I’ve been missing for awhile, but I’ve been trying to find my words.
Meemaw died yesterday, at the age of 80.
If you’ve read here long enough then you already know meemaw. She’s Victor’s grandmother and she (and her late husband) helped to raise Victor, offering him a loving home and a sense of compassion and generosity that has kept him from strangling me over the years. We were lucky enough to be able to move Meemaw down to live by us last year, so we could spend more time with her, but a lot of that time was spent in hospital rooms as she battled cancer and heart and lung problems.
Meemaw had a penchant for telling her favorite stories over and over, but she told them with such joy that we always laughed like it was the first time. Sometimes it was the story about Victor getting his head stuck in a fence at Disneyland. Sometimes it was about breaking her back after falling out of a moving jeep while shooting at rabbits. Sometimes it was about picking cotton, or rolling cigarettes, or digging up a corpse, or meeting the man of her dreams as a 17-year-old waitress and marrying him 10 days later, or traveling the world as the wife of a career soldier, or making dresses from feed sacks.
A few weeks ago, family gathered around her hospital bed and she started to tell one of her favorite stories that we’d all heard so many times we could each mouth the words.
“When we were little,” she said, “mama would sometimes give all us kids a fresh-laid egg. And we’d walk for miles down the road toward town, each cradling our egg in our hands. There were six of us kids…” She trailed off as she lost her breath and we waited patiently. She looked a bit lost and after a moment her sister gently laid her hand on her arm and smiled widely as she picked up the story exactly where meemaw had left off.
“There were six of us kids and we’d walk into town because we could trade in our egg at the main store for a cold Pepsi. We always chose Pepsi because it came in a bigger bottle and we could make it last all the way home if we sipped it slowly. On really special days mama might give us two eggs and then we felt like we were rich because we could buy peanuts to go with our Pepsi.”
Meemaw smiled gratefully and nodded as she picked up the end. “And in all those years, none of us ever dropped a single egg.”
It was the last time I ever heard her tell that story.
It was also the best time though, and I don’t know if I can do justice in explaining why. Partially it was seeing the caring sparkle in both of their eyes as they recalled the story, but it was more than that. It was seeing that even in her last days, as meemaw struggled to carry her egg, someone she loved caught it and carried it safely home. She never dropped her egg.
It struck me that sometimes an egg is not egg. Sometimes an egg is a story. Sometimes it’s a shared secret, or a sweet relief, or a treasured memory or learned lesson. Meemaw carried so many fragile eggs with her throughout her life, keeping them safe until she could hand them over to people she loved. Sometimes the eggs contained kindness, or generosity. Sometimes they were lessons in patience. Sometimes they were lessons on the importance of family. Sometimes they were late-night milkshakes, or handmade quilts, or staying up through the night to rock you to sleep when you had a fever. Meemaw gave me two things: (1) She taught me that you don’t always have to get even. Sometimes you just have to get quiet. (Because when you get really quiet that’s when people start to feel anxious and regret being jerks and then you’ve gotten even with them without actually doing anything at all.) And more importantly (2) she gave me Victor. Or rather, she instilled in Victor a sense of joy and love and generosity that made him able to be a wonderful husband and dedicated father. And Victor protects those values she taught him and we carry them to pass them on to our daughter, who may one day pass them on to those she loves.
Sometimes an egg is not an egg. Sometimes an egg is a life. Sometimes an egg is a lesson. Sometimes an egg is a gift.
Even in death, meemaw never dropped her egg. She simply passed it on to us so that we can continue to gently carry it with us as we each walk down our own paths using the lessons she gave us.
May we all be so lucky.
PS. This is the song meemaw chose to be played at her funeral this weekend. I can’t listen to it and not smile.
Godspeed, Doris Jean Cantrell.