My grandmother, Corrine Cotten, is shockingly aware and vocal about her human finitude. When I visit, she writes my name on little sticky notes and attaches the yellow squares to items of hers I may want one day. If you open a closet at her house, chances are you’ll see a pile of old quilts, pillows, hand-made vases from her sister Norma, or jewelry from her “wild days” labeled with the names of my cousins, aunts and uncles on the same little yellow squares. You can even see the various family names etched in sharpie marker on the back of larger items that are still in daily use throughout the house. Like packing up for a big move, her house is always on the cusp of that final transition. It is a weird mix of death and life, past and present, memory and moment, and I am uncomfortably aware that nothing she passes on will ever feel the same without her around. The kitchen table, for instance, is only special if we are playing SkipBo together with a cup of coffee in hand, and the jewelry from her “wild days” is only fun when she wraps it around her body and shows me the best way to move my belly so that each metal string shakes and chimes. Heirlooms won’t have that same Corrine spirit when she’s gone, but I love her gifts that give insight into her past – even if they are tinged with acceptance and muddled with final farewells.
At age 16, she sent me off with a rad, 1970’s gold belt and the most beautiful blue and crystal screw back earrings because, as she said, “you never know what will happen”. Last year at Thanksgiving, Corrine was wearing an old shirt from a church revival that said “Riot ’88”. 1988 is my birth year and I’m obviously a riot, so I LOST MY SHIT. I raved about how cool it was for a solid ten minutes until Corrine snuck off into the back room, changed into a pretty blue sweater with blue heart appliqués, and handed me the “Riot ’88” shirt that was just on her back two minutes earlier. This is who Corrine is. She is selfless, but strong with a firm voice and a soft heart. She is the cliché perfect grandmother that every child reads about in YA novels.
Visiting my grandmother is my favorite part about going home, but saying goodbye is always difficult – mostly because all the talk about dying and sticky note placing makes me aware that any normal “goodbye” could turn into the last. One of our latest goodbyes came after she packed my bag full of paintings and vases. I fought back tears as she assured me in a very calm, nontheatrical manner to “always appreciate the time you have with someone”. Her acknowledgement for the end is the weirdest representation of bravery I’ve ever witnessed. Two years ago, before going into open-heart surgery and after fighting breast cancer, she told the doctor, “If I go to sleep for good – don’t try to wake me up.” She doesn’t seem afraid of death, but the thought of losing her is terrifying for me.
At age 29, driving to her house feels the same as it did when I was four years old. I still hold my breath as I cross over the Mississippi River Bridge into Vidalia, I still smile when I see the streets in her subdivision all named after fruit, my heart still swells when I cross the threshold that divides her front porch and the pink carpet in her living room, my eyes still perk up when I smell the fresh pot of Community Coffee brewing in her percolator, and no matter what time of the day it is or when I ate last – I still get hungry when I see the ingredients for corn chowder laid out on her kitchen workspace. But now when I visit, all of the traditions and comforts of her house are shaded with sadness. There’s a fear buried in my heart that is actively soaking in every moment and transferring it into a collection of memories. Each visit becomes a quest to record her – to smell everything, to write down the random snippets of wisdom, to go through old photos and learn as much as I can about her past, to fall asleep on the couch with the safety of knowing she’ll be there when I wake up, to coax my grandfather into telling me those stories of meeting Corrine in the little diner in California. My mind becomes a sort of jump drive, collecting each moment in detail so I can access them later – when the day comes that I have to walk into her house and rummage through all the sticky notes without the comfort of her coffee, her soup, and her there.
Even though Corrine talks about death freely, I’m still not ready to say any sort of goodbye. But in the spirit of Corrine’s planning, here’s a few things I’d like to tell her just in case (consider them my own little yellow sticky notes):
I skinny dip because of you.
I dance because of you.
I love harder because of you.
I am stronger because of you.
I am brave because of you.
I understand loss because of you.
I believe in hope because of you.
Thank you for making me a good human and strong woman.