Hot Tin Roof: Grandma likes to keep her people close

Grandma likes to keep her people close.
I think the strawberries are ready,
she says, and we follow her
across the plank to the garden,
eating our lunch of hot berries on the spot.
When the bread is out of the oven,
rows of loaves cover the counters,
waiting to be caressed
with rags dipped in butter.
We gather around by our noses.

The little ones are easy to keep by,
with the recipes for happiness close at hand –
if not in the garden or kitchen,
in her apron pocket,
where just the right words are kept tucked.
She’s always prepared to love.

The old ones, now passed, are right here too.
They stare out from behind the wood stove,
framed in their wedding days and looking severe,
but Grandma says they loved to laugh.
They sit up on the knick-knack shelf,
names engraved in carnival glass –
from Mother to Sophia.
Their lives, in black and white,
are narrated in the photo albums,
and only a mile away is the cemetery.
Everyone is there,
just needing some mowing from time to time.

It’s the grown ones
who have wriggled out, travelled,
bumped into modern times
and got stuck somewhere,
like gum on a shoe,
that are harder to reach.
She calls and sends care packages.
Even Halloween is an occasion for a card
with the word “special” underlined twice.
She gets on buses. Spends weekends.
Crochets surrogate arms in afghans
to hold us from afar.
She believes her prayers matter
and keeps God busy
saving us from our own foolishness.

She tries to accept the changing times,
with their journeys to the moon —
What will they think of next? —
while strengthening her grasp
against the centrifugal force
of modern society’s pull on her heartstrings.
Did you hear about the family
who weathered a tornado in their bathtub?
The uncle later described
the baby being sucked out of his arms –
You can’t imagine how that felt –
and how he found the baby by its cries,
unharmed on a pile of boards
that had been their living room.

Today, we are surrounding Grandma
with our collective arms, forty or more deep,
resisting the centrifugal force of death.
This tornado was inevitable
and we weather it in a hospital room.
I think she doesn’t want to leave us either,
even though, while we swab her lips,
we give her permission to go,
just as we were told,
until the generations gone before
suck her from our arms back into theirs.

Ginny Paulson has lived and worked in Iowa City for over 20 years. This poem combines three loves—of her grandmother, her rural upbringing, and her professional work in the field of aging.

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