days of  
n a z e  
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

strung out 
brush with greatness 
soul food  

 
 

February 15, 2000   
    
Elegy

This is the selfish story.

Not the story of a rare soul, not the poetry required to explain her. This is the story of my failure to deliver these things.

The problem is that I don't know how to untangle my love for her from the anguish that death brings. And so I've stopped trying.


I have many photos of my grandmother, but one which is a true image. Standing there in her white gloves and coat next to Grandpa in the camera shop, it's the picture that best represents who she was on the inside. Her name was Bertha, but she hated that name and went by Polly. If you were a child, she was Mrs. Eades. If you had met, you would have received a proper greeting and a smile.


I got the call at work.

My mother's very reasonable tone was masking her state of shock. The tears came unbidden. I was going to the hospital that very afternoon to see her, knowing that it may be my last chance. And now she was gone.

Why hadn't I gone that morning instead?


I grew up in a Washington mill town. Grandma lived in Portland. Every Thanksgiving and a few other times a year, we'd pile into the station wagon and make the trek to the city. The Union Pacific Railyard, the old iron bridges traversing the Willamette River and the Coliseum slid past the car windows. And as the freeway arced up and up, just before sweeping east, the skyline shone in the night with the great White Stag neon sign four stories high all but singing, welcome to the city.

And in that way, this was her city.

"We waited for you like one hog waits for another", she'd say if you were late to dinner, with a mock hillbilly affect, belying her refined manner. The good china is out, because that's why you have it. One time my sister broke a plate and everything stopped for a moment. Grandma dismissed it, helping her clean it up and reassuring her that it was just a plate.



I drove in silence from my work across the city to her house. I found my older sister there, tears staining her face. Soon my mother arrived, with an unsettled and distracted look. She had just made the most difficult decision a child ever has to make for their parent.

No one looked in each others eyes. We knew that this day would come but somehow it still left us uncomprehending.

And then my uncles arrived (whom I love and respect).

Nonchalant. Reasoned. Even talkative. I know they loved her and I know that this was a shield for them. But on that day I hated them for that.


It wasn't until late in her life that I began to learn of her life before grandparenthood. She was born to Norwegian parents in Illinois who couldn't care for her and gave her up for adoption.

Her adopted father administered federal lands. She spent a lot of her growing up years in Montana. One of her childhood memories was of an Indian woman who came to the door in a buckskin dress asking for food. Another time when her father was away on work, she was piled into a Model T Ford to pursue horse thieves. As the dark descended, a family friend with a lantern sat on the hood and yelled out "stop!" as they skidded to a halt just feet from the lip of a cliff.

Her parents sent her to college in Boston. She came back to teach physical education at an eastern Washington school. There is a picture of her in the yearbook in a fine leather jacket. In her early twenties, she looked the age of many of the students. With a sly smile, "One of the boys asked me for a date".


Inside I cringed as my cousin phoned the newspaper for obituary requirements. She filled in the blanks verbally, out loud as she wrote down the facts of my Grandmother's life, the ones that meant nothing. The ones that would be saved for all time in the paper's archives.


She lived in the same house for more than forty years. As everything in life shifted, tilted and turned, her home was a sanctuary of sorts, barely acknowledging the passage of time. Two crossed swords in scabbards hung over the fireplace right above a mantelpiece clock that hadn't worked in years. One was a great saber from the Civil War, a real weapon; the other a ceremonial officer's sword from the Mexican-American War that had a whistle built into the guard which was used to call the men to attention.

Asian art, gifts from her sons who served there in the military, adorned the living room. A pair of simple paintings of a doe, a ceramic of a seated Japanese elder eating pieces of fish from a skewer.

Her home was at once worldly and domestic, comforting.

She wasn't shy about death. In fact, I thought it odd how she would bring it up when we were little. My younger sister was fascinated with Grandma's music box. It played a Mozart minuet. So Grandma promised it would be hers after she died.


We were headed to Grandma's church. For years she had walked to that church for Sunday service and the occasional church function. I dreaded it. Not because it was a religious rite, but because I knew that there would be no eulogy from a family member.

Her story would not be told.

The service was well attended. The minister spoke of her with warmth and affection, but no more so than someone who knew her little better than an acquaintance. How could this be happening?



I lived with Grandma for the latter half of college and a few years on and off after that. We got along famously. Grandpa died about four years before I came to live with her and I think she liked the company. She gave me encouragement and approval for getting a job at a time when I was feeling I had fallen short of my parents hopes.

And I learned some of the little things about her. When something struck her as particularly funny, she would laugh with a great "ha YUK-YUK-YUK!" Some of her vocabulary was from another age. "Short order restaurant" was what she called fast food and vans were "panel wagons". Scallops made her violently ill. She recycled like religion, years before they came to your curbside to pick it up. She hated Johnny Carson. I don't know why, she was such a kind soul. At night, we would watch public t.v. No matter what she wore (in this case, pajamas and a yellow robe), she had a regal quality. Impeccable posture. For a snack she cut up an apple, placing the pieces in a little yellow bowl. Sitting back in her chair, she would set a green wooden tray across her lap and play solitaire as she watched the show.

Occasionally, she would smoke. But when she did, she would smoke only one cigarette.


I've never felt so lost, so angry, such despair.

Her story would not be told. Why hadn't her family spoken? How can we have failed so?

At wit's end over my failure to act and numb with loss, I walked out of the church. I saw my father outside. I stepped to him intending to give him a quick hug but then found I couldn't let go. I've never felt so grateful in my life for my dad as I was that day. A grown man can still be a child with his dad. And a child can try to hide great shuddering sobs into his father's shoulder, even with strangers all about on the steps of a church.


I had death figured out. I knew that it was necessary - the price of life. But what do you do when everything you know about death is wrong?

  

Bertha "Polly" Bostwick Eades

1910 - 1994

forever in my heart

 
       
       
       
 

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