Until all is said and done
In a twinkling I’ll be gone
Well excuse me; I have so much more to do
— S. Wonder
Today marked my first time art directing a film. Ebony Blanding’s TALK TO PLANTS is a tribute to her grandmother, Daisy, who passed on last summer, from dementia. It is a study in breaking down to breakthrough, poignantly performed by the talented Danielle Deadwyler.
My great-grandmother, Lillie, also passed on last summer. She had dementia, so they say. While setting up a scene I’d designed with her in mind, she reminded me that today marks the 1-year anniversary of her funeral.
It was her, of course. Never in my life has my phone, independent of Facebook or any specific app, randomly reminded me to review photos from a year ago. She is and always has been serious about being acknowledged and feted. Her annual never-really-a-surprise birthday parties were legendary. This August, she would turn one hundred. I’ve no doubt that whatever chain of reasonings and events led to Ebony’s ask, so perfectly timed to this day and to my resettling in Atlanta, involved Lillie opining, “give that child something to do.” And so it was. It would be her interment, rather than her transcendence, that she’d want commemorated: she left quietly. Expectedly. Her homegoing however, was an outpour of warm and funny anecdotes. Flurries of pinks and pastels on a gloriously sunny June day. She loves a spectacle. We gave her one.
I don’t know what made me think I could avoid a celebration.
Ebony’s vision involved a large glass harp — a setup of glass vessels filled with varying amounts of water, emitting sound when vibrated along their edge. Crystal singing bowls also came to mind. My first thought was to buy [and later return] several sets of more or less uniform glassware, but I lucked up on a 50% off thrift store sale. It occurred to me while filling my basket that many of the glasses were imprinted with event names and tourist slogans, but something compelled me to get them anyway. So I did.
When Granny could no longer live alone in her house on Kemp Street, it marked the beginning of “her later years.” She lived for half a decade with her youngest daughter and sometimes “took vacations” at my grandmother’s, but leaving her home of almost 80 years was a great source of sadness that never waned. The house remained, well-kept, just around the corner… but her spirit was no longer in it. The first thing to leave, before she did, really, were her tchotchkes. Every older person has that shelf of knick-knacks collecting dust. Granny had at least two flanking the walls of her living room, hanging over each couch. Prominent and memorable was a Yoda figurine that divined answers like a Magic 8 Ball. It was accompanied by small bells and tiny shot glasses imprinted with cities — Washington, DC. Philadelphia, PA. Places she’d gone once finally free to travel and breathe. Gifts from where her children had been.
Gifts, her children had been, to others. To a sister who couldn’t carry her own. Gifts she gave them to be farther from black South Carolina soil and the hands that constantly smothered her. She watered from afar and they showered her with their fruits as they grew. One son is now retired on a pension from Corning. He sold glass. Filled her house with it. His sisters’ and brothers’. My own. I have every size baking dish Pyrex has ever produced. Vessels and containers passed from Lillie’s eldest girl, my Gramma. Rose Ann. Rose collected glasses too. The curio case and untouchable cabinets of my childhood have been emptied of her wedding china, which now rests in a storage unit I rent. I lived in a house once and that was my warming: a foisting of crystal that marked memories of a reception in Granny’s living room; invites written in a proud mother’s hand. Dreams of opulent dinner parties never had in a tiny Westford Avenue dining room. Of hopes for a brighter future. She asks often if I ever use them. I promise always that I’ll start, but I don’t trust my friends to be careful.
While Granny wasn’t looking one day, or maybe as she did, my great-aunt deemed the souvenirs irrelevant. Boxed and trashed. I believe that marked the beginning. Or the end.
What happens when we we lose our cornerstones? When the constructs that bind us are chipped — or thrown — away? When thoughts once precious no longer resonate and the threads that held us moored become detached? Do we drown? Float. Sink. Ascend.
Granny’s official cause of death was renal failure. At nearly 99 she needed no diabetes or high blood pressure pills. Seemingly out of nowhere, something gave way and she began to carry excesses of water. The constant overfilling and mechanical draining of the vessel that was her body exhausted and debilitated her until she decided to simply rest.
In Fall she moved to a nursing home. This was a fate that, in previous years, had encouraged her to physical therapy to avoid it. Now, she trembled in my arms frightened at the specter of standing unassisted. She threatened to run away daily but maintained her habits of daily TV news, game shows, political punditry and constant chattiness. In January she came home. She no longer watched TV.
In April she stopped speaking
A little time and a little budget. Boxes of cast off and reclaimed glass. A table. A found, caged light sitting elegant yet unmoved in a corner. And space. So much and so intricate a space that it was almost overwhelming. When Eb made the call to shift things around, everything fell into place. The space became tighter. I had more room to breathe. And then my silenced phone buzzed.
The light was supposed to work. It didn’t. We couldn’t diagnose the problem in the time we had, but we raised it up anyway. It glowed.
I tried my damndest this week to not think of my Granny. Instead, through tears, I built her a shrine. I think she’d find it beautiful. And then ask why the light didn’t turn on.
Lillie and I thank you for the opportunity to glow.