(My maternal grandmother will be 90 in September, so we celebrated early before school starts so more of us could be together here. I wrote this essay a year ago, and never published it. So in honor of her almost 90th, here it is.)
"This! This was the day the whole boy scout troop drowned," Nana says, staring at the black and white photo. One tall handsome little boy stands next to his shorter companion. Both are squinting into the camera holding the bird houses they'd constructed. The black and white photo showed only the details of leather shoes, collars and trousers. The grayscale doesn't show the hot yellow sun, or the brown of the dusty desert road on which the boys stood.
"Wait. What?!" My sister and I gasp in unison. We often comment identically-- words, sentences and phrases in identical tone, one voice-- one brain, we joke.
"Dick Stuart wasn't allowed to go on the rafting trip because he hadn't finished his chores, and George stayed with him because he was a good friend. The rest of the troop went, but they didn't wait for the leaders, and they all drowned." Nana says, her eyes never leaving the face of the tall little boy who would become her husband-- the man who died when I was five.
If he had gone rafting that day... if he had been less fiercely loyal...a trait that later meant he would give up a General's star, in the army, for the love of a friend, because he believed his friend deserved it more... I wouldn't be standing there, in the hot garage, sweating my face off, eagerly absorbing our history, one photo at a time. My siblings, my cousins, my mother and uncles; all seemed to for a moment, shimmer in my mind like a mirage.
We've come to El Paso, Sarah and I, to help sort and label all of our grandmother's possessions. Forty years ago she and my grandpa George bought the old rambler in East El Paso, as their first major move after George retired as a Colonel in the US Army.
Eleven years later, George was taken by lung cancer that had grown over his spine, stealing his golden years with Georgeanne. He'd quit smoking twenty years before, but nonetheless it was actually agent orange that killed my grandfather. Vietnam killed my grandfather twenty years after he'd safely returned to his family. 30 years after his death, the government he'd served faithfully finally admitted it.
When George died, I was five. My mother had gone to be there, taking with her my baby sister. So Dad was home with the three older girls. Daddy put my hair in pigtails, and took me to my first day of kindergarten. Somewhere there is a picture of me, my crazy curly hair going every which way, refusing to be tamed, squinting into the hot, September, California sun, headed off to my first day of school. Someday I hope my grandkids see that picture.
I remember the message my mom left on the answering machine the night George died. I don't remember where we'd been, but we'd missed my mom's call. Her dad was gone.
I cried and threw myself into my bed, heartbroken for my grandpa that I had barely known.
Literally paging through their history, my heartbreak feels new now, selfishly raw, because I hadn't ever known him. And the real grief was for my Nana who lost him when she'd been young, spending the rest of her long life without him, only with his memories. Their love was epic, true, and cut so short. What if he'd never gone to Vietnam? What could they have seen? What could he have taught us?
We find George's Vietnam letters to Nana in a drawer in her dresser. Each letter, written nearly daily, saved together in a box. The beauty of them mixed with the mundane. George often inquired about the bank accounts, ensuring his wife and three children were cared for. George started every letter with, "Hi Darling," and ended them with his declarations of love. Each letter is a testament, a sacred truth of their love, their family, and their determination. It's clear their life was not perfect. They weren't perfect partners or parents, but their devotion rings through, strong and clear.
Georgeanne had lived right by her own mother, Phyllis, at the time, in El Paso. Nana's dad had been taken, months before in a car crash. They helped and supported each other that year. My great grandmother was a real dame, gorgeous and glamorous with a taste for beautiful things. She passed this trait onto her daughter. It shows all over Nana's home, in her love of jewelry, and in her taste for antique furniture and dishes. Each piece carefully chosen, each reverenced for its history.
My grandparents grew up in the same Baptist Church. "The Chancellors and the Rogers were the pillars that held up that church," Nana explained. The adults weren't really friends, didn't agree about a lot of things. Yet George and Georgeanne managed to find their way to each other.
Nana always talks about how George was the smart one. No doubt he was brilliant, being a chemist and a professor at West Point. But she waves her hand away when we point out she skipped a grade, and graduated high school at 16. Georgeanne earned a business degree from Baylor, then ran off to New York City to work for two years. She wasn't exactly waiting for George, who was a cadet at West Point. But she wasn't exactly not either.
She lived with her Uncle Max, who sounds like one of the best men that ever lived. But then, in '53 George broke it off with his preacher's daughter financeé, and Georgeanne went to meet him. Max tracked her, intercepted, and ensured they behaved themselves. I love Uncle Max, though I never met him.
They were married in June, 1954, George and Georgeanne, made one flesh.. Nana looked like a dark haired Grace Kelly. George looked handsome and dapper. Their love and joy glowing even in the black and white photographs. The future--bright, every possibility right there in front of them. It feels revelatory to look at the pictures, knowing how their love story was paused right in the middle.
Finding moments caught in snapshots took my breath away. We found a picture of them and their friends on the USS United States, the giant naval ship that brought them home from Germany after their tour of duty. They'd left childless, and returned with my mother in arms. Nana told us how they had to dine formally each night of the journey, with full evening gowns and black ties. So Georgeanne would feed her little Anne and put her to bed. Then she'd get all dolled up and go to dinner. The porter volunteered to listen at the door on each lap of their hallway, solemnly promising to get her if Anne stirred.
Nana can remember with perfect clarity the details for most of the photos we found. There she was, holding a bundle of firewood in what looked like a forest. She was ten years old. Her mother had been pregnant with Kathy, her third daughter. Tired of being pregnant, Phyllis had declared that a hike in the mountains was the way to get the baby out. "And it worked. That was the day Kathy was born."
Remembering details from 80 years ago is easy. What is hard, as we organize and pack, is that Nana can’t remember what is in each box. The changes are coming hard and fast, and so while her precious lifetime of memories remain chiseled in her brain, the immediate switches, changes and planning are hard to hold on to. Trying to ease her struggle, Sarah and I buy clear plastic totes, and label each one as specifically as possible. That way she can look inside each one, and be reminded.
My mother had been to Nana's house before we came, labeling, coding and organizing the furniture. She'd also created an entire notebook, the Moving Bible we call it, full of the to-do lists, the information we needed to know, the dates and contact information for the people we needed to call. It really is a sacred text, written by the one who came before us, guiding us on how best to guide the one who had come before her.
Now though, the matriarch is marching on a path unknown to her. We return to the Moving Bible multiple times a day, to remind ourselves how far down the path we'd walked together, and what was still ahead in the distance.
My own mother and father had lived in El Paso 40 years ago, my dad being stationed there. They lived down the street from the very house we are now preparing to sell. My sister Erin was born there. I wonder if my mom's heart hurt for the leaving of the place where her second daughter had come along, the place where she had returned to say good-bye to her own father, grandmother and brother.
Was this place, so hot and plain, a sacred place to her too? Often we learn the most about ourselves when the landscape of our lives is bleak and barren. Here this was completely literal. So much loss. Maybe Anne, too, owes pieces of her soul to this place. Just like Georgeanne.
Nana keeps telling us this was not her first rodeo. "We moved 24 times in 23 years!" But this time is different. This time will be the last time that Georgeanne will move. This is also the first time Georgeanne will move in 66 years without her George.
The last shall be first. And the first, dearest Nana, shall be last.
Nana doesn’t care if we keep her yearbooks. "Oh just throw those away!" (We don't. No ma'am.) But her mother's. And George's. Those are also sacred texts to her.
Nana was Queen of Ranger College 1950, before she transferred to Baylor. Georgeanne wore the crown well. That one, she didn't tell us to throw away. "Look at me," she croons. And we do. Nana was hot.
Nana tells of growing up and doing Saturday house cleaning, as we swept the house, full of tiny scraps, left from packing. "Gloria would wash three cups and be done, while I did everything else," she said. Gloria had been two years older than Georgeanne, and had cerebral palsy due to a birth injury. Gloria died in 2011 from breast cancer.
"Gloria taught me how to cheat at every card game there is by the time I was eight!" Sarah said, laughing.
Nana is strong, but doesn't know it. She cared for her mother for a decade before she died. My great grandmother smoked for at least 70 years and still lived to be 93. Nana quit smoking 20 years ago. We assume she'll live to be 100.
Nana acts like all the things she's done and accomplished are mundane. To her, maybe they are. She earned a Master's from Arizona State University when her kids were growing, while George was stationed there. To us, these things she waves away, are testimonies of her strength. Georgeanne told us that she and George left the Baptist Church because they tried to make her sign an agreement that she believed all the things they said she had to.
Nana took her own soul as her own and told them to go to hell. No one can tell Georgeanne what to believe.
My mother wrote poetry, like her Grandmother Phyllis. We found years worth of notebooks, beautifully handwritten poems by my mom for her mother on Mother's day. They spoke of longing, love, nature, God, family and country. All the things that make Anne's soul her own.
It makes me wonder, does my mother still write poetry, calling out to and naming the people, things, and places that make her soul her own?
"Don't lose them!" Nana implored. We clip the books of poems all together, and put them in a clear plastic totes full of her children's accomplishments.
Georgeanne's children are Anne, Wayne, and William, whom everyone called Bill. Like any mother, Nana expresses her pure unconditional love for her children to us, over and over. Madly in love with her children, Georgeanne is. "I'm so grateful for them. I'd be lost if Anne hadn't come."
But, like any mother, she has also struggled with frustration at being told, by her children, that it is time to move--to a new state, to a small apartment, with shuttle rides to the grocery store instead of needing to drive herself. "I just wish it had been my idea. I should have done it years ago." It's hard to keep a claim on your own soul when your body starts to betray you.
Nana’s youngest, her baby, Bill died in 2014. I remember when my sister called to tell me Bill had died. I was still physically healing and emotionally mourning for my own little baby, named George, born too soon, so it was easy for me to imagine Georgeanne's pain.
Even if he was grown, even if he'd struggled all his adult life to be both an artist and fully human, he was her baby. "I don't want to erase him like he never existed," she says as we stack the boxes of Bill's things, sacred to her, in the corner, marked for storage. "He was my baby."
I know what she means. I hold my own memories of my George--my baby--dear. And I don’t want to ever forget.
We pack three totes with family Bibles, the oldest dating to 1845. The pages are like dust, being held together with the Holy Spirit.
There is no lack of faith in my mother's family. My grandparents leaving the Baptists was by no means the end of their faith. They changed churches here and there, depending on where they lived. Nana spoke highly of the Methodist Church they'd found when her children were little. Anne found Jesus in high school, then later joined the LDS church.
Mormonism is a highly demanding religious affiliation. Perhaps the rigidity is why it created a rift between Georgeanne and her only daughter. Nana doesn't believe you need church to be faithful. Nana believes church is just one way to express faith. Because being LDS means you believe in one true way, it can be hard to find common ground.
But Anne needed to answer the call of her own soul. I think Nana must have known that, having learned to do the same for herself. So Georgeanne let Anne go and do.
Nana told us about Mom and Dad's wedding, how they had to wait outside the Mormon temple, their only daughter, being joined with her one true love, without them. Not being members of the church, they weren't allowed inside. We have heard the story hundreds of times from both Mom and Nana. It was a painful day for everyone.
It takes faith to be a pioneer. Nana was a pioneer when she told the Baptists where to go. Mom was a pioneer when she decided where she, alone, would go.
Mom and Dad raised six children in the Faith of my father's fathers. We each walked alongside them, hearts turned to Jesus, eyes on the path.
My mom's cousin, Katie, is Gloria's daughter (Nana’s elder sister). Somewhere along the way, Katie also joined the church of the Latter-Day, marrying her own sweetheart, David. They have lived in El Paso for decades. They've helped Nana many times over the years.
Due to the pandemic, LDS churches are on hiatus. So David offers to come to Nana's house and offer us the sacrament, the holy symbols of Jesus, on Sunday morning, a few days into our trip.
My own faith has evolved, and as I'm becoming acquainted with my own soul, it doesn’t feel strictly necessary. But Nana thought it was a wonderful idea. So we have home-church.
Georgeanne, who always felt outside the faith her daughter chose, finds the inside of own her home, suddenly sacred enough to be its parish. We thank, each of us, Sarah, Katie, David, Nana and I, the God we know, personally, without boundaries, in a sacred communion.
Nana is moving to Salt Lake. This alone will be challenging. Losing independence, in a place foreign and unfamiliar, will be terribly disorienting I think. It is also chalk full of Mormons. She decides she’ll hide the liquor when the neighbors come calling.
But her family will also be there. We will welcome her home, arms open, first and last.
We will unpack the few things that will fit, tuck away, under her bed the precious photos and Bibles, the Holy Writ and pictures that hold the story of Nana's life and love, our matriarchal family history, and take the rest to storage, just out of sight, but there if she needs them.
Just like us.
Finally, we can be there, near. Like her mother was for her, and she for her mother. My mother finally again can be near her mother, to close the physical rift, and they both can see that time and God's real love has closed any spiritual rifts that seemed once deep and eternal and impassable.
Time has made it holy.
We will unpack the things, but the sanctity isn't in the clear plastic tubs. It's in Georgeanne's life itself. The memories make it holy because of the life she gave them. We are here, in part because George didn't go rafting that day, and in part because Nana chose love and made a life that we all get to be a part of.