When my maternal grandmother, my Mama, who measured in at a diminutive 5 feet 0 inches tall, hugged you, you felt it, even if you towered over her, as my siblings and I did. When my grandmother wrapped her arms around you in pride, in joy, in tenderness, in compassion, you felt it. You were held.
She never appeared uncertain in anything. She was so sturdy and compactly built, and unquestionably rooted to the earth. I have come in my imagination of her since her passing to see her this way — as a living tree. The brown skin still taut as bark despite her aging, the strong stout legs a trunk, the firm grip branches reaching and keeping each of us, and there are a lot of us, within her grasp.
She knew instinctively how to care for us without words. Sometimes it was being pressed firmly and securely against her buxom chest as a small child as you fought sleep, knowing that the result was inevitable, that even if you tried to wrestle, those thick brown arms would win. And, later, seeing your younger siblings and cousins meet the same fate, chuckling at their futile efforts and somehow in the place beyond your own knowing, longing to be held that way again too. It wasn’t quite tenderness, but it was tender.
My sister tells the story of my grandmother bathing us as babies and her crying for my Papa to do it instead because my well built grandmother scrubbed us so hard and he was so gentle. But, when we were in her care, we were always clean.
She loved the weekly outing to the grocery store with my mother — I think from having experienced poverty. She dressed up for it and organized her weekend around it. She would embarrass us in the grocery store as preteens. She’d want to hold our hands and we’d miserably acquiesce as we strolled the aisles worried about being seen by classmates and school friends. An outreached hand wasn’t a question or an offer and once she got your hand in hers, forget it! There was no slipping away, no casual exploration. You were captive the same way a dog might be tied to a trunk in the backyard. We were never like the other kids wandering the grocery store and asking their mothers or caretakers for treats. A trip to the grocery store was almost as solemn as church. I wish now of course that I could hold her hand again and walk together like that, even in silence, even to pinch and pick out her favorite yams one handed.
As a teenager, on the night my paternal uncle died unexpectedly, my siblings and I gathered in her bed. She said little if anything, but sat with us until we all fell asleep, while my mother was working, and that was, as always, exactly the right thing.
I saw a tree uprooted after a vicious storm and I thought of her, though she had died peacefully. The root system was exposed and suddenly freed of the earth’s embrace. I wondered what would become of all that wood now that it wasn’t quite a tree anymore the same way I sometimes wonder what happened to my grandmother when she was no longer quite a tree anymore either.