Grandmother — never ‘nana’ or ‘granny’ until my youngest nieces were born 15 years later and began to wrestle with the moniker we’d been warned not to change — didn’t call me dirty red until I returned from Peace Corps. By then she’d had several mini strokes and the doctors weren’t sure if they, or Alzheimers, were responsible for her diminished capacity.
Suddenly, a thought would blow through her mind like breath into a bubble. A sudden puffing up, filled with everything she needed in the moment, only to burst and be lost in an instant.
I imagine for my family her decline was subtle. A day by day or weekly dimming of her vibrant light. But after my two-year absence the difference for me was jarring. She still had tightly curled hair, more silver than black, I had never known her beyond pictures with any other style. She still had a steely gaze accompanied by her pursed lips. It was familiar to me, as familiar as her silken skin (softer than anything I’ve ever touched). And although her voice was the same as before my departure, the words she formed weren’t.
“dirty red, why haven’t you come to visit me?” she chided. I had only been home a week or two. Still recovering from jet lag, my family had trundled me into the car and we drove the 80ish miles to visit my grandparents in Beaumont, Texas. Taken aback by “dirty red,” a phrase I associated more with college boy pickup lines than my grandmother, I smiled and took my lumps. I’d been gone for more than two years. She could fuss.
Only 15 minutes later and she asked again. Admonishing me once again for the same sin of absence. And again later. And later. And again and again.
The mini-strokes were diagnosed shortly before I left the country. Grandmother, always quick and bright, had been a little off kilter. Diagnosis in hand, I had a crisis of geography.
“Maybe I should postpone South Africa.” It seemed a reasonable thing to do. Something that demonstrated my support and love. What if she was dying?
“Postpone until what?” my dad asked. “Nothing is promised; you can’t wait to start your life. You can’t wait for people to die.”
It was jarring at the time. Jarring to my 24 year old ears. Jarring to my sense of filial duty. But it also made sense to me. Growing up my parents had always instilled in me that love wasn’t about location. So when I left for school in Florida, 900 miles away, there was no guilt. And as I boarded my plane to South Africa I was (mostly) guilt free.
And then I returned.
And my grandmother, always sharp edged and direct, baptized me dirty red and asked me constantly why I hadn’t come to see her. I’m not sure I thought it at the time but looking back, maybe I have internalized it as my penance for going so far away.
Two of my best friends live where they live so that they are close to their parents. They left for a time, but love and unspoken duty called them back. While California is closer than most of my other recent addresses (it doesn’t require a passport or traversing large bodies of water) it is not close to my family.
As my parents have stomped their way into their 60s, the challenges of age slowly slink their way behind them. I am suddenly and painfully aware of the distance. I am aware of the six hour flight and $450 ticket that separate us. More than the thinly veiled incredulous voices of acquaintances that wonder — out loud — how I can be so far from home, I judge myself.
I could have relocated to Texas last year. Could have set up shop and dug in roots close to the people that are my first and enduring embodiments of love. Always a source of strength and support, part of me repeats my grandmother’s mantra to myself… “dirty red, why haven’t you come to see me?”
But I also hear my father. Clear and logical, the sentiment as much as the words pushing back against the call to Texas, “You can’t wait to start your life.”
I haven’t waited. Good, bad, and crazy, I’ve charted a path and followed my own wayward compass, the gift of guilt-free parents at my traveling side — in spirit when geography conspired against us. Guilt-free parents or not, the guilt is still there pushing against my flight of fancy life. This year I’ve seen my parents once and I will only see them again at Christmas. That is a paltry presence for the people who are my definition of love. What kind of daughter am I?
I am thankful for their quiet reassurance that my life is my life and they are proud of the journey I’m taking. But I still hear whispers of the daughter I could be, the daughter some (sometimes even I) argue I should be…and in those moments I hear my grandmother’s voice, “dirty red…dirty red…” and I wonder why I haven’t visited more.