We called her grandmother. Never Grandma or Granny. To my father, she was simply Mother. Mom, if he was mad. My uncle sometimes called her The Nazi, but never to her face. It was a handsome face, more than pretty: Germanic features, hard mouth, but mirth in the eyes. Paired with her social charms, that face earned the title of May Queen at Washington Seminary, the old girls school on Peachtree. Grandmother was a debutante-jock: a three-sport star who won trophies well into her sixties, when she finally fell on the tennis court, chasing a lob, breaking her hip. She won that point—her last point, she told me much later.
The tennis court was the easiest place for Grandmother to say “love.” As in, “Love, Fifteen,” or “Love all.” She rarely said “love” to her children, and didn’t say it to me much either. But I felt it when she sang “Molly Malone” before bed when I was young, and later when she wrote me long, funny letters to which I was to reply only with an update on my “love life.” (I made up a romance, at least once, to entertain her.) She also wrote that word, “love,” on a card that I carry in my wallet nearly a year after her death last January at ninety—from old age, weak heart, steely resolve. It says: “Be Kind. Be Honest. Know at all times that I love you very much.”
Though he deserved a card with those words, as any child does, my dad never got one from Grandmother. And to the end of her life he resented that lack of love, which he made sure his sons never felt.
At a dinner at her Buckhead retirement community, less than a year before her death, Grandmother told a story that embarrassed Dad. She was good at that. Afterward Dad said to her, with unusual directness, “Mom, can’t you say something about me that’s positive for once? Tell a nice story about me?” She was quiet, almost flustered. How, I thought, could she not think of one?
Dad was the most responsible of her four children—the only one who completed college, had a career—so he was entrusted with the piece of paper stating her final wish, written in her unmistakable cursive hand: to be laid to rest in twelve places around Atlanta that she loved, her ashes scattered with silver spoons.
It was more of a last demand, really, than a request. Twelve places, she’d insisted. That imperative got some laughs at her funeral, during the lively, smiling eulogy Dad gave: “If you see us tiptoeing around the Piedmont Driving Club’s tennis courts with an urn, you’ll know what we’re up to . . . ”
But the laughing ended there. Her three surviving children didn’t want to do this scavenger hunt with their mother’s remains. My uncle was conveniently in New Mexico; my aunt attended, but with great reservation, discomfort, and unwillingness to disperse the ashes; my father, dutiful eldest son, arranged it all, but was anxious to be done with the task, rid of the remains and the demands of their former owner.
Me? I wasn’t looking forward to the predictable awkwardness, but I wanted to see these places she loved, whatever remained of her Atlanta, and to be with her one more time. I loved Grandmother very much, despite her failings.
I loved that she saved her old “hip screws” in a Tupperware container I inherited, with a note that said “Sharp!!!” I loved that she wrote a funny poem defending her face-lift, which included the lines: “Loves, tears, joys, fears, will show in a woman’s face / No matter how she tries to erase, erase, erase.” She wore a wig to church in her later years, and I loved that she laughed when the wind blew it off, my brother and I chasing the rodentlike thing across the street. I loved that she ultimately questioned her belief in heaven as she neared the end, when that question must be hardest. That she told me to have “lots of girlfriends” and earnestly asked my brother about drugs. I loved how blunt and self-secure she seemed; these things I was not.
But I recognized how difficult it must have been for Dad and his siblings to have a mother from whom “love” came out—when it did—like a command. A woman who charmed strangers, chaired a program for latchkey kids, but left her family with certain characteristically Southern silences.