I spent two days last week with my mother and her sister, Vicki, visiting my great aunt Lorraine in Los Osos, California. It’s been fifteen years (that’s half my life) since I’ve hugged her. She’s now 92 and stunning, thinner and frailer but still absolutely beautiful with fantastic style and fire red hair (she’s had it dyed every three weeks for the past 50 years).
It’s interesting to me how I feel about Lorraine. I have many great aunts and uncles. Every one of my grandparents came from large farming families. There were plenty of relatives to run into from time to time growing up, but none of them were loved the way I’ve loved Lorraine. I saw her rarely in my childhood, every three or four years, maybe, when we took our family trip to the west coast, or when she came to Amarillo to visit my great grandmother “Mama Mac” (for whom my Mama Monk name draws some inspiration). Perhaps it was her love for white pant suits and big gold clip-on earrings or her forty-year commitment to the same Este Lauder perfume. (I was relieved to catch that sweet scent on her when we hugged.)
But I know the reason I love her dearly is because my grandmother, Cotton, loves her dearly. There was no way to grow up listening to Cotton’s stories of childhood and World War II and being a young mom in the fifties, without falling in love with Lorraine, my grandmother’s dearest, and wonderfully colorful sister.
Before coming last week, my aunt Vicki spent weeks scanning in old family slides from the summers they spent in California during my mom’s childhood. I’ve loved gliding through one photo after another, staring at these two beautiful blondes sunbathing in their two pieces. My husband has always had a secret crush on my grandmother in her young, glamorous twenties and thirties, when she was a gorgeous blonde with uniquely arched eyebrows and constantly tanned skin. But he’s been astounded by the two of these women together in black and white, bronzed on the beach, simply oozing elegance. I’m honored to say I will never be so lovely.
Last week, as I was scrubbing the toilet in preparation for mom and Vicki’s rapidly approaching arrival, I called to wish my grandparents a happy sixty-eighth wedding anniversary. (Yes, I wrote that correctly. Sixty-eighth.) I mentioned to Cotton how much I wished she could make the trip out to California to see Lorriane.
She said to me, “Micha, it takes a special kind of grace to accept what you can’t do anymore. And I don’t think I can travel out there ever again.”
I said, “Well, then, do you think you have it? That special grace?”
“I’m beginning to,” she said.
During my visit with Lorraine, I was shocked at how much her face is like my grandmother’s, the same expressions, the same quiver in her voice, arthritic fingers, hands covered with the raised veins that I have always loved on my grandmother’s hands, that I traced with my pointer finger as a child while I sat beside her.
I’ve always hoped that dying would be like every other change in my life. Remember how scary leaving for college was and how there was this wonderful longing for adventure mixed into that fear? I’ve felt that way about every move in my life. I felt that way about marriage, about having a baby, about leaving the ministry. As scary as the jump is, there has always been solid hand on my back, lovingly shoving me off the ledge.
What is that special kind of grace Cotton was talking about? Is there a moment when it arrives? Do I need to start looking for it now? I fear the day when I cannot see or talk to my two big brothers…when we’re too confused to have phone conversations, when I can’t get on a plane because I’m too frail to travel, when our grandkids don’t know each other and dread being forced into conversation at some Boyett family reunion.
But I pray there is some secret grace waiting in that moment, like the one I knew Thursday afternoon, when I lay my sleepy baby on Lorraine’s bed, sang him a song and snuck out of the room, stopping for a moment to stare at those two beautiful blondes smiling in the framed 1940’s photograph. A whole life ago, those girls posed. Young smooth hands and inside jokes, they shared memories of days on the farm in Floydada, Texas. They were working in California, waiting for their men to return from war.
I stared at my sleeping blond boy, whose right eyebrow arches in the same unique angle as Cotton’s. I thought, how is the world so beautiful? How is it so broken?