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Her world was a world of yeast rolls, bubbling cobblers fresh from the oven, or if the mood struck, perhaps a lemon pie with mile high meringue. In what seemed like a never-ending quest of keeping order, I’d watch Mom reach into her shiny chrome tins, filled with the flour and sugar essential for her daily baking. Always displayed in straight line on the kitchen counter, they gleamed in the morning sunlight and reminded me of trophies. The smell was intoxicating and seemed to provide a sense of calm and safety. That was a feeling that wasn’t always present in this house. Watching her move quietly but with great focus, I felt that in just that moment perhaps everything might be all right.
Mom kept our kitchen floor mopped to a shine so bright that if you looked you might see your own reflection. There were the deep cleaning days (rotated with what Mom called ‘light’ maintenance days) and as I’d watch Mom stop for a second to look out our kitchen window, she seemed suspicious of country life. She looked as though she thought it might somehow seep inside. She disliked the dirt and grime – in particular, the dust from our rock driveway that would blow inside if you kept the door open too long. Even the Sabbath wasn’t exempt in a way – a day which was referred to without question as a day for rest. That day seemed reserved for a different kind of cleansing ritual.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there was my ‘other’ grandmother Zelda. She had little to no interest in baking or cleaning. There were stacks of books and papers everywhere, and she served frozen box pie for dessert. I’m not exactly sure about her religious background, though the mere idea of not being sure says something. The other women her age I knew were mostly from church. They wore their hair teased, sprayed, and without a hint of makeup. In sharp contrast, she wore her hair very short. And I can remember on windy day’s her hair moving softly while she smiled seemingly unaware. When she dressed up, she wore pearls and a healthy dash of bright red lipstick. In her black leather handbag was a supply of clove chewing gum – exotically far from the ordinary juicy-fruit everyone else chewed.
Zelda was articulate, and chose her words with care rather than just talking. Even at my young age, I recognized this as being ‘different’ than everyone I’d become accustomed to. With a soft voice and a quiet laugh she’d glide through a roomful of conversation. She and my father would sit together in the living room for what seemed like hours, having what they called ‘political debates’. Sometimes I’d slip down the hall and listen, not that I understood such big words used with such force, though they never raised their voices.
Sometimes Zelda would take me to her office that was just on the other side of the bridge going into downtown Winslow. At her desk sat a typewriter with the name “Underwood” in gold letters, letting me know this was a serious piece of machinery. She told me when she was writing a story she’d use special linen paper. As she hit the keys – very fast and loud – she would become suddenly lost in her thoughts: as though she were building something. She wrote a short story whose main character was a boy named Eddie. It made me feel special and sort of famous. And she also wrote a story for my brother called Timmy and the Red Wagon.
Zelda recognized my passion for expressing myself through watercolors and chalk. She didn’t just celebrate my efforts, but encouraged me in a special way by calling me artistic. While everyone else talked about how tall I was for my age and how I was going to certainly be a basketball player like my uncle Larry, this ‘other’ grandmother compared me to her brother, my Great Uncle Floyd. He was a landscape painter. She took me to his house and I can remember the room he called his studio/workroom was filled with bushes and paints. Zelda beamed with pride while Uncle Floyd shared all his beautiful paintings with me. They were elegantly displayed throughout his house. Uncle Floyd was soft spoken, just like Zelda, and they also shared a love of dogs. I’d never seen a dog that lived inside the house before – dogs were outside animals. Imagine my shock when this big yellow lab took a deep drink out of Uncle Floyd’s toilet. Boy, would mom ever have a fit about that. When that dog shook water all over the floor, all I could think of was Mom running to get her mop.
Zelda bought me countless illustration workbooks, paints, colored pens, and pencils. She would sit with me outside at the old wooden picnic table and watch me as I sketched and blended colors on my giant sketchpad. I’d become obsessed trying to perfect the drawing of hands and eyes. When eyes can be soulful. When eyes can be sad. When hands can add feeling and mood. You learn so much about a subject from their hands. Zelda sat very quietly, and when I’d look up at her she seemed absorbed in deep concentration, watching what was taking shape on my sketchpad. That felt good and made me smile.
My ‘other’ grandparents retired to Florida when I was still a boy. That seemed like such a far away and exotic place when compared to life on Pike Forest Road. Thus, our once a year trip to visit our ‘other’ grandparents became a somewhat celebrated event. Taking a road trip with my father wasn’t easy. His rigid and uncompromising outlook and list of rules reached high pitch on our ‘family’ vacations. I had perfected the art of invisibility at home and knew how to stay hidden away in my room. But the car’s backseat provided little space to hide away. And though I’d sit as quietly as possible, I’d sometimes find his disapproving eyes locked on me in his rear view mirror. Had I been breathing too loudly? He often told me my breathing made him sick so I tried to slow it down. Inside my head I kept repeating Quiet… Calm… Disappear… There were no stops for adventure on route to Florida. My father wanted to just get there. Bathroom breaks were only allowed when stopping to gas up the car. When Mom and I would return from the bathroom, he was already sitting anxiously behind the wheel. He had this huge map that was bound tightly, and resembled some ancient book of knowledge. It exuded machismo and masculine authority. He studied that map with great intensity and everything about it seemed so forbidding. My father always called me stupid, and it made me frightened to even glance at the map. When he was finished he turned and sat the map on the seat next to me. I pushed myself further into the door of the car, attempting to create more distance between myself and my father’s map. The voices of my parents conversing became distant from my own voice inside my head. I’m broken, I thought, what’s wrong with me?
While most kids cheered when they pulled into the little red and white stand with the huge ‘Golden Arches’ all I could feel was panic rise. McDonalds smothered their burgers with mustard, ketchup, and pickles. A special order plain burger would have required waiting time that would enrage my father – so I would watch as my mom would work diligently to wipe and switch out hamburger buns. But even with all her effort, I could still taste the faint reminder of those dreaded condiments. I chewed fast and swallowed quickly praying I wouldn’t gag. The ‘Golden Arches’ came to represent the sick feeling that remained long after I’d finished that hamburger.
Looking out the car window I’d start seeing the huge Stuckey’s signs along the highway. Only 30 miles till Stuckey’s, they proclaimed. Unsure exactly what a Stuckey’s was, I knew better than to ask. The billboard boasted of their famous pecan rolls and maple pralines. In my mind it seemed like a magical place from the Land of Oz. Passing by it I promised myself someday, someday without my father, I’d walk into one. It would begin to get dark. Darkness provided a blanket of security. It’s easier to hide in the dark. My final thought before slipping into sleep would be a self- reminder: Eddie, when you wake up in the early morning, start looking for the first moss-hanging tree. It would mean we were almost at my ‘other’ grandmother’s house.
I can recall Zelda coming out her front door to greet us as our car pulled up. With an endless supply of kisses and long hugs I was reassured that the long trip had been worth it. Wanting to make sure we had quality time alone together, Zelda had scouted out the newest art stores and off we’d go. She took me to ‘Weeki Wachee’ Underwater Follies. An exotic fantasyland of beautiful mermaids surrounded by bubbles and seahorses, their hair waving in the current like glittering seaweed. For a young boy with a vivid imagination this underwater portrait played out in a dreamlike, otherworldly fashion leaving me breathless. A half dozen mermaids twirling, walking tightropes, eating, drinking, and performing great ballet were suspended in this beautiful, clear, underwater spring. Afterwards in the gift shop, beautiful mermaid figures covered in glitter sat displayed. Oh, how beautiful one would look on my bedroom shelf, I thought. But when my grandmother asked if I’d like one ,I knew I must decline. My father would be outraged.
As the years passed my other grandmother’s encouragement never wavered. How excited I would be when I’d pull out a package addressed to me in her pen from our mailbox. Breathless, I’d race up that long dusty rock driveway to my bedroom. Carefully opening the brown paper wrapping whose return address was faraway Tampa, Florida. Her gifts were always personal encouragements. Art supplies when I was younger and beautiful stationary with pen and ink sets when I was older. The last package I would receive from my grandmother came in spring of 1974. My parents’ marriage was slowly edging to a close and my father had begun to make that long trip to Florida alone. Though I deeply missed seeing my grandmother, there was great relief in not having to endure those ‘trips’ trapped in the car with my father.
It was with complete surprise when I saw her name – Zelda Casson – on that brown paper wrapper marked ‘fragile do not bend’. I unwrapped it to find Cher’s latest album, Dark Lady. On that beautiful cover shot by Richard Avedon, Cher is holding a black cat in the outstretched palms of her hands. I smiled, knowing that at that moment in time, Cher seemed every bit as exotic and magical to me as the glittering mermaids had to that little boy. My ‘other’ grandmother got me. She saw me and understood.
The next time I saw Zelda much had changed. Knowledge about Alzheimer’s in those days was limited at best. I thought I would have lots of time to tell her how much she influenced me and how important her encouragement had been. I’m sorry I didn’t have that opportunity. My memories of her have endured throughout my life. The fact that we saw each other infrequently didn’t diminish her positive impact. As I become older, I understand how precious those memories really are. I miss and honor her to this day. And when I close my eyes and think of her, I hear that typewriter clacking in the distance, and see her lovely open smile on the face of mermaids.