I sat on a pew. The room was quiet and solemn and smelled like a box of stale potpourri. I remembered sitting there before. Not on that specific row, or even in that specific room, but I’d been there before. You were beside me, doodling crosses into grids and connecting each grid line with meticulous care to another cross on the page. At the end of a two-hour Sunday service, you’d have a whole maze of crosses connected.
Today you were front and center. You asked for no flowers, but we put them anyway. You didn’t want a fuss of speeches, but we did them anyway. You didn’t want anyone in heels or suits, but we wore them anyway. I imagine you would have liked your hair done differently, and I think you’d prefer our hearts were alert to the gospel and our eyes were open to change.
On the pew, the fears you carried about your legacy – addiction, poverty, success – all found their way into the chaos of my mind. In a second that felt like a lifetime, I understood the language of parental love and how it often translated into criticism through my ears. I wanted to rewrite my childhood and rebuild my memories with the new understanding of love and fear you carried with you everyday. Your words would sound so differently to me now.
I didn’t want kids until that day on the pew. I imagine it sounds weird to say your death inspired life, but it did. You taught me the impact of generational growth, the honor in legacy, the love that stings and shapes change. At your service we talked about the time you worked all day logging woods for a few nickels, the day you walked into a tent revival in 1972, the summer you met Corrine in that diner in San Francisco, and even the day you beat someone up for not paying for a job well done. Isn’t it funny how a life gets remembered? I wonder what you’d like us to say in our stories about you.
I think you’d like to know you are loved, respected, and missed. And you are –
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.
I found this along the Freedom Trail in Boston the other day:
“A childhood friend of mine once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf.”
“Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to your friend.”
I had to pick my heart up from off the ground after I read the quote mid stride.
It was referencing one of Gerda Weissman Kein’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor, and while I know the struggles I’ve had in my life in no way come close to Gerda’s, I felt some kind of odd connection.
I’ve been lucky enough to have people like that in my life. People who seem to drop everything, give anything and run full speed when I don’t even ask.
People who know you need them before you know you need them.
People who make this world better just by being aware of others.
That’s something worth writing home about.
I’ve been feeling this for two weeks now, and I think I’ve only just gotten my emotions in order.
I know. Cap, crying? Who would have thought?
The thing about my tears though, the thing I don’t think many people get, is that I really only cry when I’m so happy I don’t know what else to do. I don’t cry when I’m sad, or when I’m stressed, or when I’m freaking out about an essay that instantly vanished from existence 5 minutes before it’s due.
I cry when my heart is so full it somehow explodes via my tear ducts.
The more life I go through the more I appreciate relationships.
Adulthood is funny that way.
Friendship changes from a blasé acquaintance to something of much more substance. It becomes this sort of lifeline. The second thud in your weird little heart beat. And if you’re lucky enough, it follows you and supports you no matter what crazy road you choose.
So, thanks for being there. Thanks for showing me what family and friends and love and a crap ton of happy tears look like.
Sometimes I wonder if I see this place a little differently. I’ll spare you all the existential questions…only because I’m too tired to relay them properly. But the basics that you may or may not be interested in is this:
Do we get a say?
I’ve always joked that each passing day only serves as a small step, or jolt, into life as my mother. (not that that’s a bad thing) I’ve laughed at how I pretend listen to people and how I’ve genuinely developed a passion for silence. Oh, and gardening. Growing shit gets me #turnt.
Did I use that word properly?
But what I’ve never really contemplated before were all of the habits in life I’d sworn off. I can’t deny that I have traits of my mother and father hiding somewhere behind all of the bits that make me – me, but I actively believe that we get to choose who we become. We aren’t subjected to nature’s plan.
I’ve seen a lot of heartache in my family. I’ve accepted a long time ago that people cannot always be who we wish they could be. Not everyone wants something more. Sometimes they just want for now, and you’re not always a part of that now. I’ve become okay with that over the years.
Don’t get me wrong. I still have my random breakdowns.
Like on a long flight from Baton Rouge to Charleston… somewhere around the 11C row. (Hypothetically speaking, of course)
Seeing the way addiction has taken control over so many of my loved ones is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in life. Especially witnessing that addiction destroy someone I admire more than words can express. Someone I know has something to live for.
I wish he knew he had a say.
When I see people I love struggle with addiction, I want to scream at them. Not in anger, but in a desperate attempt to wake them. How do they not see their life the way I see it? I want them to know this world is beautiful at times. I want them to see the joys in the little things. I want them to use the bad times merely as a juxtaposition of how effing awesome the good times are.
Occasionally, I think I just got lucky in what I had a say in… but then I remember I’ve never won anything in my life.
I have to choose to be happy on a daily basis. Sometimes I smile when I don’t want to, and laughing is harder than letting the vices of this world overcome me. Still, every now and then, there is something that lets me know I was meant to experience all this so that I can be whole. So that I am forced to know myself, and I’m forced to appreciate the little things and the people around me who make them not so little.