My mother was standing in a hotel room in Virginia Beach a few weeks ago, snapping open a small box and pulling out a tangle of necklace, when a thin gold band tumbled out with it. She saw it and laughed. My sister Meg saw it and laughed. I didn’t recognize it right away, but it was my grandmother’s wedding ring, fished unintentionally out of Mom’s jewelry box when she packed for the trip.
” I guess it’s a sign,” my mother said, half-jokingly. “I wonder what she’s trying to tell us.” Here we were, a month and a half away from my sister’s wedding, all the way across the state where my sister now lives, getting ready for a shower thrown by friends of Meg’s future in-laws, and Grandma hadn’t even been able to offer feedback on Meg’s wedding dress.
I remember better the ring she wore in later years, after she had raised my mother alone, after my mother’s mostly estranged father had died, through a childhood of Wednesday afternoons my sister and I spent with Grandma, who lived 10 minutes away from our house. Wednesdays were Mom’s “day out,” split between tennis, time with friends and working part-time at the Harrisonburg Auto Auction while Dad spent his days at an architecture firm (which he retired from last year after 40 years).
Meg remembers mostly that Grandma would give us apples for snacks, and she’d cut off the peels because she was afraid we’d choke, and Meg hated peeled apples.
That ring was a gold band set with an opal, and the thin, elderly hand that wore it was as familiar as the ring itself. She was practical, hard-working.
My uncle once said she could take two nickels and in three days have a dollar or something like that. She planted gardens, scrubbed her floors, hemmed our skirts, killed snakes. She once, my mother tells me, got rid of a skunk with a croquet mallet.
In the end, she died of cancer that just wouldn’t go away. She held on until a day after my mother’s birthday, which we celebrated in her nursing home room she couldn’t talk, eat or move but she smiled through our tears on a day without hallucinations from the medicine, on the last day a morphine drip was required. The next morning, I woke up to see my mother sitting on the edge of my bed, home for the first time in weeks, and for a confused moment, I thought Grandma had gotten better. I guess in another way she had.
The women of our family my mother, my sister and I inherited a lot from Grandma. My mother gets through a crisis like no other woman I know, just like Grandma. The strong will, the stubbornness (Grandma used to say I was bullheaded, never with a glimmer of recognition that I might have gotten some of that from her), the independence, the abruptness, the sharp study.
Also the perfectionism, the worries, the tendency towards giving more advice than asked for. Every so often, my mother will stop in mid-conversation with me over a questionable decision, relationship or pair of shoes, and say, “I’m pulling a Grandma, aren’t I?”
In some ways, it’s good Grandma didn’t live long enough to worry her way through my college semester abroad, Meg’s making a living leading backpacking trips or Dad’s retirement.
In other ways, we wish she could be here now, 13 years gone as she is, scrutinizing the length of Meg’s hair, the volume of her laugh and the success of her marriage – because she’d also sit quiet too, eyes shining, because she’d be happy about Meg’s being happy, and she’d really like her fiancée.
A few weeks after the shower, we’re together again, vacationing on the Outer Banks in a little cottage we’ve stayed in for close to 20 years. It’s owned by friends, and they lost their other cottage one of the grand old shingled Nags Head homes, with years of memories in it to Hurricane Isabel last year, so the now-empty lot next door is a little sad. The surviving cottage has been jacked up another four to six feet or so, and we don’t walk out the back door, through the screen porch and onto the beach any longer but we can look out from the now-soaring-high deck over the water, vast and green and cold and full of whitecaps three days into our fall vacation.
It’s Meg’s last year with us as an unmarried woman. She’s on the beach with our friend’s grandchildren, who are seven and four. She runs races with them in the sand, swings them by their hands and laughs loudly. They love her.
Their mother is not too much older than I am, but we remember her as the glamorous high school student way back when, tall and blonde, working as a lifeguard on the beach and waitressing at a pizza place on her summer breaks. Now she’s married to an Air Force major who’s dressed casual in a T-shirt and Birkenstocks, and together they herd and teach their little family, wrapping them in terrycloth towels when they’re wet from the waves and feeding them sandwiches from a cooler.
My mother sits and talks with their mother, and they’re joined by another friend, a grandmother who comes every summer to stay in her cottage next door. Until she had a hip replacement a few years ago, she would swim in the ocean every morning, all by herself.
We all watch Meg. I know the children will be different, will be her children in a few years. She wants children, wants to be home with them, wants to have the house on the block that the children all come to, with a pot of soup on the stove and cookies baking. She’ll be good at that, you can see it, as her rock-climbing-and-tent-pitching arms swoop the kids into the surf. She’s already showing signs of grownupness she carries a purse, her toenails are painted. But here on the beach, in her blue bathing suit and curly ponytail, she’s still somewhere in between girl and mother, still the loud laugher and the rock climber. That won’t go away ever, I think. Her daughters will be rock climbers too.
In the evening, we have dinner four generations of men and women and children. The oldest among us is the swimming grandmother’s husband, an 86-year-old man who still works three days a week as an attorney, who survived kamikaze pilots on an aircraft carrier in World War II, who was an ardent Democrat in the state senate for something like a dozen years. He’s just found out the prostate cancer they thought he had he doesn’t. He and his wife are overjoyed, relieved, free. He can’t see very well anymore, so we sit with him in turn through the course of the evening, over pork tenderloin, biscuits, green beans, mashed potatoes and apple crisp.
The next day, we are on the beach after lunch. Our friend the swimming grandmother has run over from next door to find my mother. Her husband, safe from cancer, has fallen down, we find out, and won’t speak or breathe. We soon sit in her living room, holding her hands, the sound of the ocean faint through the windows. Meg, calm, grabs her CPR mask and works on her husband until the ambulances arrive. His grandson-in-law helps. Epinephrine, electric shocks, compressions. He is carried into the ambulance just as his granddaughter arrives, tracked down at the grocery store. The sirens leave and we stand outside the house, talking, trying to understand. At the hospital, they pronounce him.
So the women are left. His wife and his stepdaughter leave the next morning for home, to start making funeral arrangements. His wife’s friends, one of them already a widow herself, make phone calls. Meg, shaken, spends another day with us, then goes back to Norfolk, back to work, back to her fiancée.
One month to the wedding.
Cara Ellen Modisett, associate editor of The Roanoker magazine and co-producer of WVTF’s “Studio Virginia,” burns cookies, would forget where she put the two nickels and does not know the first thing about hemming skirts. Then again, Meg’s afraid of snakes.