Is Bobby Ray there? An elderly voice, dinnertime, before the days of caller ID. No ma’am, I said, you’ve got the wrong number. I’m sorry. Well, Happy Thanksgiving, almost. Will it be a big one? I didn’t tell her it wouldn’t be happy or big since I’d just lost my grandmother, actually step-grandmother, though I adored her all the same. Yes, ma’am, I said. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too. I know Bobby Ray will be glad to hear from you. He better be! she laughed and we goodbyed.
I didn’t tell her I’d missed saying goodbye to Kathryn, or Grammie, as we called her, though her daughter (my stepmother) and other granddaughters were at her bedside. If they’d called, I would’ve been there in a minute, but they were fighting to keep her in the world, counting every breath, until her last.
Perhaps they didn’t understand how close I felt to her, how I baked apple cake and visited her apartment sometimes on Sunday afternoons, story upon story: her growing up hard at the awful start of the Great War, an uncle’s borrowed farmhouse, Raccoon Valley in Union County, the oldest of four girls and a no-account brother, often the caregiver while their daddy was off working for the L&N railroad, cooking for them all as her asthmatic mother relayed the art of rolling biscuits and kneading bread across the kitchen so as not to breathe in the killing meal and flour. How she hightailed it out as soon as she could, eloping at 17 to the usual underage marrying place, Middlesboro, Kentucky, being let out of the car to walk over the state line so that no one could say she was forced into anything against her will. Then a widow for nearly 40 years.
She was beautiful, even glamorous in flowing silks and caftans, a whispery voice that made me lean closer to smell her White Shoulders powder, a devotee of opera and Pavarotti, who loved my father’s teasing though she feigned not, and who embraced her Japanese daughter-in-law and granddaughter in a time of lingering wounds and prejudice, brought home to Knoxville after her son’s navy stint in post-Occupation Japan.
It was this will that drew me: to endure hardship, yet exude complete and utter kindness, upholding her brood, blood or not, in both success and failings under generous wings—which, incredibly, included me.
Feeling a burden with her frequent hospital stays, Grammie had gotten her wish, dying on her 96th birthday, which sometimes fell on Thanksgiving. And now, in this unexpected exchange with a stranger, she was granting my goodbye wish, or so it seemed. I was oddly soothed by the conversation, as if it was exactly what I needed. Was the voice on the phone really a stranger, or a presence still on our earthly plane before crossing the bar? Who am I to deny this nod from the Universe, this spark of divinity made flesh? I took the small miracle and held it in my hands like a caramel sweet enough to hurt my teeth.
Grammie was in fact the Queen of Divinity—at Christmas and other occasions. Those melt-in-your-mouth clusters, a pecan half pressed into each creamy center, arranged like antique buttons on wax paper. I’ve never made candy and wasn’t there as she clipped the thermometer to the side of the saucepan, as she stirred the sugar/corn syrup mixture to boiling, or as she beat egg whites into stiff peaks, then folded in the hot liquid, frothing to a glossy sheen. I didn’t see her set each piece to cool and harden, then place in a tin for gift giving—but I received these delights to carry home and hoard, to parse out slowly and savor.
Even when my father and stepmother split after 30 years together, Grammie boxed up divinity for his February birthday. Likewise, she had taken me in when they married, a stepchild new to East Tennessee, just as her daughter accepted me as her own, which has always amazed and humbled me. Now I see that an actual goodbye is beside the point. Kathryn has joined the ranks of angel women who swooped into my young and older life and lifted me exactly when I needed it. Although my childhood wish was to be their blood daughter and granddaughter, just as Pinocchio awoke one morning as a real boy, in the end we get what we want most, whether we’re naughty or nice: bittersweet gifts lasting beyond understanding and circumstance, lasting even beyond the sour taste of valediction, which at its melted heart is a divine, sugary drop.
Copyright © 2023 by Linda Parsons. All rights reserved. Poet, playwright, essayist, and editor Linda Parsons is the poetry editor for Madville Publishing and the copy editor for Chapter 16. Her sixth poetry collection, Valediction, was published in 2023. Five of her plays have been produced by Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville. She is an eighth-generation Tennessean.