August 17, 2009

Remembering the Greats

This is Zoë's great-grandmother, Nanna.

She's one of Zoë's three living great-grandmothers.

The lucky little girl was born with four. My grandmother Beth, for whom I am named, died in February. We called her Mame.

The two Beths, circa 1982.

Zoë was also born with two living great-grandfathers. But now she only has one. My grandfather Pape, who was married to Mame for 63 years, died in April.

Mame and Pape

Needless to say, this year has been one of beginnings, and of endings. In six months, my dad became a grandfather for the first time and said goodbye to his parents for the last time. The generations shift; time traipses on.


Zoë never got to meet her great-grandmother Mame. For her, Mame will exist in funny stories of hams packed in suitcases, in memories of cookie jars and fresh-squeezed orange juice, in her love of jigsaw and crossword puzzles that lives on in my father, and in me, and maybe, in Zoë.

She did get to meet her great-grandfather Pape on a balmy afternoon in March, just after Mame's service.

He had been bedridden since December, and spent most of his hours gazing out the window, dreaming of sailboats and Biscayne Bay. But when he saw Zoë, and she saw him, they recognized each other immediately.

Both wide-eyed, both grinning, both free.

I can still picture that afternoon, the way the sunlight seeped through the blinds, the creases of his papery hands, the glistening blue of his smiling eyes.


So much of who we are is what we remember - our memories shape us, connect us, tether us to people, places, moments. Every now and then, I am struck by the realization that Zoë won't remember this time. At least not in a conscious, cerebral way. I have to believe that this year's moments are ingrained in her somewhere deep down, though, like the innermost rings on a tree's concentric lifeline.

I believe that, in part, because of Nanna.

Nanna, whose memory is so elusive, she can't remember where she lives, or who I am, exactly, or that her mother is no longer alive. Or what she just did or said. Or the right words.

Nanna, who continually packs and unpacks her things as if she's going on another trip, and who is always politely socializing with the other ladies on her wing - even though she has no idea who they are.

And Nanna, whose arthritic fingers remember every note.

Nanna at the Piano from Beth Helfrich on Vimeo.

The music is etched in who she is, whether she consciously remembers it or not.

In the same way, I have to hope that somewhere in Zoë are etchings of Nanna, and Big Daddy, and of Mame and Pape, and Nan and Grandaddy, and Grandma and Grandad: The Greats.

In fact, with that lineup, it's no wonder she's so amazing.


Curtis said...

ahhh remembering the greats. easily one of the best posts.

Amy in KC said...

Great post! It brought tears to my eyes. It will be great when she gets to meet another "great" in December!

Curtis said...

I want to know: did Howard clean his hands?

tate said...

Thanks Beth, glad to see those Pape/Zoester pics archived somewhere with your thoughtful reflections.

Beth said...

Curtis: Yes. She was talking to Uncle Curtis, who was holding Zoë. Fortunately, Nanna's parenting standards are also etched into her being. Last time I was there, she said to me, "Lady, don't pick the baby up like that!"

Curtis said...

cat owners know that the scruff of the neck is the best way to hold babies.