July 4th sticks out to me as the last good day I spent with her. I had been back in the states a few days, and I was wearing a blue and white tye-dye skirt that brushed my ankles as I walked. I had paired it with a red shirt and blue and gold headband, making me look very much like a celebratory firework. We waited an hour for her to dress that day. Over the course of a year, her dementia had grown worse and her body had grown harder to direct. Some days were good and some were bad. She was still in bed when we entered—all five of us, Daddy carrying some sort of day old, Kroger treat for her to indulge in. We said hello, and she gave me a broad smile, “Well hello there, well I love your skirt. Can I borrow that?” Her southern accent was thick. And there I was standing there caught off guard, laughing so hard and nodding my head. “Yes, Grandma. You can borrow it if you like.” Of course, we were both joking, but something about my 92-year-old great-grandmother liking my tye-dye hippie skirt felt just right.
This was the moment I remembered as we hiked the hill near the old Baptist church near Henderson, Kentucky last Saturday. There, with their own hands, her grandchildren dug a hole and buried her ashes. From ashes to ashes. There—beneath the soil where her husband and daughter were laid to rest. Next to them, my grandfather. And somewhere else, in some other county, her son had been buried and honored. The wind was biting as I stood there with three generations of family members, burying a woman who had been the matriarch of our scattered and diverse family. It was a moment of peace though, knowing her tired body had finally received eternal rest. The two younger boys ran around our skirts catching ladybugs, and I watched the expressions of my father and his four male cousins—all of them holding some resemblance to their late grandmother.
“It’s that native American blood,” Mama jokes on the way home.
She jokes, but I believe her blood made her the fighter that she was. 92 years is a long time to live. A lot is lost along the way. Children. A husband. Friends. Home. Gram says she’d been fighting since she was born though.
It’s funny the things you learn about a person after they pass. They begin to take shape in your mind as more than what they were to you. They begin to be shaped into someone other than Grandma Risley—they become a child. A woman. A story. In my case, she became a lady named Lucille.
It is suspected that Grandma’s father was full blood Cherokee and that he had met her mother while working as a traveling salesman. No one can be certain though, because the orphanage fire burnt the records long ago, and Grandma declined the offer to meet her real mother when offered the opportunity as an adult. And you know, I don’t blame her. She was just a baby when the sweet, Christian couple came to the orphanage and said they’d adopt the baby that needed the most care. Baby Lucille had rickets at the time, and her ear had begun to grow to the side of her head because no one was picking her up out of the crib. They took her home, and the rest is history—my family history.
As the sun began to set and disappear upon the horizon, I began to think about how strong of a woman my great grandmother had been—how independent and resourceful—how well she had loved people and life. And it felt good to remember that her blood also runs through my veins. Perhaps she gave me more than her cheekbones. Maybe, just a little part of her makes up a little part of me too.