Sep 10, 201012:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
A Real Gem
Ruby and me outside of her home in the summer of 1990. A truly kind woman, she always had a bunch of stray cats and dogs around because she couldn't turn them away.
It’s hard for me to get excited about any Hallmark holiday, but it’s especially hard for me to get excited about Grandparents’ Day, which is coming up this Sunday.
My parents were pretty awesome. My grandparents are a completely different story. It says volumes that my favorite grandparent, the one who has influenced my life more than any of the others, is the one who died a year before I was born.
Papa Gene, as the older grandkids called him, was by all accounts a pretty decent guy –– he drank way too much, like everyone else in our huge dysfunctional Southern family –– but he wasn’t a bad drunk. He mostly kept to himself while quietly pursuing his one dream. For some reason that he could never quite articulate, Papa Gene wanted to have a pond on his property in rural North Carolina. And like any goal-oriented man, he didn’t let anything stand in his way.
In the beginning, of course, there was no pond, and that had to be remedied … so he had one dug and filled it up with water. Within a week, it was empty, a muddy orange hole in the earth with a few scattered puddles at the bottom.
Someone –– perhaps with good intentions but perhaps not –– told him that if you bought some pigs and put them down at the bottom of the pond, they’d trample the dirt and then the pond would hold water. So he tried it. He bought a couple dozen pigs and deposited them in the crater. They made a lot of noise and a lot of poop … but when he took them out after a month and refilled the pond, nothing had changed.
He finally found a solution. It wasn’t a quick fix, and it wasn’t elegant, and it wasn’t practical, but it became part of his daily ritual: Every night, he would tuck his flask into his hip pocket and go out to the edge of the pond and stand there in the twilight refilling the pond with the garden hose and savoring his beloved bourbon. In addition to maintaining his dream, this routine allowed him some precious moments of peace away from my grandmother.
When I was in some ridiculous introductory English class in college, we had to write an essay about lessons we’d learned from our grandparents. I wrote about Papa Gene: “He taught me that you have to follow your dreams, even if other people don’t understand them. He taught me that sometimes you have to work a little harder to make things a reality and that sometimes it's worth it to be completely impractical and unbelievably stubborn. And he taught me that sometimes, when all else fails, it’s a good idea to keep some whiskey in your pocket.”
I got an A on the paper, with a few red exclamation points by the ending. “Not sure this is really a life lesson you should learn,” wrote some poor grad student (who no doubt kept a great deal of whiskey close at hand to numb the pain of grading freshman essays).
Maybe that’s not a good life lesson … but if we’re limited to our biological grandparents, then it’s seriously all I’ve got.
If, however, we’d been allowed to branch out and talk about the people who filled that role in our lives, well, then I’d have a lot to say. Because Ruby B. was the grandmother I picked for myself, and she taught me just about everything I could ever want to know.
After my parents’ divorce, my dad took me every summer to spend time in North Carolina with his mother, Annette, who had outlived sweet Papa Gene and was kept alive, I suspect, by pure meanness. (The pond, by this time, was just a shallow dusty hole full of rusty beer cans.) Every morning, I’d wake up in Annette’s unfamiliar house, which smelled of fish food and peppermint and had thick brown shag carpeting. I would force down a breakfast of grits and ham while she glared at me. And then, as soon as the dishes were done and Annette turned on her “stories,” I would escape to Ruby’s.
And oh, the difference! Annette scarcely tolerated me; Ruby loved me. Annette ignored me; Ruby showed me how to make pie crust and can vegetables. Annette hated animals, calling them dirty and obnoxious; Ruby took in every stray that crossed her path (including me) and always had a fabulously chaotic mix of down-on-their-luck dogs, cats and even peacocks running around. Annette, who lived in a very nice house –– despite the carpet –– and was quite well-off, begrudged every morsel of food that went into my mouth; Ruby, who lived in a trailer and watched every penny, delighted in feeding me some of the best food I’ve ever had. Annette yelled at me when I broke a dish; Ruby worried I’d cut my hands.
Ruby, who had plenty of grandchildren of her own, nevertheless showered me with affection and hugs and kisses, things I was starved for every summer.
In addition to all of the practical skills I learned from Ruby (I never make a pie without thinking of her), I learned a lot about how to love, and I learned the value of family you choose.
And so when I had my own daughter, I knew exactly what I was going to name her. Even though I’d fallen out of touch with Ruby after my dad stopped making me go to North Carolina, I was able to track her down, and I called her from the hospital the day Ruby was born to tell her that she had a beautiful 6-pound, 9-ounce namesake. Ruby –– the original Ruby –– sent me baby clothes and holiday cards. And of course she knew, because she’s that kind of person, to send Ruby one card on Dec. 21, her birthday, and another one four days later on Christmas.
And if Hallmark made the right kind of card, I would send it to Ruby this weekend. If Hallmark made a card that said, “You’re not related to me in any way, but for a few weeks each summer, you made my life bearable until I could get back home, and you’re the closest thing to a grandmother I’ve ever known, and I love you,” I would totally stuff some snapshots of her namesake inside and stamp it and mail it off. But the people who write Hallmark cards have never met my family, and so I’m writing my own unconventional tribute.
Happy Grandparents’ Day, Ruby, and to all the other grandparents out there –– biological or otherwise –– who do it right. And thank you.