The Dancer, the Dead and the Madonna: Part 12 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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Granma’s Madonna scares me. She says it will be ours one day, my sisters and mine; but I don’t want it. I want to want it but I can’t. In my heart I know it has to be my sisters because it can’t ever be mine. There is no explaining the Madonna. No way to understand it but through its history which reaches back further in time than any of us know.

The war brought the Madonna into our lives. Granma nursed hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers in the war. Granma bandaged men as they healed and held their hands as they passed giving what comfort she could. One of her soldiers was a French man. She’d nursed him for months. In gratitude for his life and all the care she had given him he gave her the Madonna, one of two he had found in the rubble of a bombed church.

Granma kept the Madonna with her throughout the war. When the air raid sirens howled she would take the Madonna into the bomb shelters. The Madonna’s hair and robe are shined to a polish with all the hours Granma spent running her hands over the folds of her plaster robe, waiting for the siren that would announce the all clear.

But when I look at the Madonna I don’t see Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven-the Mother Mary. I have been raised to love Our Lady but I don’t see her when I look on Granma’s Madonna. Instead I see the bombs, the wounded, the dying and the dead.

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Her robe is the yellow of aged plaster with traces of the sacred blue paint she once wore, caught in the folded grooves of her robe. Her gown too is worn of color; its white paint only visible in a few deeply etched places. Once, the rose at her feet was a soft shade of red. I know this because a touch of color sits between the petals. Granma’s Madonna is lined with cracks, broken and repaired, her head repositioned onto its neck, her torso and base re-sculpted with glue and plaster chips. Yet it wasn’t the bombs that smashed her.

My family fought in both the world wars and only lost one man in battle. Yet we lost two women during those wars and both died at home. The first was my Granma’s sister Eva. On hearing of her fiancé’s death at Verdun, France she fell ill and died of a broken heart. The second was my Granma’s sister-in-law, a beautiful American actress who died suddenly of pneumonia during the second war. Her name was Jackie.

Jackie was a movie actress and vaudeville dancer who supported the troops by keeping them entertained. She was healthy and young and beautiful, too filled with life to die. Our family mourned her in the same sitting room where all our dead were mourned. Granma took leave from the Portland Royal Naval Hospital to sit vigil beside her coffin. Flowers filled the sitting room surrounding Jackie’s coffin and the Madonna was placed on a table at Jackie’s head. On the final night before the funeral the room was darkened and the mourners went to bed. (This part is strange to me because the custom of our family is to sit with the lost one until the funeral.) The house was still, everyone was asleep when suddenly… “Smash…”

Granma reached the downstairs sitting room, her brother, Jackie’s grieving husband beside her while all the rest of the family made their way down behind them. Opening the door they saw the Madonna in pieces on the floor, a huge hole in the wall where she had struck it. No one was in the room. No one had flung the statue at the wall. Jackie lay as she had, stilled by death, quiet and cold in her satin lined coffin. So who had smashed the Madonna? No one knows.

No, I do not want Granma’s Madonna. Just to think of it gives me chills. When Granma places it in my sister’s small hands I am filled with an ancient, haunted kind of fear.
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Attributes of a Magical Grandmother: Part 5 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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Granma is probably my most favorite person in the universe. She dresses up at Halloween, throws banquets at Christmas and takes me bowling on Saturday mornings. My Granma is different from other girl’s Grandmothers. She bakes and cooks and does things other Granma’s do but not for the same reasons. She doesn’t take care of people or baby people. Instead she makes them strong. She teaches them how to navigate the world by being fully and perfectly alive. She is alive. Every day she finds things to do that I find magical.

Magical Granma Attribute one would be her incredible tackle box. Imagine opening a box filled with every fishing lure you can imagine. Note the smell of salmon eggs and other assorted fish bate. Together we cast, reel and become patient while full size rainbow trout circle near by.

Magical Granma Attribute two would be her sewing box. From the contents of that sewing box I have learned to embroider, bead and do needle point. During the war Granma embroidered in air raid shelters while other people counted the seconds between explosions, controlling their fear by trying to predict where the next bomb would hit.

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Magical Granma Attribute three are these stories of life and death that haunt my young mind. She begins,

“During the war…” and the room falls silent. Her words are spoken matter of fact but their meaning makes pictures so rich with color and scent that they are a part of me.

“During the war the bombs fell…” thousands of them rained down on her life as they did so many British lives.

There was the time bomb that slipped silently into the wreckage of a bombed out nurses ward. Granma and her fellow nurses had returned to the area to gather what supplies could be salvaged. They worked quickly and efficiently in the wreckage at Portland Bill, until a voice yelled out. “Look up,” the voice called. “You silly girls. Get the hell out.” And there it was, swinging above them on the ropes of its parachute. When I imagine the bomb it always looks like a giant deadly watch, its long arms spinning towards death. Granma says it didn’t tell time that way. It just counted down on its own, never telling anyone when it would go off.

Magical Granma Attribute four is her garden. I love her garden. There I find a purple eggplant the size of a football. Granma says I shouldn’t pet it but its smooth purple skin is too beautiful not to touch. The air in the garden is filled with the scent of roses, huge beautiful carnivorous roses, their thorns gleaming sharp and deadly in the bright Utah sun. They are carnivorous because they scratch me when I get too close and they eat our fish, at least all the bits we don’t eat. I walk behind Granma with my little trowel and help her dig small graves below each bush. This is why her roses are the largest and most beautiful. It’s because of the fish.

Magical Granma Attribute five is time. Time moves slowly around her, it smells of ham and roses, fat lap dogs and long stories. I sit beside her on the steps of her front porch and listen to the birds in her cherry tree. Here there is time to remember, to watch, to notice the butterflies, count the tomatoes and just be together. There is no rush or hurry because there is no one else in this world who can stop time like Granma. A day lasts a week in her garden, so filled with food and story that I don’t grow tired and I never want to go home. Through brightly colored memories, we walk her father’s farm in England and drive her pony and trap down through the fields to bring lunch to the men. Closing my eyes I feel the English sunlight. I see the endless green down lands stretched before us, their curving flanks dotted with sheep. Somewhere over the next rise men plow with draft horses, harvest timber and gather watercress. Just over the next hill our people work the earth and they are hungry for their lunch.

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