Thursday, March 22, 2007

the bird grandma

By the time I knew her, she was a bird with wrinkled skin the texture of feathers. Everything about her was soft, her birdy chortle of a laugh, her words as she said, “My lands!” and slapped her soft knee. Her nose grew beaklike, too, and everything about her diminished except her bright, dark bird eyes, watching the world sharply.

My father’s mother stood upright in my youngest years, holding my fingers as I learned to walk on the stepping stones in her yard. As I grew taller time bent her spine into an archer’s bow, the invisible line of gravity pulling more taut each year until her body inscribed a letter C or a question mark. Then the C closed and she became a small tidy bird with her head very nearly tucked under her wing. Her arthritic hands were small letter Cs, also, with gothic knobs and twisted calligraphy.

It’s Satchmo who makes me think of Grandma these days, how my brothers and I loved to have Grandma as a babysitter. When we slept over at her house, she fed us stacks of Twinkies and let us stay up to watch Johnny Carson with her, playing rummy until we were all maniacally wound-up. So my mother thought to have Grandma babysit at our own house, instead, thinking we children would get more sleep. My parents would leave the house, exacting promises that we would take it easy on Grandma. As soon as she left the living room for the kitchen, my older brother would leap up on the couch and change the hands of the big clock, to put off bedtime by another hour. Then we would call her into the living room while Burl changed the kitchen clock, to match. And sooner or later she would settle in a comfortable chair, trying to figure out what to do with three rambunctious children. Immediately the cat would climb onto her lap and she would start the bird dance of shooing away a persistent animal. My brothers and I found this endlessly entertaining, as she grew more flustered until she shouted at us to get “that varmint” away from her.

Satchmo, too, is drawn to the family member who is least likely to want him, and that is Scott. Satchmo is not a lap-climbing kitty, yet, but meows incessantly at Scott until he is petted and scratched to his heart’s content.

Somehow I doubt I will ever hear the word “varmint” used again by a person truly at home with the word. In mountain terrain there is a large furry mammal called a “marmot,” which sounds enough like varmint in my mind that every mention of the animal makes me smile and think of my birdlike grandmother and her twinkling eyes, as sometimes, just at the right time, the cat would walk to her lap on quiet feet and sneak quietly in, and my varmint-hating Grandma would rest her c-shaped hand onto the warm cat until both were calm enough not to notice the passing of time.

“I think he likes you,” I would whisper.

“Well, I don’t like him,” she’d say, “but he’s alright for now. As long as the varmint is sleeping.” And if conditions were right she would fall asleep, too, in the big rocker, my tired old bird grandma plumb worn out by her grandchildren, her lap a nest for a wild varmint with a loud purr.

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