I try not to think about it. Still, it keeps rising to the cognitive part of my brain and I’ll be driving in my car or standing in the kitchen or talking to my sister and there it is.
I realized, since my birthday last week, that I am now the age of my grandmother when she died. She hadn’t seen it coming; no one had. Just a pain in the belly, really, like everybody gets. Only it got worse, until finally they went to the emergency room at the small hospital in Soda Springs. She never left the hospital.
My mom was only 14 years old then. Aunt Becky was 9. They were the youngest of four sons and seven daughters.
So I never met her, in this life at least and the Lizzie Parrish I know is mostly found in black and white, with tidy little frames around her. She speaks to me in muted whispers, from back there behind the glossy finish on the few photos we have of her, stacked in a shoe box with other relatives I knew and did not know. I copied a few of my favorite pictures and planted them in places I pass daily; an attempt to memorize her at least and beckon her spirit to visit at most.
I keep one of my favorites in an oval frame on the clapboard panel to the side of my fridge. Her sober expression cannot belie the humor of her place in the Blackfoot Grange Kitchen Band. See how central she is, there in the middle of that cluster of farmer wives as they posed on the steps before they marched in a parade?
See how she sets her spoons on the upended drum of a kitchen pan? In any band, musical or not, someone has to set the beat. I listen for her beat as I work in my kitchen, glancing at her daily. I stand at my stove and stir in 4/4 time.
My mom says she has an indelible image of her mom at the old black cook stove on the ranch in Idaho, cooking non-stop for her eleven children, her husband George, the ranch hands, and any other guest George had decided to invite to their table.
My mother was a typical adolescent when her mom died, so her memories of her are skewed by her perspective. She remembers her mom looking so tired. She recalls the sweat beaded on her forehead as she stood over that hot stove in the dry heat of Idaho summers, her apron cinched around her waist, her well spent breasts leaning over the ridge, her legs bound by thick flesh toned stockings, her weary ankles swelling over the rims of her thick black shoes.
I stand at my stove in my bare feet, with my air conditioner pumping cool air into my kitchen, my apron hanging loosely over my own ample belly. My stove needs no wood, no ashes need to be swept out before I start the fire. I simply twist a knob and a nice hot flame appears, one which I can adjust at will. I wonder if she might have smiled more if she’d had my kitchen.
Mom tells me that her mother had a most lovely, lilting singing voice. She was often called upon to comfort with song at funerals and in other gatherings. A beautiful alto voice. I sit in my quiet space sometimes and listen for her harmony to my songs, but I can barely feel it and never really hear it. Just imagine it, I guess.
I imagine her cleaning up the mess in the kitchen, untying her apron and hanging it on the hook by the door, pumping some water into a pan and washing herself in the privacy of her bedroom. A basin of water and some home made soap, the water cooling her brow, the fine little hairs on the rim of her thick black mane curling innocently around her weepy forehead. I imagine her drawing a brush through her hair, down past her shoulders, back from her face. She twists the whole of it in a loose bun at the back of her neck. Dips the cloth into the basin of water and wrings it out, smoothing it over the skin in her armpits and under her breasts. She washes like this most often, a full bath being reserved for once a week. Clean garments, and a starched Sunday Dress. She hums as she readies, warming her vocal cords. She lifts the small celluloid framed mirror to her face, turns her head from side to side to check the back of her hair, steps back to make sure all the buttons are buttoned, then places the mirror face down on the tatted doily atop her wooden dresser. She presses her stockinged feet into her Sunday heels and walks through the kitchen to the front door, her heels clicking against the wood as she calls instructions to her children; reminders to feed the chickens and gather the eggs; to sweep the floor and mop it down before sundown so the wood can dry; to get to that basket of ironing while the stove is still hot. She lifts a basket of food for the luncheon following the funeral, balances it on her hip, and walks out and down the lane to the church. There, standing behind the casket, her song becomes a facilitator for grief, a coverlet of comfort in a rain of tears.
Last Saturday I stood at a pulpit and comforted with song at the funeral of a friend’s mother. This is not an uncommon thing for me, singing at funerals. I stood there looking out at the grieving congregation and that thought bubbled up once again…the one about Lizzie dying when she was my age. Interestingly, I did not shake it off; didn’t even try. I let it sit there on the lower shelf of thought, in my multi layered brain space. I guess I wanted to sing to her, too, somehow. I wanted her to know that I keep her here…in my memory…even though I have not met her, not in this life at least.
Lizzie Wood Parrish is a collage of photos and images and stories piled together in my head; gathered from those who knew her, all of them from those who loved her. It was not difficult for me to take that collection from my brain and set it in my heart.
I wonder what she might have thought of me, if we had known each other, both of us middle aged contemporaries. I like to think we would have been friends. I like to think that I could skim my wooden spoon over the ridges of a washboard as she taps a steady beat on her kitchen pot and we would be right in synch, our feet pounding against the pavement in perfect time as we march - side by side.