• Bella Dean Joyner

Because She Made Me

Every author is told to write what they know. What is your story? What built you? Whose influence had the most impact on your life? When you look back on your chapters, what reoccurs the most? What haunts you? What gives you strength?

Mine is simple. My grandma.

She took me in when I was a baby and no one else could raise me. She fought for me when my stepmother tried to alienate her. She was my constant. Pictures of me as a baby, pictures of my dance recitals with my pretty crowns and sparkly golden tutus, she was in all of them. I can close my eyes right now and remember how her head tilted when she laughed. It seems like a lifetime ago.

My grandparents had a house in the city I grew up in. It was a 30 minute drive from my house. Sunny Autumn Ln. It had rooster wallpaper and farm animal figurines all over the kitchen. There was a little container of really sticky strawberry lip gloss in the top drawer of the guest bathroom and a rag doll bunny on the white stool across from the toilet. The bedroom I always stayed in had a bed too high for my little legs to reach and a cute little green glass shoe on the vanity. Grandma's bathroom smelt like White Diamonds and thick light pink face cream. There was a porcelain Persian cat keeping guard in the hallway. It had a glider bench on the porch and two dogs named Jake and Pokey buried in the back yard. I keep telling myself that when I have the money someday, I'm going to buy that old house.

My grandparents also had a farm about an hour and a half away in Selmer, TN. To this day, it is still my favorite place in the world, the place where my soul centers. This was the only place in my childhood where I was really free. Dad would take me with him and we'd grab McDonald's chicken nuggets or a Hickory Cheeseburger from Sonic along the way. We'd pull down the old dirt road and grandma would be at the front door, waiting to greet us. She'd be standing there when we'd go to leave. I still look for her to be there, but she never is.

Until I was about 5 or 6, the property had an old farmhouse close to the road. Back in the day, it had housed two families who had worked the farmlands together, one on the first floor and the other on the second with stairs on the outside. Sometime before my grandpa bought the property, the second floor had been taken out, leaving tall massive ceilings for the remaining first floor rooms. It was a common occurrence to hear disembodied footsteps in the air above you. She told me that she would often find me in another room talking to something that she could not see.

Evidently my uncles were scared of staying in the house by themselves, especially at night. When he was sixteen, my dad's youngest brother had to stay at the farmhouse without the rest of his family. He had brought his "boombox" as he calls it and a headset. He had the volume on the music as loud as it would go and his headset on to preemptively drown out any disturbances. Despite his precautions, he heard really loud banging, even over the full volume music in his ears. Too scared to open his eyes, he tried to ignore it, but the banging persisted. When he finally worked up the courage to look, the table that his boombox was sitting on was rising into the air and falling back to the ground with a loud crash, over and over.

I probably would have been scared to stay there had I experienced that as well. Imagine that, a horror fiction writer being scared of the dark!

Eventually, they tore the house down and had another built a little further up the hill. The property also had a large red barn and an older barn made of gray warped boards. They had horses at one time. Spook liked to eat full leaf tobacco and would follow my dad around until he gave him some. Grandma had a fluffy white barn cat that stayed outside and would literally hang from the screen door when it was time to be fed. For as long as I can remember, grandpa always had cows as well, huge massive bulls that were as gentle as kittens. In the last few years, he also started keeping chickens and pigs.

My summers were full of exploring the natural springs on the property in the coolness of the shade trees, picking fresh blackberries in the hot sun, tripping around cow pies trying to find grandpa in the fields. I remember hay rides behind the tractor in the fall, learning to drive on the back roads in grandpa's old Chevrolet, watching my Uncle's old sea green truck rusting in the fields. I remember leaving a restaurant with him and grandma and grandpa as a very little girl, him picking me up and sitting me on the smooth leather bench seat of that truck. It's almost sad to see it in its final resting place.

Grandma taught me how to cook. She encouraged me to make the broccoli and cheese casserole I learned in my home economics class. I still make it to this day and think of her. She thought it was the funniest thing that I hated the feel of raw meat in my hands. I remember being in the kitchen with her one day when she was making dinner. She asked me to hold out my hand and slapped a raw hamburger patty onto my palm. I gagged and dropped it in the sink and she giggled. Her smile could light up a room, and her hands, though wrinkled and spotted with age, were so soft.

She let me play in her make-up. I'd put on her foundation a few shades too dark for me, use her black brow pencil to color in my light brown eyebrows, put on so much mascara that my eyelashes looked like spider legs, and she still told me that I was beautiful. She religiously dyed her hair black, perfectly teased, and before she left the house she always doused herself with hairspray and light pink lipstick. Her nails were always the shade of light champagne. Again, the White Diamonds.

To say that that woman loved me is an understatement. When I felt like life was a free fall, she grounded me. She was the only person of my childhood who would sit on the couch and listen to my poems, though none of them probably made any sense. She listened to my plans for the future, though none of them quite panned out how I thought they would. She never discouraged me. I often wonder if she would have considered me a disappointment. But I remember what her sisters told me the day of her funeral, that I was and would always be her Lyndy (her pet nickname for me) and that they all knew exactly what I was to her and how incredibly much she had loved me.

This picture, I took it. She was sad because she did not have any pictures of her with her mother. My great-grandmother lived in the four room house her husband built by hand, thirteen children though not all lived past infancy, two bedrooms. My grandma used to talk about what it was like to hold one of the babies when it passed away, the feeling it left on her lips after she kissed its tiny forehead.

I wasn't her granddaughter. I was the daughter she never had.

When I was sixteen years old, she gave me a necklace made from the diamonds of the first engagement ring grandpa ever gave her. I still cherish it to this day. I have the cards that she sent to me as a little girl for every birthday, celebration, graduation, and Valentine's Day. I even got the words from one of them tattooed on my forearm.

We love you and we are so proud of you. Love Grandma and Grandpa

I carry her words with me everywhere. Her guidance influences me to this day. Her memory haunts me because I think of all of the times I could have called her more but didn't, the times I tried to find a reason to get off the phone because the life of a teenager seemed so much more important, how irritated I would get with her when she would ask me the same question multiple times in a conversation when the dementia first started setting in. My world changed forever the day that she lost her memories. The pain of talking to someone you love as much as I love her and that person telling you a story about yourself because she no longer recognizes you from the child you once were isn't something that was easy to stomach.

Before we came here to South Korea, I visited her grave site for the first time since her funeral. I cried, inconsolably, the pain as fresh as the day I got the call that she had passed away. That's the horrible thing about getting older. You spend so much of your life wishing for the day you turn 18, 21, then 25 when your exorbitant car insurance rates would go down. You don't realize at the time that as you get older, the people around you age too. Loved ones you couldn't imagine your life without wrinkle and wither, can barely walk anymore. Soon, all that's left are memories and regrets for all of the conversations you could have had but didn't.

Today, what I have from her is a memory of us planting the three pine trees that still stand proud in the yard. I have a picture of her and her best friends on her wedding day with the handwritten gushes of a newly married teenager.

I have the woman that I am, because she made me.

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