatever dimension we go to live in. This was nothing short of beautiful, and how I wish you’d send it in to mamalode, BlogHer, and Martha Stewart’s Living. You were both so lucky: she to have you, and you to be there to usher someone to their next chapter. WHAT A GIFT of a read. Thank you for something I was able to lose myself in.

    • amomynous2 May 24, 2013 at 3:02 am #

      You are so lovely for reading, and for the incredibly encouraging comments! Thank you so much. Such a supportive, wonderful presence you are. If your kids aren’t drafting this essay, they should be. XOX

  4. alimonkee May 24, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    Sniff. You made me tear up. I guess that’s what I get for reading a blog at work. Adore you and your family so much!

    • amomynous2 May 24, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

      Thank you so much, honey–for reading, and for all your support, always! XOX

  5. Louise Dudley May 24, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    What a beautiful remembrance. I knew who your grandmother was, having met her a few times, but didn’t KNOW her at all before reading this. Thanks for sharing your loving relationship — and thanks to Peggy for passing it along on FB.

    • amomynous2 May 24, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

      Oh, I so much appreciate your comment! Thank you for reading, and also thanks to Peggy for passing it along. I miss Bunny more now than I did a year ago. It felt good to write about her.

  6. breeluck May 24, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

    Beautiful. I like to think of how your children’s children will think of you when they are young parents questioning their abilities. You, like Bunny, will no doubt speak to them with the candor and wisdom and vulnerability that already makes you so dear. I’m so glad you have had your Bunny as a guide. BTW, nothing good can come from turnips except a little more fodder for the compost heap.

    • amomynous2 May 24, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

      Hahaha, THANK YOU!!! Freakin’ turnips.

      And thank you for the kind words about the piece. It was important to me to write it as well as I could, and your good opinion means so much. I do wonder what kind of grandparent I will be–hopefully better than as a mom. 😉 XOX

  7. Sally Thomas May 25, 2013 at 12:43 am #

    Thank you for writing so lovingly and accurately. She was my ideal of a most wonderful person. She always made me think she was confiding something just to me, and made me feel special — which is how she made most people feel, and that’s a rare gift.

    • amomynous2 May 25, 2013 at 12:46 am #

      She was such a rare person. I love hearing how many people loved her. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. 🙂

  8. The Coconut Girl May 30, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    Just read this again. Thank you.

    • amomynous2 May 30, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

      Aaaaah, thank YOU. Loved your post that Susan linked to–I had missed it in my feed. Love ALL your posts!

  9. Anna May 31, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

    Beautiful tribute, thanks for sharing her with us…made me tear up.

    • amomynous2 May 31, 2013 at 7:35 pm #

      Oh, my pleasure. So glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

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