Monday, December 29, 2008

The Gumdrop Years

By Amy Platon

My grandmother, Edith Williams Crawford Williams, died January 2, 2001. Seventeen days before my wedding. The wedding she had always said she would walk in, without a walker, and in high heal shoes of course.

She was a true southern bell. But not the bell I saw depicted by Hollywood. No, she was the real thing. As down-to-earth as dirt, just like all her friends, and she had many.

She grew up in a small town learning how to cook her would-be signature chicken and dumplings’ in a tiny crowded kitchen beside her mother and her grandmother. Using the same worn out wooden bowl used to mix the dough they would roll out by hand. And true to the day she died, it was not uncommon to see her rocking on the old front porch snapping the tails off the green beans then snapping them in half. There are so many details like that one that forms the memory I have of her.

I missed a few details along the way growing up, like how she met and married her husband, the grandfather I would never know. But from what I knew, she did well. She chose a man that would provide her a good home in which to raise their family. Which turned out to be only a son, my father.

Her husband Floyd died when she was 52. He was a strong, quiet but opinionated man who was viciously loyal to his family. I assumed it was that characteristic that probably lured him into becoming a Florida Highway Patrolman. Protect and serve, he did. Not only for his family but also for his small community of Lake City, Florida. It was a town smack in the middle of northern Florida. I should know. I spent many weekends and holidays there, visiting my Grandmother.

She had a small retreat cabin on the Ichetucknee River. I got to know that river well. We would tube down it all together as a family bound by legs and arms. I guess from a distance our family looked like a group of lily pads that had broken off in a bunch and started free flowing down the river.

One of the tubes would float the beer that would be kept cold by the frigid water.

I would always bring a mask to peer into the water and at the river bottom below. Gazing down, as we would float by, was like watching a silent movie. The river bottom and all its unique treasure-trash would coast into view through the mask on the left. Bottle caps, aluminum cans, fishing tackle, would just disappear out of view as I passed it. My favorite was the green beer bottles full of dirt that nested in the soft bottom. They were the kid-equivalent of a sparkling diamond. I guess because the water was always moving, not much muck and algae had a chance to grow. Most of the rocks were clean because the floor was made of this sort of white dirt. Not loose like sand but rather packed tight. The cans were never rusted either, which was noticeable to me since I grew up on the Atlantic. Everything I ever found in the ocean was corroded.

Occasionally, we would see an alligator or two on our trips. They could usually be spotted on the tall bank getting some sun, perched on the exposed roots that held the land in place. I suppose those gators have drifted those waters for decades, because once in a while we would find flint arrowheads in the river mud. I believed that warrior Indians tried spearing gators with those arrowheads. Seemed logical to me.

But as long as those gators stayed perched on the banks where I could see them, then I could be talked into some friendly sibling inner tube balance competition. My brother and I would have contests as to see who could stand balanced on top of the tube the longest.

Of course, when we had those contests we had to break away from the pack. Eventually one of us would smack into the water like a fish just set free from a hook. And when we did, we had to be sure we wouldn’t get grandma’s hair wet.

I guess she spent all day at the salon getting it set, but whatever the case, we knew not to splash in her direction. I personally think it had more to do with the cold water hitting her warm sun baked skin and not getting her cigarettes wet. Because we all knew she loved to be in that hair salon. After all that’s where she got all caught up on the local happenings of her tiny little town.

I always thought of my Grandmother as Lake City’s social mayor or its prom queen. She knew everyone and their family and their family problems. She knew it all because people liked her. They liked talking to her. She was very easy to talk to, and she always seemed impartial. I loved that about her. But the best part of talking with her was that if I asked her to keep a secret, she kept it.

My grandmother never had to work, but she did, at the local pharmacy as a clerk. She knew a lot of people in town and this job was perfect to keep up with all the local gossip. And there was plenty. People trusted her. She was a good listener and knew just what to ask to get tongs rolling.

When her husband died that town came together to help her get through it. But her friends were a cushion she didn’t need for long. I grew to admire that about her.

Other women would have drowned beneath the fear of life after the death of their husband. They would slap the water that was trying to sweep them downstream, cling to the inner tube of a man, or grasp for the roots of their grown children. But not Edith, when her husband died, she began her life. She commanded her lily pad, stayed the course and kept every bit of it together. She didn’t even get her cigarettes wet.

And after watching her two grandchildren grow into adults, a few road trips, a couple of cruises, a second marriage and a move to South Florida, death became hungry. It was a gator wading into the water.

He snapped her up, without warning. And she was gone. No warrior Indian around to save her.

Her funeral was memorable. It was held in a little white chapel on a few acres of land that her family had donated to the parish some fifty years before. She was buried right next to Floyd, as one of the only two graves on the site. The pastor knew of her, but he didn’t know her. He was young and didn’t quite know of her former social status. He was probably a third her age, and had only met her a few times. His sermon was not at all who she was. He believed that she was "ready" to “go home.” It was probably death sermon #169 with modifications. Maybe she was happy about being back in her hometown. I believe she would have been happier buried under that beauty shop.

Her body may have been giving out and she wasn’t able to get where she wanted to go, but I don’t believe she was ready to leave this earth just yet. She would have much rather been hanging out with the family on the back porch, drinking screwdrivers and talking about all the great times we’ve had over the years, sucking a cigarette between her fingers. She most certainly would have wanted to see my wedding.

Instead, she was the absent host of the farewell cold cut luncheon held at her little house about twenty minutes from the chapel. A house that wasn’t the same without her, and if you let your mind take a break from that day even for a minute, you may expect to see her walk around the corner, or check her hair in the mirror. But she never did.

She was, so much more than I will ever know. I regret not having called her on New Years Eve. But I forced grief out of my head to focus on what I did do. I do know that we were, in such a way, soul mates.

The only reason that last phone call I didn’t make hurts so much, is because I missed one last chance for memory. Oddly, it wasn’t the “I love you,” because I truly have that in my heart and grief cannot penetrate there. But I regret missing that last chance to hear one more story, the kind she told like rosary.

Since her death, I’ve tried to string those stories and memories together, so that they could start to become something tangible. Perhaps something a little like the plastic candy garland we hung on our Christmas tree growing up.

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