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From Afar

By Jennifer Smith

THE FUNERALS WERE THREE weeks apart. My gentle parents had been thrown into a harried frenzy to bury my father’s father, my mother’s mother, and their own primal sense of security within the shallow space of two fast Sundays. Like everyone else in the family, I had been relieved to hear that Grandpa was released from his suffering body. Like everyone else, I planned to attend his funeral. Unlike everyone else, my siblings and I would lose another grandparent just days after losing this one, and unlike Grandpa’s death, Grandma’s would be a complete shock.

My own family has always polished the art of resignation to a high gloss, so we stoutly took the calls, made the plans, and marched through The Month of Long Drives, Navy Skirts, and Deli Trays with relatively little incident. These loved ones were old and had lived well, we dutifully reminded ourselves. We had seen them both only occasionally over the last several years, so we weren’t likely to feel their absences too keenly. This was all for the best. Really, what was there to mourn?

Grandpa’s service filled the rural stake center to capacity; both its size and the number of participants made it look like an evening adult session of stake conference, except that during the prelude onlookers dabbed their eyes instead of chatting with friends, and looked at the casket instead of their watches. The cheerful, impatient toe-tapping of a typical Saturday night church meeting, after which couples spring from the pews to meet friends for dinner, was replaced today with feet planted heavily on the floor, burdened by the necessary weight of remembering, grieving, crying. Forget stoicism; this was sad business.

My grandfather’s ten adult children, eighty grandchildren, and innumerable great-grandchildren filled the main body of cushioned pews, while the overflow and gym bulged with friends and distant relatives. Grandpa was more than the salt of the earth; he was a pillar in this rural, agricultural community. Quiet leadership, undeserved poverty, and faithfulness in the gospel had walked hand in hand, round and round, humming their own rhythmic songs as a backdrop for my earliest young girl memories. A little house on a big dusty field, a bright blue sky, the smell of burning trash. A huge lilac bush outside the bathroom window; a rusty water pump that worked with only the most fervent application. Scratchy whiskers we loved to rub our cheeks against, stiff denim overalls we loved to shyly laugh about. Big breakfasts served—too early—by Grandma, hours after Grandpa had left for work. Devotion. Humility. Patience, pioneers, the past. These patches of recall, so peculiar to each of us, so different in their meaning and details, meshed nonetheless into one common, sepia-tinted kaleidoscope that we all agreed was Grandpa’s legacy. As with most worthy memories, they could be better felt than voiced, and we each felt our own favorites this day of his burial.

***

My short fingers wander up and down the dusty, two-shelved bookcase, back and forth, as if they could will to life a book that would satisfy the appetite of an eight-year-old. The First Thousand Years, The Biography of Joseph Smith, Mormon Doctrine— the same large-print editions bound in dusty covers that always greet me so formally in Grandpa’s less-than-formal living room. I wonder, Do they ever read anything good? I settle on a beat-up Dr. Seuss, though it’s well behind my age by now. Flipping through the yellow pages of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, I sink into the faded floral sofa and nibble on one of Grandma’s thick chocolate chip cookies, ever present in the large ceramic jar painted like a smiling cow’s head that rests permanently on her yellow kitchen counter.

The warm summer air is heavy with the scent of lilac and tiny flecks of floating dust. Friendly flecks, I think to myself. My dad sits with my grandparents at the table in the dining room which opens freely into the room where I sit, so I can hear the steady hum of their quiet conversation: children, farming, church. Grandma’s floral cotton blouse is tucked neatly behind an apron of another floral print. She scurries to and from the kitchen, bringing the men milk, homemade bread, butter, and jam.

“Thank you, Mother,” Grandpa says, and means it. My dad thanks his mother, too.

Grandpa sits quietly in his chair, hands folded over his white collared shirt, pants held up nicely with the legendary black suspenders. (It did not occur to me until adulthood that belts were even a possibility for the over-sixty set.) Their friendly talk continues as I admire the pictures in Mulberry Street. It is a quiet, unknown street that one day, suddenly, sees amazing events take place. I look up from my book and out the window, across the green lawn and gigantic maple to the country road beyond. I try to envision an elephant with a brass band on its back, trumpeting down the knotty asphalt. Well, why not? In a place like this, everything feels possible. My young eyes settle back to the maple and the long rope that swings lazily from one of its thick, outstretched arms. It promises a breezy ride on this late summer day, but I think better of it and decide to wait for a while. For right now, I’m happy where I am.

***

The eulogy was over, the service complete. I shuffled outside in single file with ninety other immediate family members, waiting for the motorcade that would take my father’s father to his grave. I walked, head down, and was suddenly struck by the faint, familiar scent of cigarette smoke. At this blue-blooded LDS funeral? I looked up to find the source and laughed as I collided with my grandmother. Not Grandpa Ray’s widow, but my other grandmother, Grandma Vivian. My mom’s mom. I was surprised to see her there. Although she had usually lived within fifty miles of my dad’s parents, it never occurred to me that their paths would cross. In my own little mind they never even knew each other. Sure, there was my parents’ wedding forty years ago, but that cracked photograph from the late sixties—Grandpa in a brown suit to the right of his son and Grandma in a butter yellow A-line and matching hat to the left of her daughter— was the first and last proof that this universe is big enough to house both a Grandpa Ray and a Grandma Vivian. And so seeing her suddenly, two yards from Grandpa’s hearse, was surreal. She looked out of place to me, though her white cotton blouse and black polyester slacks were perfectly acceptable funeral garb. She gave me her standard rib-busting hug.

“Hiii, Jenny!” she spoke loudly, grinning widely, the raspy voice betraying sixty years of her favorite habit.

“Grandma, … hi …” I looked around, wondering why she was here. Who, besides my mother and my siblings, could she possibly know? Through my lifelong, self-centered lens, Grandma Vivian had merely existed at my mother’s family reunions and occasional visits to my parents’ house. It was not until that moment, in fact, that I started filling in the gaps: Grandma had known my parents, my dad’s parents, and most of my other relatives, on both sides of the family, long before I had. She’d had dinner and made small talk and shared wedding plans and grandchildren with my “other” grandparents. For a long time, Grandma Vivian and Grandpa Ray had not only simultaneously occupied this common world, but had cared deeply about the same young people who’d pulled them both into it. And so, on that most inopportune of days, my two polarized windows to the world since childhood—my father’s family and my mother’s—had suddenly crashed into one another, shattering my prism of convenient categorization into clear shards of understanding. In hindsight, of course, the duality makes perfect sense: the day of my grandfather’s funeral would be the last time I saw my grandmother alive.

***

It’s Christmas Eve. I am lying on the floor next to a dozen cousins, my nine-year-old body wiggling joyfully in its sleeping bag, tormented with the thrilling prospect of what the following morning might bring. We grandchildren have been afforded the rare privilege of sleeping out under the tree while the grownups crowd around the kitchen table for coffee and cards. We are nestled in the snowy evergreens of the Cascade Mountains and all that it implies at Christmastime: sleigh bells, reindeer, maybe even old St. Nick himself. Well, why not? In a place like this, everything feels possible. The crisp winter air is heavy with the scents of pine and Grandma’s cigarette smoke—friendly, warm smoke, I think. Nonetheless, my eyes burn furiously, so I make a game of closing them long enough to afford some relief but not long enough to miss anything. The excited chatter of our floor-bound group is dwarfed occasionally by a thundering triumph from one of the adults at the card table (“HA! Take that!”), or a sharp wail of despair (“Come ON!”) Even among such fantastic happenings, my young body is fading. The smoke and late hour conspire to blur my eyes and mind, but I don’t want to go to sleep. I don’t want to let this night go. I force my eyes open one last time to see my bishopric-member father drop some loose change on the veneered table and place his final bet. What is he doing? I consider getting up to remind him that Mormons don’t gamble, but my sleeping bag is warm, my pillow soft, and I decide to save the delicious reprimand for morning. For right now, I’m happy where I am.

***

Grandma’s service filled the small room to capacity; some friends had to stand against the back wall, hot and wrinkled in their short-sleeved button downs and stiff belted jeans. I watched from the second row as my mother, aunts, and uncles marched quietly to the front of the room, six in a row, each placing a rose in front of Grandma’s wedding picture. They sat directly in front of me, so I was within inches of the freshly minted orphans, their pain undiluted by middle age. I stared at the back of Uncle John’s bowed head, the spotted red neck betraying his normally sarcastic demeanor. Uncle Mike sat three seats down as the family’s legendary teller of off-color jokes. His face was pursed and wet, wrinkled and sad. The children were asked to stand and speak about their mother, but both sons refused the microphone. Strange behavior for these two showboats, but then the day itself was strange. Just days ago, Grandma had not only been living, she’d been unconquerably alive. A lovely, lively alive.

She had smoked two packs a day since her youth, in an era when people were blissfully ignorant of nicotine’s evils. At sixteen, she met a raucous cowboy while picking peas for the summer and married him that same year. She went on to help him work his sawmill, “drive truck” (only amateurs insert an “a” in the middle), and raise six children on little but cigarettes, coffee, and penny-ante poker. She could fiddle like the devil and loved baseball, fishing, bowling, and cards. Her large family meant many household chores, but Grandma had her ways of coping; she tackled her ironing with “a cigarette in one hand and a cold beer in the other,” according to my aunt’s lofty words at the memorial. In her early sixties, she nursed her charismatic husband through lung cancer only to watch him slowly drift away. This did not motivate her to quit, but in the end she showed us all: she had not so much as a cough until the very night she died. She would spend the next twenty years of widowhood bowling like a pro, frequenting the casinos, cheering on her beloved Mariners, and keeping Pall Mall and Folgers in business. She drove her own car for six hours to visit us and weeded my mom’s backyard when she got bored. She never winced at the lousy instant coffee mom kept in the cupboard, and we never blinked when she stepped outside for a light. When in town, her favorite local haunts were the CornerMart and Shopko (decent coffee, decent prices). She always had a juicy paperback in hand and introduced me to my first LaVyrle Spencer when I was a (very curious) thirteen-year-old.

“Some people call it trash,” she’d explained, smiling down at me, “but I call it entertainment.” After ripping through five hundred pages of bodices and bootleggers in her living room, I wholeheartedly espoused Grandma’s philosophy on literature. A part of me still does.

*** At each funeral, I saw various cousins affected more than I, their red eyes and blotchy faces tweaking me with a vague guilt over my own stiff composure. These emotional grandchildren were the lucky ones who had lived near Grandpa or Grandma and knew them well; they’d had Sunday dinner with Grandpa or bingo night with Grandma. Unlike me, they’d had more than misty memories built on two-day visits twice a year. Unlike me, they had loved them up close, not from afar. Unlike me, they had spent real time with them, instead of merely characterizing and categorizing them. And unlike me, none of these cousins had had this unlikely pair in their lives at the same time. My respective cousins belonged to either Camp Ray or Camp Vivian, in both biology and lifestyle, and the twain should never meet. How strange for them, I think now, to have had only one or the other. And how lucky for me to have had both. This was the grand compensation for my long-distance relationships. This was my trump card. For though my love was, and still is, from afar, my blood runs deep. Deep with Grandpa’s quiet spirituality and Grandma’s crackling physicality. Deep with Grandpa’s wisdom and Grandma’s spirit. Deep with regret for visits not bothered with, conversations not held, cookies not eaten, bets not placed. Deep with hope for talks and walks together—someday, somewhere—soon. When that happens, I’ll finally be able to love them up close. Then maybe I’ll ask Grandpa how it felt to receive the priesthood from Spencer W. Kimball, and I’ll ask Grandma how it felt to win big that time in Branson.

But for now, these questions will have to wait. For now, as I have been so aptly tutored, I have some growing and serving—and some serious living—to do. For right now, I’m happy where I am.

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About Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith graduated from BYU in English and spent time living in Portland and Pheonix before heading back up to Washington—one husband and three impossibly cute kids later—to be close to family. Her hobbies include reading, writing, running, cooking, opening fruit snacks, and going to Target. She feels weird writing this bio in the third person, and hopes it will make her sound intelligent but cool. (You can let her know how she did at ginnysee.blogspot.com.) Besides people, books are her favorite thing in the world.

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