Grand Hand

Grand Hand

In my grandchildren flows the blood of my great-grandfather, James Albert Anderson, his daughter and my grandmother, Louise Anderson Bridgers and her daughter and my mother, Anne Bridgers Hackney but also of many other families like the Davies and the Kings, the Rigbys and the Keels, the Deans, Flemings, Acras, Hunters, Battles, Clarks, Grays and many more. But I wasn't thinking of any of those relatives when I saw a handsome, tow headed young fellow running full-steam-ahead toward me. It's my grandson who, for the record, looks exactly like my son-in-law and his father (funny how that works) even though my mother always said "nothing's stronger than Hackney genes”. The quickest of glances at our opposite features proves that was fanciful thinking at its best.

"TomTom! TomTom!" Alex yells as he jumps up and down with more excitement and volume than should be able to be expressed from such a small person. Two year old happiness is magical so I'm not going to quell his effusiveness even though our fellow diners stop eating and look our way at his overjoyed display of affection. There won't be any shushing from me because I don’t normally attract this kind of attention and I'm soaking it in for all its worth. Societal convention (along with knowing that if I jump up and down things jiggle that shouldn't) keep me from dancing a jig and yipping and yelling like Alex has been doing - although I really, really want to. Instead, I hug Alex tightly as he keeps yelling my name and as we release from our hug, I notice bright, fall sunlight pouring through the windows and it briefly blinds me. Something is cooking nearby and the aroma of waffles, omelets, toast and coffee quickly swirl around us. Alex wraps his tiny hand around my large index finger and leads me to our table, already filled with my family. My granddaughter, Page, laser focused on her coloring project, looks up, smiles and says, "Hey TomTom!" and then gets right back to her work.

Elizabeth looks over and says, "Hi Dad! Did GiGi get moved back to Tarboro yesterday? Are the flooding issues over at her nursing home?" Before I answer, I take a moment to look around at my family and the old circle of life comes back around and taps me on the shoulder and says here I am again - pay attention - don't miss this moment.

"Forget you? I could never forget you, Anne!" James Anderson, or more simply Grandpa, said to his 4 year old granddaughter as she was leaving her grandparents' house after several months of living with them. It was 1932 and her father, Tom, was recovering from a life threatening subdural hematoma at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Her mother, Louise, had stayed by her husband's side until doctors were certain Tom was going to survive. Then his long recovery would start and Louise could travel back and forth between North Carolina and Maryland as her husband convalesced.

It was early morning at the Anderson house on East Airline Avenue in Gastonia and the old, wavy glass in the large window of the classic bungalow was covered in moisture with sunlight glimmering though the tiny droplets. "Anne, press your hand on the glass. You'll make a print on it that I'll never wash off. Even when you're not here I will see your handprint there on the window and I'll always think of you." My mother loved her grandfather and repeated this simple story of his love to me many times. But even as he was having a light moment with his granddaughter, Dr. Anderson had to worry that life ahead for his youngest daughter Louise - only twenty four and pregnant with her second child and married to a very sick man - could become very difficult.

"Get in the back seat, honey, we're going to pick up Ada and then you're going with me to the beach. And no sir, you can't eat that Zero bar in my Buick - you know the rules - but we'll stop at Pat's Soda Shop in Vanceboro for a Co-Cola, OK? Or maybe you'd like an orangeade?" My grandmother Louise, or LuLu to her grandchildren, glanced around the inside of her Buick and said to me, "You know my father was a doctor and he rode a horse to make house calls. When he'd return home he'd call me and say, 'Blue, watch this!' And he’d make his horse rear up on its hind legs, just to show off for me. He thought that was funny but it scared me to death. Now we have cars and not horses. It's incredible."

She continued loading the car and - surprisingly - the perfect harmony of the Supremes singing "Back in My Arms Again" plays on the radio that normally only churns out classical music. I want to sing along but decide it's smarter to sit quietly and not draw attention to the music I love and risk an immediate change in radio stations. Even at 8, my grandmother's habits and this trip are already very familiar to me. I love the two lane blacktop heading east because it leads to one of my favorite places - the old family beach cottage. The drive is seatbelt-free and a first glimpse of a Carolina blue sound means the bridge is next followed by our final destination. Once the car stops in the driveway, LuLu says “We’re here!” in a very light-hearted way, opens the back door and reaches for me in the back seat. I take her perfectly manicured hand to help me out of the car, holding the uneaten Zero bar in my other hand as I glance past the cottage to the ocean's waves. The same hand that helps me out of the car gently guides me through my childhood, teenage years and young life as LuLu is more often mother than grandmother to me.

The same hand, though darkened with age and thicker at the joints, is still perfectly manicured as I hold it when she is dying of old age at 98. As she lays quietly in her bed, I whisper her favorite old stories about her physician father, his horse, his pet nickname for her, “Blue”, because of her beautiful, vibrant blue eyes which are now glassy and unknowing. Maybe she is being reunited with him because she has missed him for so long. Holding her hand and guiding her on a final journey is completing our life circle started when I was born 49 years earlier. As this moment I wonder if I will have a grandchild holding my hand when my life is coming to a close.

"Honey, congratulations! I'm so happy you're expecting your first child but please don’t mention this to me again until the baby is born. I’m just not ready to be a grandparent. It’s the end of an era for means I’ll be old...wrinkled...a granny...and I’m not quite ready for that yet. I’ll love the baby...but I’m...well...just not ready...but congratulations. Let’s not talk about this subject any more for seven or eight months or until we have to.”

Mother is strong and independent, with enough ambition and determination to fill Wallace Wade Stadium and Kenan Stadium combined. She’s stylish, fun-loving, outgoing and all things social. But maternal? Not so much. It's not the classic beginning to becoming a grandmother you'd find in a Book of Grandmother Fairy Tales but my mother is like no other and I had just told her Susan was pregnant with our first child.

Babysitting wasn't in the top 10 of her favorite things to do and probably not on the Top 20 or 30, so I was surprised when she called two and a half years later to ask if her granddaughter, Elizabeth, could spend the day with her. I should have known something was up but I feigned ignorance just as she did. Mother knew I was encouraging Elizabeth - who'd only recently started talking - to call her "Granny-Annie" and as badly as she disliked being old enough to be a grandmother, she disliked the name Granny Annie even more. When I arrived later that afternoon to pick her up, Elizabeth had a half empty jumbo pack of M&Ms in one hand and Mother’s hand in the other. As Mother hugged her goodbye, Elizabeth said "Bye-bye GiGi. I love you!" Mother's blue eyes twinkled with pleasure that she'd beaten me to the grandmother-naming-punch and I'd been foiled by The Master. The acerbic name I loved was never to be.

“Dad, I was asking you about GiGi. Is she OK?” Elizabeth asked.

Mother had been temporarily moved to Parkwood Village in Wilson, away from her home for the prior 5 years at The Albemarle in Tarboro. Historic flooding from Hurricane Matthew threatened to flood the facility and it had to be evacuated. She was 87 and the quick change in her routine and the move confused her. Mother didn't get out of the bed or eat for 4 days afterward and as each day passed, her condition worsened and her body weakened. Even though she couldn't adjust, being back in her hometown was appealing and after a brief discussion about staying in Wilson or moving back to Tarboro, she agreed to leave the final decision to me.

For my lifelong hell-bent-and-determined-to-do-it-her-way mother to suddenly be compliant and allow me to make a final decision raised a red flag of worry. But her next comment was even more concerning: "Tom, you look thin. Have you lost weight?" For the last decade my thin Mother had made disparaging remarks about my weight so her nice comment made me wonder. Was she was at the pearly gates with St. Peter waving her to the other side and she wanted to leave me with something positive before crossing over?

It was almost noon late the next morning when I walked into her small room expecting her to again be lying in bed in spite of my stern instructions for the staff to have her up and dressed and ready for the move back to Tarboro. Remarkably, she was up, dressed and sitting in her wheelchair - weak but ready.

"Wow-Mom, you seem so much better. Lazarus has nothing on you!"

"Go to hell you ol’ buzzard. I'm fine – just a little thinner - which I love. And I hate I told you last night that I would abide by what you decide for me. I take that back. I will never defer to your wishes. Never!" But she was going back to Tarboro as I knew was best for her.

A little cussing. Being combative. Happy to be thinner. My mother was back from the edge. The Albermarle bus arrived and lifted her up on its platform and the attendant rolled her next to a window and as he belted Mother in, I leaned down to hug her. She kissed my cheek and said, "I love you and I appreciate everything you’re doing for me. You’re my sweetest child." She’s no dummy and throughout our lives she has made that comment to each one of her three children to suit her wishes and needs.

"I love you too, Mother. "

Our relationship has had many ups and downs but somehow we understand each other and have forgiven the difficult times and now focused on the good ones. I stood on the curb and watched as the bus pulled away. I could see the palm of her hand pressed against the dew-covered window as she headed east, back home.


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