Wednesday, 4 September 2013

In Memoriam: My Grandmother

The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.”  - Rainer Maria Rilke

Johnny Chuck, Old Mother West Wind (1913)

I have been wounded.

Renee Godfrey—one of the sweetest and most cheerful influences in my life—passed away on a calm, sunny morning a few days ago. Her health had been deteriorating for a while, so I knew this was coming. And while Dante might be right in saying “The arrow seen before cometh less rudely” (Divine Comedy, “Paradise,” canto 17, line 24), the passing of a loved one still pierces the heart, no matter how much warning is given.

Grandmother and me

My hurt comes from a feeling of absence. It will be difficult to visit my hometown, knowing that I won’t be able to count on the sly smile and chuckles of my grandma. I can’t look forward to hearing her sing-song voice in person, or on the phone. My arms will feel much emptier.

But I also understand Grandmother and myself more perfectly.

Renee loved to read, and often read to me as a child. Some of my fondest memories are of my grandma reading me “Mother West Wind” stories at night when I visited her house. There was something magical about the way that she would make the stories come to life, so much so that they lived inside me for a time. A few years ago, I stayed the night at her house again. Remembering those long-ago evenings, I asked my grandma if she’d read me “Mother West Wind” stories again. She was happy to, and as I curled up next to her and listened to the melodic tones of her storytelling, I wept. I didn’t weep because of any pain or sense of impending loss, but from a sense of fullness – my heart was so full that it came spilling out of my eyes.

It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

My grandma’s love of reading impressed me from a very young age, and was one of the reasons why I wanted to learn to read for myself. I wanted access to that wonderful world of stories; a world in which she was so often my guide.  She loved beautiful stories, and through her enthusiastic example, a similar love was planted deep within me.

As a tribute to the woman who blessed my life with her presence and her stories, here is an excerpt from the Mother West Wind story, “Mrs. Redwing’s Speckled Egg” in Old Mother West Wind (1913):

Picture by Eliza Wheeler

Old Mother West Wind came down from the Purple Hills in the golden light of the early morning. Over her shoulders was slung a bag – a great big bag – and in the bag were all of Old Mother West Wind’s children, the Merry Little Breezes.

Old Mother West Wind came down from the Purple Hills to the Green Meadows, and as she walked she crooned a song:

Ships upon the ocean wait -
  I must hurry, hurry on!
Mills are idle if I’m late -
  I must hurry, hurry on!

When she reached the Green Meadows, Old Mother West Wind opened her bag, turned it upside down and shook it. Out tumbled all the Merry Little Breezes and began to spin round and round for very joy, for you see they were to play in the Green Meadows all day long until Old Mother West Wind should come back at night and take them all to their home behind the Purple Hills.

First they raced over to see Johnny Chuck. They found Johnny Chuck sitting just outside his door eating his breakfast. One, for very mischief, snatched right out of Johnny Chuck’s mouth the green leaf of corn he was eating, and ran away with it. Another playfully pulled his whiskers, while a third rumpled up his hair.

Johnny Chuck pretended to be very cross indeed, but really he didn’t mind a bit, for Johnny Chuck loved the Merry Little Breezes and played with them every day.

Mother West Wind (1916) by Bertha Lum

My grandma’s death has lifted me closer to her, closer to my true self, and closer to the Divine.

I will always love you, Grandmother.

Thanks for lifting me.