I guess that’s the thing about plans. That’s all they are until they come to fruition. Phillip and I had planned to travel east over the Thanksgiving holiday and make a straight four-day passage across the Gulf to Carrabelle, but, as it always does, life seemed to have something different in store for us. We had planned to leave on November 15th and had spent the week provisioning and planning and getting the boat ready, when I got a call mid-week from my Dad that changed everything. My grandmother, better known to all as “Big Mom,” the strongest, most stubborn southern woman I’ve ever met, passed away on November 13, 2013.
Now, while any death is sad. It’s the end of a life, the severing, or distortion, at least, of a connection you made with someone. It’s a loss of something irreplaceable, a person. It’s sad. Always. But it’s also inspiring and stirring. What better motivator could there be than a humbling reminder that our time here is most certainly limited. That every moment passed is one lost forever, and that, no matter how long it may seem when looking forward, looking back, life is nothing but undeniably all too short. My grandmother lived eighty-six full years on this earth, fuller, even, than I had imagined. It’s funny how we forget that the people in our lives exist outside of us. I learned, while sorting through old photos for her funeral that, long before I was even a gleam in my father’s eye, Big Mom had already experienced a lifetime of adventure. I found pictures of her hiking in Alaska, riding a furry Clydesdale-looking horse in thigh-high snow, splashing around in the ocean at the ripe age of eighteen, skiing, skating, dancing and laughing, always laughing. I even found a picture of her in a pretty ‘racy’ bikini for the times (1955) and have to admit I was nothing but proud. My grandma was hot! While I didn’t know her as this adventurous spit-fire, that was before my time, I do remember the many years she spent schooling, scolding, spanking and shaping my Dad, my aunt, my brother, my cousins, all of us, into the people we are today.
And I do mean “all of us.” Spanking was allowed by anyone in the “village” in those days, and kids behaved in those days.
So, instead of packing the boat for a voyage, Phillip and I packed a couple of suitcases with our black Sunday bests and headed up to north Alabama for the services. And, holding true to my belief in the power of stories, I chose this one for the funeral, as I believe it captures the essence of the woman we lost that day:
I was quite the cowgirl when I was four. Well, I made a good run at it least. My Dad was the actual cowboy and I was his handkerchief-wearing, boot-and-spur sporting miniature. If Dad was getting on a horse, so was I, in the front, right up next to the horn. One day, I was riding with my Dad on one of his new roping horses, Rusty. My brother had hopped on the back so we were three-deep, horseback and walking along the gravel road from the pastures down yonder up to Big Mom’s house.
Now, I can’t tell you what happened exactly. I barely remember the actual fall, but Dad tells me the horse was stung by something. A hornet, probably, based on the welp he found on the horse’s hind quarter later, but Rusty reared back on his hind legs, his fronts doing that classic Black Stallion bicycle kick, and threw John right off the back. He then came down, firmly planted the’ fronts,’ and gave a massive buck with the back, launching my Dad and I up and over his head. Now, it was a good thing my Dad held on to me tight when the horse reared back so I wouldn’t fall, but not such a good thing when the horse bucked us over his head and we smashed into the ground, me on the bottom and all two hundred and ten pounds of my Dad on top, and slid across the gravel road and into the ditch.
My Dad had a look of horror on his face when he rolled me over, pushed a blood-soaked swath of hair and bits of gravel from my face, and asked me if I was okay. I tried to respond but, although I can’t explain it, I had a clot the size of Kansas in my mouth. I do remember that. I also remember the world jostling around me as he scooped me up and started running toward the house shouting for Big Mom. And, Big Mom was, I guess, all of fifty-nine at the time, but she hoisted me up close to her body and hauled me up every stair in the house, saying, just as calmly as ever, “Now, let’s see what we got here.” In the bathroom she started drawing a bath and I saw a couple bottles of hydrogen peroxide on the edge of the tub, a home health product I was all too familiar with. That was the stuff that made a tiny little cut that didn’t hurt at all bubble and fizzle and burn like acid. I knew what it was capable of and I saw Big Mom dumping bottles (bottles!) of it into the tub. I started wriggling out of her grasp, protesting and wailing and begging for “Anything but that!”
But Big Mom wasn’t having it. Even my most fervent rebellion was not going to stop her from doing what she knew was right for me. With strength I had never imagined her capable of and not a single word, she plopped in that vat of acid and every laceration on my body started fizzling and frothing until it looked like a bubble bath. I was flailing and sputtering and shrieking at her in protest, when she grabbed me by my bloody, foamy chin and–this part I will never forget–said “Awww hush, you’re alive ain’t ya? It ain’t that bad. Hell, I swish with it.” And, then she did the unthinkable. Big Mom tipped the bottle of hydrogen peroxide up and took a swig. I sat there dumbfounded, totally silent, only the soft sound of my fizzling skin floating between us, as she swished that foul stuff around in her mouth three of four times, her eyes locked tightly on mine. She then spit a white foamy mouthful out next to me in the tub and gave me a firm “hmmpph” look that shut me up entirely. I forgot completely that my skin was burning off, that I was in pain everywhere, or, even, that I had fallen and skid across gravel. Clot? What clot?? Big Mom had just swished with hydrogen peroxide!?! Could there be anything worse? And, just like that, I stopped complaining, I stopped crying and I agreed with her. It really wasn’t that bad.
And, it was a lesson that stuck. There have been many times in my life when something that seemed tragic at the time happened to me and, for whatever reason, my mind flashed back to that foul bath, my fizzling skin and the look on Big Mom’s face as she swished and spat. You’re alive ain’t ya?
You’re damn right I am. And, I don’t intend to waste a minute. Phillip and I knew we were going to have to push the trip back and, likely, plan a different route, but we didn’t mind. We didn’t care where we went, really, as long as we went. While we prefer sunshine and cocktails, we know rough seas and foul weather are going to be part of it, too, and will likely be just as memorable, if not more so. Either way, as long as we’re alive, it just ain’t that bad. We still had time left and a voyage to plan.