In memoriam

I lost my grandmother last week.

I had intended to give this eulogy at her memorial service, happening now, as I post this. Had my bags packed and was ready to go. Literally as I passed through the automatic doors into the air conditioning of Miami International Airport, my flight back was cancelled. This is the worst part of being half a country away. Since I can’t be there with everyone, this is what I would have said today:

Hi everyone. My name is Daniel. I’m the first son of the first daughter of Charlene Potter, or Nanny as we all called her. I was her first grandchild. I love being here at Marion Springs, where Nanny taught for so many years. It’s the perfect place to hold this service. She used to take us out here on weekends and over the summer. Pack as many cousins into the back of her Jeep as she could and turn us loose with the keys to the gym equipment closet. Or we’d be outside, behind the school where the wetlands she created was, next to the teepee that was also her idea, to watch tadpoles skim through the water. I have a lot of fond memories of being here.

Almost 6 weeks ago, my wife and I had our first child, a girl, Nanny’s ninth great grandchild. The newest of the bunch (at least as of the last time I checked). It’d been so long since I’d been able to come home that I’m not sure that Nanny ever knew we were expecting. I wish she could have met our little girl.

My daughter will know her though. Nanny will be a presence in our home for as long as I still have breath. I will tell her:

All of my memories of Nanny are comforting. Infused with the smell of fresh grass, moist earth, or hot food. She taught me how to listen to animals and plants and hear their languages for what they were on their own terms. Almost all my memories of Nanny are fun too. I can’t recall Nanny ever making me do anything that I didn’t want to do. Not that she was perfect.

Once, on a vacation, I asked her for sunblock. She said, “I have this.” It was a brown bottle of sun tan oil, which I applied, not thinking about it. I spent the rest of the trip as red as a lobster.

She thought that the cup holders in her Corolla were the right shape for wine glasses, full of cheap red.

She liked her music loud. Really loud.

She slipped too much brandy in the holiday sangria.

She overfed and under-trained her dogs, leading to some of the worst canine behavior you’ve ever seen.

She was too beautiful for her own good. Or for that of any of her numerous, hopeless admirers.

Nanny was a trickster. Mischievous. You can see it in the earliest family photos of her. Tight lipped little smile like she’s always hiding a secret behind her teeth. But speaking of family photos, it is impossible to talk about Nanny without mentioning her sisters.

I’ll tell my daughter about how impossibly lucky I was to be raised in a family led by strong, independent women. Women who were smart and caring and resilient. The kind of women you can look up to, as so many did. Who could fall for the wrong men and then persevere as single mothers to raise this beautiful, diverse, loving family. A family that is led now by a second trio of sisters. A family I see as a model for how the world should be. A family my child can be so very proud of.

Nanny and her sisters were Baldwin City to me. They were home. They made me want to go to college and then to be a teacher. They taught me how to care for the Earth and love every living thing in it. It was Nanny’s house that I always wanted to stay. There I got sleep more peacefully than nearly anywhere else. I only have three recurring dreams as an adult, but perhaps the most common is the one where the whole world is falling apart outside, but I’m in Nanny’s house and as long as I am there I am safe.

Looking at those old pictures of her and her sisters, it’s easy to see how each had their own character right from the beginning. Aunt Alice, who my daughter is named for, the brains; Aunt Mary, the heart; and Nanny, well, Nanny was the trouble.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that their father, from whom we all get our Osage ancestry, had three daughters. Like the crops, the three sisters, that were so essential to Native peoples across the continent.

Aunt Alice, the corn: firstborn and shooting straight up. Erect, prim, reaching for the sun. She’s the role model for the others to follow. Maybe a little too perfect in her achievements. Her stem grows strong as if anticipating how it’ll be needed for her younger sister. Aunt Mary: the bean. The second sister is flexible, adaptable. Beans have heart-shaped leaves, out on full display, low to the ground. The first sister has already claimed the sky and so it’s those leaves that is the middle child’s focus. They fan out, climbing up the first sister’s stalk to gird it from high winds, gathering light to turn into nitrogen to nourish the soil from which all three grow.

And then we come to the baby sister, Nanny: the squash. Last to be planted, she crawls all over the ground, extending wherever she pleases. The two oldest have already taken care of all the essentials, and so the baby has no need to prove anything to anyone. She does whatever she damn well pleases. Her leaves can be bristly, prickly. A little abrasive perhaps when need be.

I will tell my daughter to take inspiration from all three. To stand tall and straight and proud. To be loving and nurturing to those around you. To be fun and strong and unencumbered.

The Osage origin story tells of how we were once sky people who came down to Earth to make a new home. It follows that when we pass on, our spirits return to the heavens. There, in the night sky, you can find new, bright stars that are your loved ones looking down, watching over you.

When she starts staying up late, I’ll tell my daughter about how Nanny taught me the constellations. Maybe we’ll put a telescope in our bedroom like she had. I’ll point up and say, look, there, that one maybe. She’s up there, staying with us always. That’s her, flying across the night sky, free and clear. And she loves you so much.

I love Nanny. I wish I could have spent more time with her, but I know how lucky I have been to have had her in my life. If you miss her like I do, look to the sky tonight. Look for the brightest star and you’ll recognize her.

And if you want to feel her smile, go ahead and quote her favorite movie to her.

“I wish I could say something classy and inspirational, but that just wouldn’t be our style. Pain heals, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever.” Shane Falco, The Replacements

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