Between illness and teacher strikes Pru has had way to much screen time with her sisters. She misses two days of walks and decides that chewing on the furniture will solve her problems. We finally get out for our walk and she is every shade of edgy. Turning the corner she lowers down and pauses, looking around like she’s seen a ghost. Left over autumn leaves dance in the crisp winter wind and she is on high alert. As we walk her long back straightens and she relaxes a little. Pru has a red collar. I find this strange because as rule I’m not a huge fan of red, but somehow our dog has a red collar, just like a red dahlia ended up in our garden.
The red dahlia appeared one summer, how I have no idea. Winter came, I pulled up the dahlia tubers and thought I’d ridden myself and our garden of the offending red dahlia. Then the next summer arrived and there was red again. I wanted to rip it out of the ground and toss it, but something in me just left it there. I was annoyed by the red dahlia and I was even more annoyed by my irritation with it. I visited other gardens and realised I liked red flowers in other people’s gardens, just not my own. Kind of like I liked people that let themselves be seen. I liked people that burned and let others see their light burn. But burning seemed painful and being red seemed hard. I watched the dahlia over the summer as it taunted me with her blooms. So in your face, who did she think she was to burn like that? I watched the dahlia bloom and thought of my grandmother and her green eyes and the blue of the Atlantic Ocean.
My grandmother saved my life when I was a little drop in the ocean. I had been playing in the ocean’s waves. An undertow got hold of my little legs. It pulled me under and scraped and rolled my across the sea floor. It let go of me and I floated towards the surface. My first clear memory is of floating just under the surface of the water that day. I could hear and feel my heartbeat. I think I was too little to be scared as salt water filled my nose and mouth. I was just floating under the surface. It was the first and last time for a long time that I would recognise the beating of my own heart. My brown eyes looked through the warm blue water at the light above. I could feel my heart beating crimson blood through my body and hear its drumbeat in my ears. The light was bright and everything was peaceful and quiet. My grandmother’s shadowy hand reached down into the water and pulled me up. If we could remember our births I think being born must feel like being pulled out of the warm waters of the Atlantic. She picked me up, as I coughed up sea water, and put me back in a safer place closer to her and the shore. That day her green eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses. Years later my grandmother would give me the life saving gift of the honest unwavering gaze of her green eyes.
Decades later my blue eyed mother, an only child, has called me at home in England from Florida to say that my Grandfather is not well. That the sinking house of ship and life they lived in Miami is taking on water. My mother is an only child and her childhood was a lonely one. My brother and I promise that we will be with her as she deals with her mother, my green eyed grandmother. I leave my sweet babies and fly from London to Miami. I fly from the place that gave the world marmite and Puritans to a place that is known for being untamed as it is wild. As I fly high above the blue waves of the Atlantic I read Marie Kondo and utter under my breath, “luck favours the prepared…luck favours the prepared.” I have mentally organised and packed 60 years of a home before I step off the plane. I am walking into a fire that is our wild family and I know it is going to burn. My fire suit of choice is to control the chaos. The taxi pulls up to my grandparents front door. The tree in the middle of their circular drive, the tree I once climbed as a child is covered in air plants. The neighbour’s palm trees rustle in the the warm breeze. I am home and I am far from home all at once. I open the dark Spanish style front door and smell my childhood. I have come to hold space for my mother. I am here to support her I tell myself. I will Marie Kondo the shit out of this shitty situation and get back on the plane and back to the familiar chilly air of England.
My grandfather is in a hospital bed in the living room. He is lean and dying but still fully himself. I love my grandfather because he has been a good grandfather, but I know that he was not a good husband. He was a charismatic and charming scoundrel. The same man that sat me on his lap and let me eat way too much gumball ice cream is the same man that betrayed my grandmother multiple times in multiple ways. I warm myself with the notion that because their marriage survived that they succeeded. Even though my grandfather is unwell, we still have cocktails at 5pm. When I think of my grandmother I see stiletto heels and dashing dresses. I see cocktails, sparkly restaurants and feel the late warm nights on Miami Beach. My grandparents have a bar in their living room and it is not a wet bar, it is proper sized bar with a giant light up Budweiser sign hanging on the wall. I was mixing cocktails behind that bar before I could see over the top of it. Now I stand mixing their drinks and can see over the bar but still feel small. That’s the gift grandparents give, the feeling of being small and loved and cute even at 42. I look at the well stocked bar and think, ‘what the hell are we going to do with all these glasses?’ I feel a little panicked. “Luck favours the prepared,” I mutter under my breath as I mix liquid in rocks of ice. I’ve outlined Marie Kondo’s entire book on the flight over, not sleeping a wink. No movies, no music, no musings. I will organise and drink my way through this shit. Being organised and in control will help and so will Jack Daniels, but only one. Just one.
We miraculously pack the glasses behind the bar and now its time for Grandma to pack up her clothes. She takes the slow chair lift upstairs to her bedroom. The same sea green curtains and cedar chest meet me at the top of the stairs. My grandmother is strong for almost 90 years old but she sits in a chair while we go through a lifetime of clothes. I say lifetime because my green eyed grandmother kept everything. A Depression era baby to the end. Their room that is now only her room has a musty smell to it. My grandfather’s deck shoes sit by his bedside table covered in dust. A lifetime of her clothes is piled high on the bed. Grandma says she wants to pack grandpa’s deck shoes, even though she knows he will never wear them again. I dust them off and put them in the keep pile.
The phone rings and my mom pads up the stairs to hand it to her mother and goes back down stairs to check on her dad. On the other side of the phone is my grandmother’s childhood friends daughter. She has called to tell my grandmother that one of her only remaining friends has died. My grandmother is a guarded but fierce women. She chats to her friend’s daughter offering her version of comfort, which isn’t much comfort at all. She hangs up the phone and I touch her shoulder. She is still in her dressing gown. I bend down to her and say how sorry I am. For the first time in my life that I can remember our eyes meet and we don’t look away. She lets me see what little tears she has left and then she is still enough to let me see something else. In the silence of her musty room and life, I see what real regret looks like in her eyes. She is sober and her aged green eyes are clear in their message. This is regret. This is a lifetime of what betraying yourself and drowning your flame in liquid on the rocks looks like. In that moment I saw my grandmother for the brave woman she drowned almost everyday of her life. She felt too tired to leave my grandfather at 43 years old and she paid for it and so did we for the rest of her life. She found me in the water all those years ago and as she drowned she pulled me up once more. Her regret, the cold hard truth of it scared the hell out me. I had surrounded myself in organised coolness. I had tried controlling the red hot flame inside me and lied to myself that it would work out by magic. That everything would be okay, if I just made everything look pretty and shiny enough. My grandmother’s honest steady gaze told me otherwise.
A year later in the middle of the pandemic and the height of lockdown, my mother called me to tell me that my green eyed grandmother had died. She said my grandmother called out to her mom and her sister who were no longer with us before she died. I’d like to think that her sister and mother met my grandmother and took her home, home to the home she was never able to make for herself. I stepped out into our garden and gathered up sweet peas to put on our table. Sweet red, purple and white petals. My grandmother was a woman who wore stilettos and drank cocktails and didn’t let it burn to build a better life. She gave me the gift of her regret. It is one the bravest things I have ever witnessed. I will never forget her beautiful green eyes or the sweet smell of those red sweet peas. Glennon Doyle wrote, “the blue prints of heaven are etched in the deep desires of women. Own your wanting…let it burn.” On earth as it is in heaven.