You gotta eat a peck of dirt before you die.
This was my grandmother’s adage,
told me by my mother. I remember Grandma only dimly:
after a visit to Natural Bridge when I was three,
where I fell and cut my knee, she bandaged it
as I wailed.
No. That, too, is a memory that was told to me.
All I can see of her, truly see, is a shape under sheets,
too scary for an eight-year-old to approach,
as she lay dying of cancer in Aunt Cleo’s bedroom.
I knew her best by the things she owned: the waterfall furniture
in the room where she last breathed, the brown jugs
that held lemonade at the family reunion.
Her golden slippers, small enough for me to wear
after she died.
I know stories: how Granddaddy loved her at first site
in her mother’s boarding house, how his hands
just spanned her waist. I know love leads inexorably
to death: within a year after they set the stone,
Granddaddy visited each of his 10 children and then
joined her once more.
I knew her by words. Mama called it schmierkase,
Mom said, scooping cottage cheese. I knew her picture,
hair pulled back, thin metal glasses softening her,
looking so much like her daughters, so little like me.
Daughters withering like daffodils, worldly goods
gone to estate sales, memories fading: how deep
would I have to dig in those mountain valleys
to find who she was, as everyone who knew her
is swallowed by the earth?