Dad was warming up to the punch line of his story. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. His eyes were bright as he described an auction in which he bid on a portrait of a distant relative on behalf of the board of the Drexel Foundation. He was successful in his charge, he told us with relish, but at significant cost. Significant cost. So, he was called before the board “to explain the bidding process.”
It was a tense gathering held at the Drexel University Art Gallery. On the walls, above and behind the severe individuals ranged about him, were portraits of my father’s mother and grandparents. When Dad told the trustees of this relationship – and Dad laughed when he said this, a choked chuckle that let me know he was near tears – they cheered.
At first, I thought Dad meant his relatives cheered, and I had a momentary image of Gaga and Grammy and Granpa Mills beaming and rooting for my father. I wanted to think Dad sensed their exuberant support from the Other Side as he justified his actions to the board.
On the wall in my bedroom hangs a small oval watercolor of my mother's mother, my grandmother, Byeo. Auburn curls frame her face and she wears a pale blue dress adorned with pink roses. At some point, she sat before an artist, smiling her small smile, as he mixed colors and dipped his brushes. At times, I feel, in a shivery prickle along my skin, the poignancy, the presence, in that moment, when Byeo was warm and young, posing, alive.
Where is she now? I want to believe that the soft flush in my skin while standing before her painting, remembering her, is her touch.
Particularly during hard times, I imagine her, sitting by my side in the passenger seat of my car, striving to assure me all will be well. Can she, like air, meld with my molecules, travel within me, as fluid as blood, sparking memories and feelings to sustain and comfort?
When my mother faces trouble, she appeals to her parents, hoping they are vigilant from their heavenly perch. Years ago, as she and Dad spun in a three-sixty on an icy road in Vermont, she begged them to hold off on-coming cars. When my nephew, Jared, was little, doctors feared he had a rare disease that would cause unbalanced skull growth, so Mom sought Byeo and Poppy’s intervention. And I know they heard from Mom when I had cancer. Apparently, they have us all covered.
Dad’s mother, my Gaga, lost her firstborn son, Hobie, when he was eighteen months old, a tragedy that haunted her life and that of her children. When my sister’s son Campbell was about the same age, he fell backwards, face up, into a glass cupboard. Dagger sharp shards scattered with the force of the boy’s fall, but he sustained not even a scratch. After desperate hugs and tears of relief, we all whispered, Gaga: she was not going to lose another baby boy.
Throughout my life, I’ve been lavished with love and endearments. While Byeo called me “Lambie,” Gaga preferred “Moosie-dear,” a variation on the widely used “Lea-Mouse.” For a while Dad opted for the questionable “Lea-lice,” I assume for the pleasing alliteration as opposed to some connection with the vile bug. I’ve saved boxes-full of letters closing with “oceans of love,” “oodles of love,” and countless “X’s” and “O’s.” With this foundation, I should have the sure-footed durability of a pyramid, but often I’ve felt timorous, unsure of myself. Lately, however, I realize I am stronger. Family and friends, age and post-cancer wisdom have played a crucial role, but also, I smile and stand a bit straighter when I think of my ancestral cheerleading squad.