The last time I saw my grandmother alive was at my uncle Bobby’s funeral. She looked tired. Grandma breathlessly said, “Hello,” almost unable to get out of her chair. We did our usual routine. I told her how much I missed her. How I wished I had more time to stay but had to hit the road. I needed to be in Oklahoma City the next day for a speaking engagement. I was beginning to make a name for myself as a writer and orator and was scheduled to speak in “the city” the day after the funeral.
My grandmother—Mamie Murray Butts—died a few months later at the age of 90.
I wish I had made the time to see her. Now it’s too late. Life changes when your grandmother dies—in sometimes small and, initially, imperceptible ways, but also in big ways that can take years for you to truly understand.
When I was a young boy, my mother and I always made the trek to her hometown of Idabel, Okla., during the holiday season. The family called it going “down home.”
When I walked into the house after the five-hour trip from Oklahoma City that felt like days to my young mind, Grandma would jump out of her chair to give me the kind of hug that only a matriarch can give: one that smelled of cinnamon with a dash of nutmeg and contained years of pride and sacrifice.
My mother has eight siblings—I am one of 19 grandchildren—so we would all sleep anywhere we could in the cramped, three-bedroom house. Sometimes that meant three or four to a bed, but we didn’t mind. We were home. Now, when this season comes, I feel like my home no longer exists.
Since her death, two things bring my grandmother to mind.
The first is pecan pie. Every Christmas, she made two for the family and one only for me. Not everyone in the family was privy to our ritual, but those who were knew that no one else was allowed to touch that pie but me.
When, inevitably, those in the know tried to lay claim to my pie—so good, it was proof of the existence of God in a pie pan—she would shoo them away, saying, “This one is for Alex,” my nickname from childhood. Since she’s passed away, I’ve not been able to eat pecan pie without crying. I don’t know if I will ever be able to eat it again.
The second is dressing. Not stuffing. Dressing. If you tried to bring something stuffed into a bird past the threshold of the Murray Butts house, Grandma would say, “Bless your heart,” and place the bird and your obscure concoction in the back of the fridge. Those in the know know about the back of the fridge.
I’m allergic to onions, and the dressing my aunt makes almost always had slivers of it cooked in for flavor. Knowing this, my grandmother made a small, round pan of dressing without the onions to ensure that I was able to eat my favorite starch. I still have the pan she used from the last Christmas we shared together. I meant to give it back to her, but she does not need it anymore. Now I need it more than she ever did.
When loved ones go to be with the ancestors, these are the kinds of things that come to mind: the gentle way my grandmother kissed my forehead when I was a young boy; the day she sat cradling my oldest son when he was not yet able to walk; her demand that we turn off the electricity in the house when a thunderstorm hit because she was afraid that having the lights on in the house would attract lightning; the ever present smell of bacon wafting from the kitchen; games of dominoes played with the same aged black bones she gave me before she died and will never use again; the taste of her homemade blackberry preserves on buttered toast.
These are the ingredients of a grandmother’s love. When she leaves, these are the memories that remain.
It’s been two years, but the passage of time does not make her absence any easier. This is particularly true during the holiday season because Christmas ain’t Christmas without Grandma.