Sometimes, living in this old house is hard. Not because the pipes are frozen but because I’m never alone. This farm, like so many family farms in West Virginia, is populated. Family farms commonly have two, three, even four homes. Grandma and Grandpa in one, their child or two in others, then their child or two in yet others. There’s higher home ownership in West Virginia than any other state because every other family has a big farm and everybody lives there. Junior needs a house? Build one on the family farm. On this farm, there is my cousin (who I call my cousin for short, but he is actually my second cousin) and his wife and their son in one house, my cousin’s mother in her house, and the 100-year-old farmhouse where I live with my kids, which was formerly occupied by my great-aunt, my cousin’s grandmother. Three houses. I am never alone. The kids go to school, my cousin and his wife go to work, but even then my cousin’s mother is always here.
She is cute as a bug in a rug.
She is my stand-in mother, my adoptive grandmother, my constant friend, my waking nightmare. She is the lady of the manor, a workhorse, a slavedriver, Miss Marple, and Martha Stewart rolled into one. She comes over ten times a day. This is her going-to-town outfit. (She has an outfit for every occasion.)
She has macular degeneration and she can still drive, but she likes me to drive her places, especially if I’ll drive her there in her $200 car. (She has more money than you can shake a stick at but pshaw, she wouldn’t spend that on a car, don’t be silly.) She likes to come over and say, “What time did you say you were going to town?” Because I’m slow, I always say, “I wasn’t planning to go to town.” She says, “Yes, you were. I need to go, too. Let’s go at 10.” So we go to town in the Georgia-mobile and it’s like I’m escorting the Queen. There are only a couple hundred people in town and she knows them all and she’s probably bringing them some kind of food basket, so we have to make deliveries. I play her Secret Service detail, chauffering and hanging around outside, waiting. I take her to the bank and the post office and the little store, then we run out of places to go on parade because the town is that small. Then sometimes I ask her if she wants to joyride and find a bar. I just say that because it makes her laugh. I think nobody else talks to her like she’s a real person. I guess that happens when you’re 78.
You wouldn’t believe she’s 78 when we go home. It’s time to hoe. Or time to can. Or time to climb up on ladders and clean out the gutters. Time to rake, time to drag branches to the brush pile, time to sweep something. If it’s not time to do something, then she comes into the old farmhouse, walks into my bedroom where I’m sitting at my computer trying to write, and she just stands there. I say, “What are you up to?” She says, “Nothing.” Then I know she just wants to talk, and I have learned to be patient and to listen even though I have 10,000 things to do.
Any time I go anywhere, when I come home, she is right there, like she transported herself to my porch from the Starship Enterprise. She has radar that way. She brings me my mail whether I want her to or not, and she brings me all her leftovers, whether I want them or not. She checks on my teenagers, whether they like it or not. And none of them can get away with anything because she has eyeballs everywhere. She is half-blind with laser vision.
I barely knew her two years ago when I asked her if I could live in the empty old farmhouse. She didn’t blink, just said, “Of course, you are family.” And since that day, that is how it has been, one big family on the communal farm. I’ve paid my way here, but for Christmas, she gave me a card that said, “I have decided that until you move into your new house, you will pay no more rent here. That is my gift to you.” But of course that is the least of her gifts to me.
In spite of every time I hear the creak of the old front door and know she’s walking in without knocking, for every time she’s made me hoe, even across the hill and down the road through three creeks only a couple of miles away on our new farm where when the kids go to school I will finally be alone, I know I will miss her walking in without knocking and making me hoe. Because even when she’s standing outside the bathroom, waiting for me with my mail, I love her.
And when I come home to my new house from a long trip and I go straight to the bathroom, and I know that when I come back out, she won’t be standing there with my mail? I’m gonna miss her.