Thursday, September 3, 2009


I remember sitting at the piano with my grandmother when I was a little girl. She would play and I would sing Jesus Loves Me, and one that I consider her favorite - Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam. I would bang on the piano, even at age 3 or 4, and she never stopped me.

Grandma taught me how to "really" play the piano when I was 6 years old. We started with Mary Had A Little Lamb, and she taught me how to play Heart and Soul, Chopsticks, and all the perennial things that seem to be what everyone knows how to do. She made sure I had a keyboard at home, even though it wasn't all that big. I started playing on a small electric air organ that was portable - it looked a lot like this organ, perhaps a little bigger:

Grandma found beginning music books for me, and even though I would only visit with her once a month or so, she would work with me, I would practice, and we would play together. My big Christmas present when I was 7 and in second grade was an upright piano. I officially started taking lessons in third grade, and I was so proud, because I got to skip several of the beginner books thanks to her. I've always been rather competitive, and the fact that I was ahead of a lot of my friends probably spurred me to keep playing.

As I grew older and better musically, we eventually started playing piano/organ duets, since she had an upright piano and an organ side by side in her house. I remember playing Deep Purple, Lara's Theme (from Doctor Zhivago), Amazing Grace, Our Love Affair, Sentimental Journey, You Made me Love You, Peg O'My Heart, and no telling what else. Grandma could play by ear and improvise, something I've never really been able to do well, other than to hammer out a melody. We would spend hours playing these duets, and I remember this incredible sense of pride and love that we both shared during those moments. My grandfather, when he was alive, would sneak in and listen at some point - frequently commenting, laughing and smiling. These were their songs. The love that you could feel in the room between them during those moments was something I will never forget.

Most of my memories of my Grandma involve music. She needed "noise" during the day - I remember being at their house and listening to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra - a host of records in their large record player/stereo console. Papa was a sucker for the Time/Life collections, and every month a new collection of music would arrive, and they would get hours of play. Lawrence Welk, when he was on, was a given hour in front of the TV. When he came to Atlanta, we went. Thankfully, it wasn't my first concert, but it is certainly in the lower single digits.

Grandma and Papa had three residences, and there was at least one keyboard of some kind in each. We still have the house at the beach, and while there was a piano and an organ there for many years, only the piano remains, although it is badly out of tune and the keys are very sticky. I can remember Fourth of July celebrations where people would be in the house and coerce Grandma into playing. She never liked being the center of attention, but she loved having people sing the old songs. These concerts would go on for hours.

My grandmother is in the hospital with pneumonia in both lungs. She is 90 years old, and I am so lucky to have had her this long. Based on what my brother [the "real" doctor] told me, she should be fine this go round - this is a normal precaution based on her age. Since I've found out she's in the hospital, I've thought about her a lot. I asked if I needed to go, and I was told no.

Thinking about Grandma makes me realize just what an impact she has had on my life. She's the reason I sang Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam to my kids when they were little, and why I still sing a version of the song using my kids' names ("DD2 is my sunbeam, each and every day. I love DD2 at home, at school at play. My sunbeam, my sunbeam, DD2 is my sunbeam. My sunbeam, my sunbeam, I love DD2.") every night - DD2's request. DD1 on occasion will ask for it. My kids take piano lessons, and when we visit her, I always have them play. While I'm not as good as I used to be, if she asks me to play, I do.

She has had an incredibly hard life. She grew up during the Depression, got married at 16, had four daughters, the second of whom had a very high fever at age 2 or 3 which led to mental retardation (she currently lives in Florida as a ward of the state). Her youngest daughter, Shelley, was killed in a car accident the day before her 19th birthday. I am a lot like Shelley, both in demeanor and musical ability, and was not allowed to apply to Emory University, or to leave the house the day before my 19th birthday (Amazingly, I didn't balk on either one of those "requests" from my mother). Arthritis set in for Grandma at a fairly young age, and her beautiful hands that provided so much joy to others through music could no longer play like they used to. I wonder how much it hurt for her to have those concerts with me, and how she never said anything. She and my Grandfather celebrated 56 years together, before he died in 1992.

Most days I wear a diamond solitaire necklace around my neck. The diamond is from my Grandmother's engagement ring. She personally supervised its conversion to a necklace, and gave it to me when I graduated with my doctorate, 70 years after it was given to her.

Despite the hardships I know she has had, she is one of the most positive people I know. At age 90, she lives by herself, still drives (which I admit frightens me), plays bridge several times a week when she can, gets up every day and works the crossword puzzle, jumble, and the cryptoquote in the newspaper. She can barely walk, but she goes outside every morning with her walker and retrieves the newspaper from the yard. I know at this point in her life, she fakes it a lot. She really doesn't complain much, although I've seen her tear up several times because she just can't do what she used to, and she feels like a bother. Still, her spirit is just plain beautiful, and despite those hardships and the chronic pain I know she is in, I can think of no time when I have been with her that I haven't seen her smile or laugh (although in pictures that isn't as obvious - she hates having her picture taken).

I admire her for who she is, how she has handled adversity, and for being a gracious, amazing southern lady. She is one of the most incredible people I have ever come in contact with, and I'm sitting here trying to figure out when I can go see her, because - well, this hospitalization just highlights for me that she won't be here all that much longer.

December 2008 - Grandma's 90th birthday party
Lee, DD2, Grandma, DD1, my mom

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