When I saw her that Christmas, she gave me a polite hug and patted my cheek with her long, slender hand. She asked me, “Now what was your name, dear?” Her blank expression caused tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I told her my name with a smile on my face, belying the ache that was squeezing my heart. My grandmother had warned me that my great grandmother was having trouble remembering people, but I still had not been prepared. In her mind I had never existed, but my very earliest memories revolved around this woman who was staring at me with a hopeless void in her eyes.
The very first time Grandma Coats held me and long before I had memories she said I was her “dolly.” And from that moment on she never referred to me by any other name. She had other great-grandchildren, but I was the closest. For my first five years, I was at her house about as often as I was at my own. I spent most of those days trailing her around while she included me in everything she did. I found Grandma’s house to be a refuge where I could do anything I wanted, be anything I wanted.
I had never known my great-grandmother with any other hair color than white. It sat lightly atop her head like cottony puffs that might blow off with a slight gust of wind. Her chin protruded in defiance. And somehow her bold chin perfectly reflected her personality. A minister’s wife and an ordained Nazarene minister herself, she had a dominant, no-nonsense nature that was overlaid with kindness and sincerity. Her fingers were knotted and long, reflecting her hobbies of gardening and crocheting. When I was a little girl, I thought she was tall. When I got older, I discovered that she was not tall at all. When I was around fifteen, I towered above her. Still, it seemed that no matter how old either of us got, I would always be her “dolly.”
One warm summer day, I drew hearts all over her carport. The concrete was cool on my legs as my little-girl fingers gripped a purple crayon and drew hearts of all sizes to surround the words “I love you” that I had written in the middle of the carport. My precious crayons were quickly grated away by the gritty concrete, but I knew if she was pleased with the small pictures I drew her, she would surely love a big drawing more. My five-year old instincts were right because she was delighted. For over a decade she stooped her frail body to retrace the hearts I had drawn on her carport. She wanted to make sure every visitor knew how special her “dolly” was to her. When I got older and would visit her house, she would always point out those hearts and ask me if I remembered drawing them for her.
When I was at Grandma Coats’ house, she used to feed me fried okra and caramels. Even though that was not the meal she had intended, it was my idea of a good dinner. I would sit at her white Formica counter, my legs swinging back and forth, as I admired the flecks of gold and silver that sparkled in the sunlight and eat caramels out of a tall glass jar while she would fix dinner. By the time we would sit down to eat, I would be too full of candy to eat anything other than the fried okra on my plate. As long as her “dolly” was a happy little girl, it didn’t matter to her that I had spoiled my dinner.
My great-grandmother grew the okra in a small garden plot behind her little white house. She always let me help her in the garden. Mostly I pushed her rust-spotted blue wheelbarrow over all of the fragile plants she had carefully cultivated. While I would traipse around her garden, wearing nothing more than my little pink panties and a smile for all of the neighbors, while she wore long sleeved shirts and pants and a large brimmed straw hat. She loved to work in her garden. Her nimble fingers would work over the plants that she had so patiently grown. There were big red tomatoes, long skinny green beans, and my favorite, fuzzy, squat green okra. She didn’t mind all my help because those plants were not as precious to her as her “dolly” was.
There was a huge pecan tree in the yard beside her house. I would help her gather the pecans that had fallen from the branches of that tree. She would give me a brown paper sack and a gentle reminder to only collect the good nuts and leave the bad ones on the ground for the squirrels. I was four. My bag was no doubt full of bad nuts and all of Grandma’s good pecans were left on the ground. Now I realize that she probably went behind me and gathered up all the pecans I had overlooked.
In the quiet times I spent with her, I would play with some of the old toys she kept at her house. Every afternoon she watched Jeopardy while she crocheted with what seemed like little effort. Her needles continually clicked while I sat on the floor at her feet and put together a wooden puzzle of a farmyard. I loved to explore the trinkets she kept lying around. She kept a magnifying glass on her desk that I loved to see the world through. Also on her desk, she kept two Christmas themed pencils that she had never sharpened. I would write my name in the air just to hear the jingle of the tiny bells attached to the tops of them. For years they rested in her pencil holder, having a more decorative than functional purpose. My favorite trinket was a conch shell. It was cut in half so it would sit flat on the shelf, but I could still hear the ocean waves rhythmically moving in that half of a shell. She never minded that I touched her things because I was her “dolly.”
Then came that day when she could not remember me. With the passage of time, the hearts on the carport slowly faded. There was no more fried okra or caramels. She could no longer go outside and gather pecans. Her cherished garden became overgrown with weeds. Her crochet needles were silenced forever. My beloved great-grandmother had died and my heart broke.
And then one morning a few months after her death, a box arrived on my doorstep from my grandmother. It was not an overly large box, but it held a great deal. Before I even lifted the flap, I knew what the box contained. When I opened it, I found several crocheted potholders, an empty tall glass jar, a very worn wooden farmyard puzzle, half a conch shell and hundreds of memories. I was not forever forgotten. I would always be her “dolly.”
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