i called her Great
because my two grandmothers
were already Grand
and she was the Great One.
given to a wealthy woman at 9-years-old,
she was provided with a new identity and a new life.
Great was re-named and re-souled
long before I was born.
at 22, she married a Minnesota Irishman
and they created my grandmother, Catherine,
who had the face of a 1940’s pin-up doll
and the 13 marriage proposals to prove it.
one day when i am grown,
i will receive a letter that she wrote to her brother George.
it will reveal two things to me:
her political persuasion (liberal)
and her cure-all for common illnesses (baking soda).
“when i start to get sick i reach for the baking soda
to make my body more alkaline.”
but first, I was small
when Catherine took me on a train
to see Great in the Big Sky.
Great lived in a plain and rustic house
that straddled the horizon of a lush green pasture
and swollen white clouds perfumed with sweetgrass.
she let me roll her downy white hair
in soft curlers,
her eyes still as bright and green
as mountain pines.
she wore her cotton and polyester dresses,
shapeless from washings and patterned by the past,
with the grace of an aristocratic intellectual.
an antiquarian Viking queen wearing peasant garments.
she taught me to pull water from the earth
with a red cast iron hand pump in the yard.
“it needs to be primed first,” she said,
placing her twisted and bony hands
over my small fleshy ones.
i discovered pockets
and filled them with stones and insects and flowers,
my black rubber boots sinking in the mud.
she set me on her knees
and sang me the Swedish song,
hoppe, hoppe, hare—
“jump, jump, rabbit…”
i pretended to read books to Great
as she cradled me on the sofa—
but she stopped me—
and taught me the words on the pages
she made figures
of my disfigures,
guiding my hands
as I drew faces and birds.
we picked dandelions and put them in salads.
we had soup and she let me drink coffee.
later, i washed the dishes while standing on a chair
and looking out the window.
“where are you from?” I asked her.
“i was born in Denver in 1893,” she said,
“but my father was from Austria.”
“you’re Australian?” I replied in awe.
when I was a high school Warrior,
Catherine and I visited her at the nursing home.
Great gripped my hands tightly
before playing songs archaic and arcane,
sacred and profane,
on the piano in the common room.
one day, before Great flew away,
Catherine said to her, “Mom, let’s comb your hair,”
and she looked for a brush
but found only a drawer filled with medication
and random pairs of dentures.
i was in college when her song became silent.
now she sleeps tucked under the grass
in a bed on a hill at the foot of the mountains.
when I was grown all the way,
i was broken and sad,
but in an instant, i felt her presence.
her love filled me as i inhaled her essence
with each new lungful of oxygen.
and now I can find her in still moments,
her light slipping into the dark hollows and deep sockets
in the hearts of the children she left behind.
i didn’t know the escape velocity
of the light in her eyes,
but when i was small
it twinkled like the stars
in the sky.
she’s a strand of the Universe,
a wave of the Ocean.
tethered to Life even in death—
just like the rest of us.
just like Everything else.