Recent news events brought to mind something I hadn’t thought of in years.
When I was a child, we’d visit my Grandmother in North Carolina, who I called Memaw. Now technically, she was my great aunt… it’s a long story. Suffice to say she raised my Mom as my “real” grandmother (who was Memaw’s sister) died when Mom was only 3. Memaw was the oldest of 11 children and was married to the brother of my “real” grandfather. For years they tried to have children. After three miscarriages, at the age of 42, she had Sonny, who was born with a hare lip and double clef palate. For years he endured surgeries to correct those birth defects. (I’m sure there’s a PC term for that now, but when he was born, that was it.).
Stay with me. This really does relate back to today’s news.
Mom used to joke, “I didn’t have you for me, I had you for Memaw.” Maybe it was because I was the first born too or the fact Memaw was the only one in the family I ever grew taller than. We simply connected on a different level. She taught me to crochet and I swear she passed down those “farm woman” genes to me, right along with the peach cobbler recipe. There was an unspoken rule that you didn’t praise anything in her house too highly, because she’d try to give it to you. I once commented on a cute little 3 legged clay pot on the sun porch. Yep, it went home with me that day. I’d later learn during a tour of the Catawba Indian Museum that her 25¢ garage sale find was an authentic piece of Catawba art. The man at the museum told me if it was signed on the bottom, it was made to sell to tourists. If there was no signature, it was older and, to his mind, better because it wasn’t a tourist trinket. Mine is unsigned and I treasure it.
That’s sweet, but how does this relate to today’s news?
Sonny lived at home with Memaw for most of his adult life. Except for the year he went to live in Washington, D.C., where he worked for the C.I.A.. Yes, that C.I.A.. I’m not kidding. We use to ask what he did, only to have him gravely whisper, “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.” Coming from the guy who threatened to pummel us if we ever stepped foot in his room, we believed him. (And yes, we did get inside once, only to be disappointed to find that the “weirdest” thing in there was a collection of Mad magazines). I was in my late 30s before he finally admitted that, as a photographer, he’d worked in a lab, analyzing photographs. He swore it wasn’t pictures I’d be interested in but if the C.I.A. was looking at them….
Sometime before Sonny returned home for good, he sent Memaw a souvenir sign, which she hung in the bathroom. I’m sure the mother in her believed a gift from a son deserved to be displayed. The fact that it hung in her bathroom probably was a silent commentary on exactly what she thought of its content. And yet, for years I’d look at that sign and grin, knowing deep down it was probably weird for a teenager to find such subject matter amusing. So yes, when the day came that Memaw asked me if there was anything I’d like to have, I shyly noted I’d like the sign in the bathroom. She seemed mildly surprised, but she was not one to refuse the request of a grandchild…especially one as sentimental as me. I don’t remember why we didn’t go get it right then and there. It was probably time for peach cobbler.
Somewhere along the way, the sign disappeared. Memaw was distraught, for she had promised it to me. I told her not to worry. If it ever turned up, I’d still be glad to have it. It never did. I wonder if the C.I.A. came by to repossess it?
I may not have it in hand, but the sign’s image never left me. Today, it’s slogan is truer than ever. The sign was a cartoon of an old fashion toilet, the kind with a tank high above the seat and a pull chain. In the background was a faint image of the Capitol building. And written in bold words at the bottom…
“Flush twice. It’s a long way to Washington.”