By John Thomas Tuft

Grandma Vernie was a force to be reckoned with. Born in a holler outside of Hurricane, West Virginia, she grew up dirt poor. In 1923, at the age of 15, she gave birth to my mother and neither of them had much good to say about those early years. I was told about the chore of going out back to wring the neck of the chicken which would be in the pot for supper. I can only try to imagine what it was to be six years old when the Great Depression started in the United States. A hardscrabble existence turned into a next to impossible existence. The shame and stigma of being a child of an unmarried teenager in that era. But this is about that teenager who birthed her. It’s funny how as a child, your grandparents just sprang up from the earth, fully formed as the adults who spoil you, fret over you, feed you chocolate pie, cookies and orange soda. The fully formed grandmother who always kept her hair dyed a dark auburn, carefully coifed at the beauty parlor each week. Always in a dress, sometimes with stockings rolled down around her ankles as she labored away in the kitchen, limping at times when her ‘arthuritis’ acted up.

My mother told tales of sneaking out of the house to go to youth events at a local church. Vernie had a fierce temper and hard demands. My mother did her best to hide the pain of her father moving out when Vernie took up with the Depression era boarder in the home. Grandparents are as human as the rest of us. That boarder was who I knew as Pap, nicknamed by us as Orange Pop. Whenever I was at her house for the night I knew all was right with the world when I heard my grandma in the kitchen before dawn getting Pap his bacon and eggs and packing his metal lunch box and thermos for his shift at the Midland Steel Plant on the Ohio River. The two of them had a daughter, who I knew as my Aunt Janet, she of the easy laugh and hard life. She died at the age of 28 from stomach cancer and all of a sudden my world was about more than chocolate pie and sports in the backyard until the streetlights came on. Vernie’s life became filled with custody battles in court with the girls’ stepfather, a strain that never seemed to leave her even after she won custody and raised the two girls the rest of the way.

Years and years later, when Pap became ill with the same kind of cancer that killed his daughter, I was a young man, driving on my own to visit with my wife and babies. To the world I was Reverend Tuft, that preacher who wrote a column in the weekly paper, but to them I was always ‘Johnny.’ I miss being Johnny, to tell you the truth. I got to sit in her kitchen once again as she busily prepared a feast of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, succotash and, of course, pie. But the fear was writ large on Vernie’s face as she watched Pap pick at his food. He was wasting away before her eyes. He took me out to the garage and told me about taking care of tools. The effort made him sweat in the chill eastern Ohio air as he sat on the stoop, struggling to speak. Later my grandma thanked me for spending time with him but no thanks was necessary. She seemed so small and alone, watching his body be lowered into the ground.

I used to fantasize during the worst of all my surgeries and recoveries and unrelenting pain that one day I would answer the doorbell and the ‘angel of pain’ would be there with an enthusiastic, “Okay, time’s up! You’re all done with pain in your life.” Then there are the times when I remember going to visit Vernie, my grandma, shortly before she died… The room is noisy. Not with shouting or loud laughter, but with confused and distraught mutterings, groans, uncontrollable cries of those minds abandoning aged bodies longing for familiar homes and lost loved ones. I stand inside the doorway looking at the little knots of heads with snow white hair huddling over tabletops, rocking back and forth in wheelchairs, while white clad aides go about their business. I search for her, but the timeworn faces offer no recognition.

Finally, an aide wheels someone out of the shower area. From across the room, I study the face. The hair is white, hanging in long stringy strands wet from bathing. She looks around, slightly bewildered. I slowly walk over, still not sure myself. She looks up, eyes uncertain. I speak her name. Another moment’s hesitation. Then a smile. “Johnny!” I smile back and kneel beside her chair. “Yes, it’s me.” “They told me my grandson was here, but I didn’t know if I would know you.” I touch her cheek. “I’ve been away too long, Grandma.”

The area is too noisy, so we go back to her sparsely furnished room. As I help her through the doorway I can see hesitation in her movements. The other bed is empty, stripped bare. An aide is cleaning everything with disinfectant. “My roommate died last night.” She says it quietly, unspoken thoughts hiding behind the words. She says it repeatedly, not with disbelief but with recognition. “The woman in that bed died last night. They took her stuff this morning.” I ask who she was. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember her name, Johnny.” That bothers her and she furrows her brow, trying to make the name come. “I can’t remember.” It’s a plaintive cry. “She’s been here as long as me. She died last night. I can’t remember her name.”

I tell her that I’m sorry. We sit and talk for an hour. We share complaints. We laugh and tell secrets. “You’re in pain, aren’t you, Johnny?” I can see in her eyes that she is, too. Sometimes pain lets us know we are alive. Sometimes it tells us how much we love. Sometimes it is a secret hidden away in an empty chamber. Sometimes the doorbell never rings with an announcement that life will go on free of pain. I kiss her goodbye and reassure her that I will come back. “Johnny,” she says, holding tight to my hand. “Johnny, will you miss me?” My tears even as I write this all these years later are my proof, Grandma.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.