Like a Light-Blue Embroidered Hanky
By Diana J. Legun 06/20/02
When I was fifteen years old my Grandma told me everything. She told me things before I needed to know them. She told me things I figured I didn’t even need to know.
“Y’know, Lily, when I was your age I was already married.”
“Yep, I know.” I respectfully didn’t say how many times I’d heard this piece of information.
“But times were different then,” she nodded as she rocked on her front porch in the old oak rocker with the round pink flowered cushion. She stared out somewhere past the porch, focusing on all her precise remembering. “Boys started their own farms and families at age seventeen.”
“Yep, I know.”
Grandma stopped rocking and lowered her chin and eyeglasses at me. “Don’t shorten me now, Lily, like as if I was an old stuck-mouthed granny.”
“ ‘cause I do have a few pointers that you should put into your pretty head for your future, Lily, not mine....my future is right now and ending each day with the afternoon sun.”
Grandma Wilkens returned to studying the cheat grass blades alongside the porch steps as they bent like blond hair blowing in the breeze. After a moment, she looked around slowly again at me, holding both knobby hands around her amber tumbler of iced tea and the ever-present handkerchief that she embroidered herself in lacy scallops of light-blue thread.
“Well, you’re old enough now for another golden nugget of advice, Sweetheart. And that is to keep in mind that boys and girls, men and women, who marry have all the best hopes and intentions in the earthly world. But pure fact is, we all change. Men change. Women change. And seems to me nobody’s to blame when there comes the day that a marriage partner just doesn’t fit anymore.”
“Why are you tellin' me this Grandma? I don’t even want to get married.” I sat there in my sleeveless cotton jumper, hugging my knees and wishing the lecture was just about over. I liked being with Grandma when she told me her stories, but I didn’t like lectures about my future. I was fine. I didn’t need to know all that stuff. I didn’t want to know it.
“Just somethin’ to keep in mind is all,” she said.
“Well, anyway, isn’t it supposed to be forever because God blessed the union for that long?” I asked.
Grandma Wilkens leaned over her brown-skinned elbow resting on the rocker arm, so she could get her message a little closer to my hearing of it. “God blessed the union. The length of it just depends upon the hearts and souls of the people, Lily. If the union gets its seal broken, for whatever reason, and harmful stuff leaks in or the good leaks out, then even God sees the union as having an end. That’s how I figure it, Lily. Because God wants his children healthy-minded, for them to feel kindly and glad to be alive, above all else. That way they continue treating themselves and others well. And that’s the whole point of everything.”
“I know, Grandma,” I said in a singsong voice, “you think religion means ‘be kind to yourself and others, and that’s it.’ “
“You know it, Sweetheart.” Her wide smile spread satisfactorily across the wrinkled dimples of her cheeks, and she tipped her glass up for a grateful draw of sweet tea, and commenced rocking. “Good to hear you’re listenin’.”
I rested my chin on my freckled knees, looking out over the field at the end of the stairs. White morning glories wove themselves over the ground, reaching their trumpet blossoms to catch the sun spilling over them, while bees zigzagged in and out, humming loud enough for me to hear.
In the quiet, save for the bees and the creak of the rocker, I believe Grandma Wilkens was trying to tell me, in yet another way, why Mama and Papa didn’t stay together. Seems she needs to cover that topic the same way she used to bring the patchwork quilt right up to my chin when I slept in that big bed in the back room of her little house. Nothing left exposed, not even if I wanted to hang my arms out. That’s the way of grandmas I guess.
“They both love you the same as before.”
“I know.” But I didn’t know exactly. How could anyone stop loving somebody they ever started loving? And especially had a child with? And could they stop loving me? I didn’t know about that leaking in and out stuff. It never happened to me. I loved them both even after they yelled at me. Even when they wouldn’t let me go to the dance. Even when they said I should stay with Grandma Wilkens while they sort things out.
“How can it happen, though?” I asked. Here I was drawing out the lecture myself now, but some big feelings were swelling up inside when Grandma mentioned them loving me. “How can anyone stop loving the person they married? Neither one of them are mean or hateful, so how come?”
“It’s not a matter of meanness,” Grandma answered. “It’s a matter of feeling alive.”
“They don’t act dead.”
“Not on the outside.”
“Well, if they were dead on the inside, wouldn’t it show on the outside?”
There was a long pause as Grandma considered this.
“After we’re done being children, we learn to act certain ways whether we feel that way or not. It’s not exactly lying, more like ‘behaving as expected.’ “
“Like I’m supposed to do already, before I’m even an adult yet,” I interjected.
“That’s right, Lily, I guess.” Grandma Wilkens set her empty glass down on the boards next to her chair and smoothed her green flowered apron against her lap. She then schooched her rocking chair around to face me better. “And that is all right up until the behaving as expected boils in your veins as being ‘wrong for you.’ Does that make sense?”
“Well, yeah, it makes sense that it’s wrong for me to have Mama and Papa separating us all.”
Grandma studied my face for a minute. Then she spoke. “Looking out for one’s self is an important thing every adult has to learn and do. Only after one’s self is looked out for, then can that person take care of others, even their own children. If a person finds themselves becoming sick, even if it is sickness of heart, such that they can’t take care of themselves anymore -- and I mean their body and spirit -- then they can’t take care of anyone. Not their self, not anybody else.”
I squirmed in my place on the step in the growing heat of the sun. I understood what Grandma was telling me. I knew Mama had fallen quiet and lost her smile. I just didn’t know why.
All of a sudden I didn’t mind this lecture too very much. It felt good to hear these things for some reason, even though I didn’t want to talk about it. Didn’t want to even think of it.
“What happened to them, Grandma? Do you know?”
“Sweetheart, no. I don’t know exactly. All I do know is that what started warm and wonderful went on down the path and took an accidental wrong turn or two. It led them both to a place of hurt. Where that happened -- how that happened, who’s to know. Maybe not even them.”
“But they can try to find their way back, can’t they Grandma? Can’t they just keep trying?”
Beyond my wanting to be strong and indifferent to all this, I melted away as I asked that question. Grandma stood up from her chair and stooped down to place herself next to me on the step in the sunshine. Her arms went around me with more bigness and warmness than the sky all spread out above us, and she pressed my head against her.
“I happen to know they did try, Lily. They tried for you, for themselves and each other. But too much leaked out that they just couldn’t find a way to put back in. Must have just been the end of their journey together. But that’s not a terrible thing. Because each of them will continue their journey with you. For as long as you live they will. That’s the way of it. And you will go good directions with each of them still. It’ll just be different directions. And all three of you can be happy, believe me. You can.
I choked when I said, “I don’t feel like we can.”
“That’s because it’s so fresh and sore.” Grandma smoothed my hair out of my eyes with her gentle knobby hands that I loved. “People heal, Lily. They heal outside and in. But it takes knowing what medicine they need and it takes some time. The medicine your Mama and Papa need are to start new paths. And at first it surely will feel stumbly trying to walk those two paths with them, but you are young and full of love and life, so I can see you crossing back and forth after a while, like a happy puppy, loving everyone and going everywhere. I can see it, Lily, sure as I see my future’s beautiful marmalade sunset right before my eyes every single day.”
Right then I felt six years old and I felt twenty years old. I felt a kind of circle drawing itself around me, making my torn up pieces one big whole thing again. The circle felt like Grandma Wilkens' brown arms. The big whole thing was big little me. Grandma’s words were the threads, like the ones on her light-blue embroidered hanky, that laced through and through in a beautifully patterned way, changing it for the better, making it more of something personal, something special.