I loved my grandmother and I have fond memories of staying at her house on Buttermilk road, waking up to the whistle of a train. She taught me how to snap beans and pin curl her short silver hair. Chelsea and I would stay a week with her and on Saturday night, I’d gather up all her bobby pins, a comb, and little cup of water, twist her hair into tiny little curls all over her head so that when she woke up the next morning, she’d have a head full of curls. It was the poor woman’s perm.
Grandmother had two close friends, Levada (Luh-vay-duh) and Annie Ruth, that would often stop over when we were there. We looked forward to their visits because we’d all pile into Levada’s metallic blue 1967 Cadillac and “run” to the store together to get beauty essentials like Dippity Do and Aqua Net.
One Saturday, in the hottest part of the afternoon, I was relaxing in grandmother’s recliner, closest to the window air conditioner unit, feeling the cool air on my face, when I saw Miss Levada’s blue Cadillac drive by like a streak of lightning. “Grandmother! Look, it’s Levada and Annie Ruth! They’re coming up the driveway.”
Grandmother said, “Oh, good, maybe they can carry us to the store. I need a few things from Winn Dixie.”
Levada and Annie Ruth were opposites. Levada moved about like there was an emergency to which she was rushing, arms swinging, and her muscular, slightly bowed legs walking like a man in a dress. She reminded me of Robert Duvall. When the car door shut, she was at our door step within seconds, while Annie Ruth was still pushing and pulling her 300-pound body out of the car. Annie Ruth was more like a snail, slowly moving through life as she carried the equivalent of two extra people with her at all times.
When Levada got inside she said, “Well, I declare, Savannah, you were just knee high to a grasshopper last time I saw you! Look how you’ve grown! Honey come here and gimme a huuug!” Levada wrapped her arms around me tight and squeezed so hard I heard some of my vertebrae pop. I didn’t mind her hugs even though she smelled of liniment and Charles of the Ritz perfume. It had only been a couple of months since I’d seen her last, but she was known for her exaggerations. She quickly moved on to Chelsea and picked her up and loved on her, too. While she and grandmother talked about the store and what they needed, I poked my head out the front door looking for Annie Ruth, and I saw her swaying back and forth like a penguin coming up to the front step.
“Hey, Miss Annie Ruth! How are you?” I smiled and held the door open for her. She was huffing and trying to get air in her lungs and holding on to the railing. It was 2:30 p.m. and the Georgia heat was set and the cicadas were singing their song of fire. I grabbed her other arm, which was slippery with sweat already, and hoisted her up the stairs right into the house where she sat down in my grandmother’s recliner to catch her breath. When she did she said, “Well, I’m fine, thank you, Savannah, at least someone cares about how I’m doin’” all the while glaring at Levada.
When the elderly conversation turned to bursitis and bowel movements, I dashed into grandmother’s room where I kept my stuff. I loved going in her room and looking at all her lotions and perfumes and jewelry, sitting atop beautiful crocheted doilies. She always let me use her moisturizer and it made me feel so grown up. I combed my hair and rubbed Avon Handy Frog moisturizer all over my face and hands. I knew we’d be leaving soon for the store expedition and I wanted to be sufficiently prepared for the trip because when these three ladies said, “Let’s go!” you’d better be ready to go that second.
Sure enough, Levada said, “Well, let’s get a move on, I’ve got to get some more hair pins so I can do my hair tonight for church tomorrow.”
Grandmother relied on Levada to take her around town because my mother and uncle insisted my grandmother give up her license due to her age. But Levada was about 73 years old and not much of a better driver.
Grandmother, Chelsea and I sat in the backseat of the Cadillac and Annie Ruth in front while Levada drove. She drove like she walked; fast, like she was rushing to a fire. Grandmother graciously sat in between me and Chelsea. I don’t know if she did it so that Chelsea and I could each sit by her reducing the possibility that we’d fuss at each other, or so that we could each hold on to an arm while Levada swerved in and out of traffic, accelerating with each lane change, cutting people off as if she had the authority of a police cruiser.
We girls looked at each other, wide-eyed and mouthed the words “She can’t drive!’ as our heads bobbled side to side with each veer of the car. The woman was bound and determined not to allow more than ten feet between us and the car in front of us, traveling at speeds of 60 mph, but that presented a dilemma when that car’s brake lights lit up, and Levada, heavy footed, pressed her brakes, causing us all to fly forward. “These idiots don’t know the first thing about driving!” she’d shout. I was not prone to car sickness, but this tested my stomach toughness. We wondered later to each other if our mother was aware how bad a driver Levada was and if she knew she was taking us with her on her mid-day jaunts. Maybe our mother would reconsider and give grandmother her license back.
We survived the Winn Dixie trip on Saturday, only to tempt fate again the next morning when Levada pulled in like an EMT to take us to church. I said extra prayers on the way, hoping we’d make it safe, but just in case we didn’t, I figured, at least I’d die praying, on the way to God’s house and maybe He’d be especially happy about that when I saw Him.
I loved my grandmother’s country church. It’s where I learned how to sing a hymn. Every Sunday, I could follow along the first verse and chorus just fine, but as it always happened, the congregation started singing words and suddenly I was lost and I never knew where they found the next words to sing. Out of the blue, it clicked with me that they dropped down to verse two! I’ll never forget that day; the day the key to hymn singing was given and the mystery was unlocked for me. I felt so privileged and I couldn’t wait to share it with Chelsea. But she didn’t get it, nor did she care.
I remember listening to the preacher. I didn’t know a whole lot of what he was talking about, but he seemed angry. Sin made him angry. Hell made him so angry he spit a lot. And both things, sin and hell, made him sweat so much that he kept a folded hanky next to his Bible on the podium. He’d occasionally wipe the drops of sweat from his red face and forehead and continue hollering. I knew I needed to stay away from those two things, but I wasn’t sure I could get as upset as he was about it.
After the sermon, all of my grandmother’s friends came up and hugged and talked to Chelsea and me and told us how sweet and cute we were and how happy they were that we came. They said that my grandmother loved us a lot and she was proud of us. That always made me feel good inside when they said those things. I secretly wished I lived with my grandmother and then I’d go to this church and join the choir since I knew how to sing hymns.
After church and the scary ride home, grandmother and Chelsea and I would go inside and make lunch together. We girls helped peel potatoes, make sweet tea, corn bread, and cook green beans from the beans we’d snapped the day before. In the afternoon, with an ice cold glass of lemonade or sweet tea, we’d throw a blanket down and enjoy the shade under a huge oak tree that must have been growing for five decades in her front yard. We talked or read or drew pictures. One day, I decided to write a poem.
“Grandmother, I miss granddaddy. I want to write a poem about him.”
“You do? I’m surprised you remember much about him. You were only 4 when he died.”
“I remember him.” I got out my pen and paper. “I’ll let you read it when I’m done.”
I worked on it and I don’t remember the entire poem, but there was a line in it that read, “and I cherish my granddaddy.” I read that line to my grandmother.
She said, “Well, ‘cherish’ isn’t a word that we should use.”
“Oh. What do you mean, grandmother? Is cherish a bad word?”
“Cherish means that you hold something or someone very close to your heart.”
“Oh, I do! I hold him close to my heart!” I loved my granddaddy with all my heart. I didn’t have a lot of time with him, but I remember that he was kind and sweet. I missed him a lot.
Grandmother pressed on, “Well, I guess it’s ok this time, but it’s not really the best word to use. There are probably better words to use.”
My grandmother and I were very similar in our personalities and our opinions and I loved her with all my heart, too, and enjoyed spending time with her. I think this was the only time I remember feeling different from her. I didn’t understand why she didn’t like the word, “cherish”, and I kept the word in my poem. I DID cherish my granddaddy. I held him dear and close to my heart. Even at that age, around eleven, I had a sense that what grandmother was saying had nothing to do with my poem at all, but some other part of her life story that I would never know about. She didn’t feel comfortable expressing tender feelings about him and to this day I don’t know why.
At the end of our day together, Chelsea and I got to sleep with grandmother. And every night, we’d hear the train make its presence known. It began with a low far away hum. And then a whistle that sounded like it was all the way in Smyrna. I loved that sound. It made me feel safe and loved, like I did with my grandmother. Then, the sound grew as close as it could, as if it was coming through the front door and I thought I could feel the vibrations in my chest. I’d listened until I couldn’t hear the train anymore, until it was gone, making its way to its next destination.
I laid next to grandmother holding her hand wondering if people were inside the train and where they were going. I thought of myself growing up and riding a train someday going somewhere. Or maybe I’d stay right here and never go anywhere. Or maybe, I thought, the train, had brought me here, to this place, with a grandmother who loved me for me, away from the family fighting, the invisibility, and the secrets.
I don’t mind the sound of a train. It reminds me of my grandmother and the summer time spent with her. It also reminded me that I had to go back. The train brought me there, but I also had go back home.