My parents divorced when I was eight, which split up an already fragmented family. I was the youngest of five children, and yet an only child between my parents. That first summer after their separation, they did a smart thing. They let my grandmother take me. Grandma had certain ideas about the care and management of children, and they involved a combination of absolutely impenetrable boundaries, close supervision, and high levels of indulgence. What made it different from the approach that suffocated my mother was the addition of that last element. Indulgence was not a part of my grandmother’s parental repertoire, to say the least. But it was very much a part of her grandparental repertoire, and the combination was magic for me.
My parents’ divorce pulled the proverbial rug out from under me, but my grandmother replaced it with a hardwood floor. It was always there, waiting for me, every summer. Even during my teen years, when I was interested in no one over the age of twenty-one, I still returned to that suburban citrus patch in south Florida. The last summer I spent there was the one just before my seventeenth birthday. During the month I spent there, I devoted myself to learning the classics of all varieties. I read Buck’s The Good Earth and listened to Strauss waltzes. From that impossibly weird combination, I progressed to jazz and A Moveable Feast. The Florida house was the natural place for doing such things. My grandmother had been a proponent of my intellectual development for as long as I could remember. When she graduated from high school in 1938, she was offered a full scholarship to the state university – an extraordinary feat for a young woman at the time – but had to turn it down to care for her sick father. She was always quite clear that it was the big loss of her life, one from which she never fully recovered, and never completely stopped being angry about.
This was another area in which her parenting sharply differed from her grandparenting. She didn’t encourage, nor did she particularly acknowledge, her daughters’ academic lives. But she was relentless in promoting mine. I can’t account for that, and have mostly stopped trying. All I know is I’m grateful for it.
But more importantly, she created a space in which I was free from the burdens of anxiety or concern, and I used it to build a life of imagination. There was often a book in my hand when I was there. But if there wasn't, I would simply spend glorious amounts of time doing nothing at all, a privilege denied to so many children today. I'd lie on the porch among the orchids, picking apart hibiscus flowers, daydreaming and watching the chameleons skitter about, their red throats pulsating as we stared at each other. Or I would hold their cockatiel, Woodstock, on one finger and feed him peanut butter with another. Then I'd lift him up to my face, let him lightly peck my nose, and declare that he had peanut butter breath. Which he did, if you can imagine that of a bird.
It was there, in those tiny moments in the heat of a tropical July, that I learned the richness of experience and sensation.
And so there is a thread about to be pulled, and it feels like it must be connected to my viscera. But I know it isn't, because she never would have made it that way.