Guest Post: Patrician
My mom wrote this essay in 1988, a few months after her grandmother, Juna Tye Peterson died. The painting, Juna Tye Peterson mopping the kitchen floor at 342 W Vernon, was painted by by grandfather, Evan Tye Peterson.–EmilyCC
by Mary Clyde
It is her nose that I recall most vividly as I sat by her bed watching her trying to get on with the business of dying. Impractically and improbably patrician. I had decided that it must be patrician long before I knew exactly what the word meant. It looked like the word. It was proud and regal. It was a nose with a birthright. It was everything that my grandmother was not.
I saw it duplicated on her sons to a more handsome and fitting effect, but in that transfer it lost some of its power. And though she was not elegant nor aristocratic, she was powerful. On her death bed she was not powerful. Her skin was white, her hair was white, the sheets were white. And she whispered, “Help me.” I smiled with stupid encouragement.
What did she want me to help her to do, after all? Die? Live? Not be here anymore? Be over there? Not be an old woman trying to expire?
I had been in the hospital bed myself. I had made the same plea: Help me. The faces that attended me then gave back the same stupid smile. They stroked my hand as I now stroked hers. They said that it was O.K. They said everything was going to be all right. I knew that they were fools. And I felt their foolishness as I echoed the same words to Grammy. It’s O.K. It’s all right.
From my hospital bed I had looked wildly around the room. Surely someone would understand and find me some help. Then the baby came and it was over. I could get on with things. It was O.K. I felt her confusion. She probably just wanted to get on with things too. I held her hand, and I wanted her hand to come back to life. To do some Grammy tricks. I wanted her to shake her finger at me. It was a gentle, playful shake. A loving and slow-motion wag. Or perhaps a Grammy wave. Before she was done with her dying, she would wave one more time to my sister with her fingers slightly separated, her hand flat, from the wrist. Maybe she would stop whimpering and just tap her cheek for a kiss. It was a wonderful gesture: You will want to give me a kiss and this spot would be just fine.
As a child I had stared in wonder at the picture of her with my grandfather. Newlyweds. He is handsome and erect. But it is Grammy who draws my attention. Not because it is a young Grammy but because it is a demur Grammy. She stands in her ancient clothes with a huge floppy hat shadowing her face. She looks content and almost girlish, strangely shy and soft, but the nose gives her away. It was never demur.
Nor was she. I followed her around the grocery store. It was agony. “Is your watermelon fresh?” The man looked startled not only at the question, but because of the posture she assumed when she asked it. Behind the words were the suggestion that the question was important, that you probably could not be trusted, that she had seen the likes of you before, and that you should consider carefully before you answered. The man, depending on how easily he was intimidated, would answer too loudly or too softly. What I had no way of telling him was that to Grammy, it was a perfectly friendly question. She wouldn’t help that assertion by then examining the fruit too carefully.
Nurses came in. They were in white too. They efficiently performed their duties. Trays, tubes, switches. But they didn’t help her. Her sons called her mama, and she answered their questions often without bothering to open her eyes. They kissed her cheek, though she had not tapped it.
Grammy believed in Right and Wrong. And if it was right she was for it. Right and wrong have become more complicated since Grammy set up her system for identifying them. But Grammy knew well enough to leave the system alone. Right was clean, loving, hard-working, the Church. Wrong was not being involved in good works and not being involved in the Church.
She was a pioneer cook. Good was good food or healthy food. The roasts were tender and flavorful. The cookies were heavy and hard. They were full of germ; wheat, that is, and unidentifiable health foods. Sugar was spare, flour was brown. I have had cooking classes. I have modem equipment. I can make beautiful cookies, airy cookies, surprise cookies, even theme cookies, but I cannot make such honest cookies. I cannot.
I have a picture of myself on my hospital bed. I have just given birth to a son. I am reaching for him and smiling. But the smile doesn’t fool me. I see the suffering, exhaustion, courage, fear, and the hope. I see the business of living. My eyes look tired. I am a little confused. But what draws my attention most is my nose. It will be more handsome on my sons.