The smell of Jimmy Dean sausage is filling up the red brick house with white shutters on 106 16th Street in Hereford, Texas. She sets my orange juice in front of me and lovingly squeezes my shoulder. It is in my favorite glass, the one I request every time I stay with her. Yellow farm animals dance around the middle of the glass and I smile as I watch them. She flips the sausage with an avocado-green handled spatula that matches the color of her refrigerator. Her movements are slow and methodical as she extends her slender arm and reaches for a dish towel with her left hand. Her wedding rings slip down her long, bony fingers as she stretches her hand out towards the towel. I don’t think twice about the fact that my grandmother wears her wedding rings. Maybe it is because I am too young to realize the beauty and depth of that loving gesture or it could be because the rings always seemed like they were a part of her – an understated adornment that simply belonged there. Her husband, Charles died twenty-three years before I was born. She never re-married but instead, gave her heart to teaching first grade and Sunday school for over thirty-five years.
Honey is making our breakfast. Two fried eggs over easy, one piece of sausage and a piece of white toast. She places the food on her favorite plate. This simple breakfast is what she eats every morning while she plays solitaire with cards that have indentations where her fingers have moved over and over for years. She sits close to me, next to her old black rotary phone while she sips her black coffee. It is 1983 and I am four years old. My family and I live several miles away in an old Victorian house on a farm with pets that I named myself – an orange cat named “Goldie” and an Irish Setter named “Red.” We will soon move to Dallas and I will mainly see Honey in the summers until she moves in with us in 1991 after a diagnosis of late stage colon cancer.
Some mornings she offers me Lucky Charms and reads the riddles on the back of the cereal box to me in a “sing-songy” preschool teacher voice. I always sit in the same spot at the formica counter in an antique metal high chair, the white paint chipping as it reveals a robins egg blue color underneath. This fascinates me and my hand traces the fractures in the paint where the blue is showing through. The entire house is stuck in the sixties but in a good way, like the past is trying to tell us a story through colors and furniture, wallpaper and old noisy clock radios.
Immediately after entering the doorway, comfort blankets me in the way only a grandmother’s home can. I always feel welcome and peaceful here. Rhythmic musical sounds from her 1920‘s Singer sewing machine find me no matter what room I am in. The carpet throughout her house hangs like artwork in the corners of my brain. I stare at it often because the pattern is mesmerizing. The colors of the carpet are dark orange, olive-green and gold all swirled together and the same design repeats in invisible lines all over the house. The design is reminiscent of a French “Fleur De Lis”, only fatter and wider. We lie stretched out together on her huge golden yellow couch. I am lying on my back, my tiny body curved in the crook of her arm. Before my nap, we do word searches and listen to classical music and old hymns on her record player. She tells me the meanings of words I do not know. The words leave her smiling mouth and make their way to my ears as they swirl around in my head, landing deeply in my heart…and my heart soaks them up like a dry sponge.
Later that afternoon I play in her garden while she harvests tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, plums and strawberries. I have yet to taste a tomato as delicious as the ones from my grandmothers garden. The days I spend with her are as beautiful, juicy and delectable as the fruit and vegetables we pick and eat straight from the earth. She gathers the plums and strawberries in her apron, brings them to the porch and begins to make preserves and jam that truly should have received an award of some kind. The strong smell of vinegar still lingers in my memory from her homemade pickles and okra.
After dinner, Honey starts my bath. The warm water and sweet smelling soap soothes the scrapes on my knees as I play with the red and white plastic boat with the yellow sail. She soaps me up with a wash rag and then lets me play a little longer as she waits for me on the toilet next to the bathtub. The toilet seat has a dark pink cover that matches the carpet under her long, narrow feet. She never leaves the bathroom when I am in the tub. She is constantly concerned for my safety and with her I always feel safe. I play and splash to my heart’s content. Then she softly asks, “Are you ready to get out, Honey?” As I grow older, I am told that this is why we call her “Honey.” She calls me “Honey” so much that I believe it is the name I am supposed to call her. And it sticks. I change her name and borrow her face. When I utter the word, “Honey” a sense of security envelopes me…at age four and still, at thirty-three.
She wraps me in a thin towel with bright blue and green flowers printed on it. I get into the cozy gown that she has made for me from fabric scraps. She is always sewing or canning something and I am the lucky one who gets to wear or eat the fruit of her labor. I love being the lucky one, a receiver of all her hard work – such love, such selflessness…so much grace. She is the oldest of four brothers, I am the youngest of four brothers. She has been the caretaker for so many during so much of her life and now, she is taking care of me. I am warm. I am at peace. I am happy. I have no worries in my heart or thoughts in my head besides one single question. What books will we read at bedtime?
The bed looms large and enormous before me. The red and purple flowered quilt is inviting to my four-year old eyes. I lie next to her under the cool, crisp sheets in the guest room. On the shelf behind our heads are many children’s books but my little fingers quickly go to my old favorites. I see the green and yellow spine with the cover that is deteriorating as fast my little body is growing up. I gingerly pick it up and hold it in my hands as if it were gold. I give it to her and she begins, “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…”
My body stays as close to hers as it can get while we finish up “Madeline” and begin “Little Bear.” After that we read “Clifford” followed by many “Little Golden” books. It is never enough for me, but eventually my eyes begin to get heavy and she notices this. We say our prayers and she hugs me goodnight. I fall asleep listening to the bright clinking sounds of my grandmother washing her face and the swooshing noises of her toothbrush gliding back and forth, back and forth as she brushes her dentures and places them in a glass bowl next to the sink. The sun lets go of her grasp on the day and the moon sleepily begins his shift. I am led gently into the night, lulled by dreams that only a child can know.
It was in that house of lovely memories – within soft sheets, nestled against my grandmothers frail bones and soft, papery skin where I began my love affair with words and stories. A fire was ignited within my spirit and it continues to burn brighter with time.