By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Most of my grandmother’s children – there were seven of them – lived out their lives within walking distance of their mother’s white frame house in Scottville, Michigan. Not my father. He moved away.
Which is why, when I think of my Grandma Falconer I see the pince-nez, the soft pink skin and the silvery-white hair swept into an up-do — but I also see my grandmother’s figure standing motionless at the foot of her driveway, watching as my family drives out of town.
My grandmother waves at first, then she just stands there for long moments, gazing after us as our Ford two-door disappears down State Street and out of sight.
My grandmother lived ninety-six of her ninety-nine years in Scottville, a farm town not far from Lake Michigan. She saw most of her children weekly, if not daily – at the Scottville bank where my Aunt Ruth worked, at the creamery across the street, owned by my Uncle Polly.
But my father, mother, brothers and I lived in faraway Detroit, which in those pre-AC, pre-freeway days was a sweltering six-hour drive through muggy countryside and town after trafficky town congested with stoplights, double parked cars and people making left turns. It wasn’t a trip we made lightly, especially in winter when instead of muggy it could be cold and dangerously snowy or slushy.
Unlike most of his siblings, my father left home after high school. He went off to college at Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) and never really came back.
He worked for the same dairy most of his career, at first as a plant supervisor in Flint, and later as a corporate executive in downtown Detroit. He bought a house in the suburbs, joined Oakland Hills Country Club, and bowled Tuesday nights with other Detroit executives at the Detroit Athletic Club. He outgrew Scottville, his rural beginnings, his family’s small town ways, his mother.
That’s the way it often is in our oversized, mobile country. We pack up and move across the country with impunity, putting hundreds, even thousands, of miles between ourselves, our origins and our families.
The impulse runs strong in my family:
• My grandmother and her widowed mother left upper New York State for Scottville in the 1880’s.
• Her husband-to-be, my Grandfather Falconer, and his parents left Glasgow for Scottville in the 1870’s.
• My father left Scottville for Detroit in the 1930’s.
• My brothers and I left Detroit for the West Coast in the 1960’s.
Grandmother, grandfather, father, siblings – we never gave it a second thought. We were all seeking a better life. It’s what we were supposed to do. It was part of being American.
My father was a dutiful son from afar. He visited his mother when he could, and he telephoned her long-distance on Thanksgiving and Christmas. He made sure that we kids visited her often during the summers we spent on a lake near Scottville.
At the end of each summer we made a good-bye visit to Grandma Falconer. Our T-shirts and bathing suits, toothbrushes and combs packed in cardboard boxes and squeezed into the trunk of the Ford, we stopped by my grandmother’s on the way out of town.
We wouldn’t be seeing Grandma again until next summer. She wouldn’t be seeing us again until next summer. Many miles and many months would separate her from her son, and all my grandmother could do about that was stand in her driveway and wave at us as we drove away.
I never knew for sure why my grandmother lingered so long in her driveway, shaded by the tall spreading trees that canopied State Street, where she had lived as a girl, and later – after she and my grandfather lost their farm at the edge of town – as a married woman and a widow. But there she stood, in a flowered cotton housedress that buttoned down the front, the chain of her pince-nez anchored with a gold pin in the waves of her silvery hair.
Did she stand there because she wanted to reassure us that her love was truly steadfast? Or did she so pine for her beloved son, who lived and worked so far away, that she wanted to drink up those last moments of him as he drove away from her? If the latter, she never mentioned it in my hearing. She was not one to complain.
It’s possible that Grandma was just being polite, seeing us off like that. Small town woman though she was, my grandmother cared about the niceties. “The blade of the knife faces in, toward the plate,” she informed me one summer day as I set the table for her.
But it seemed to me that, driving off like that, we were rejecting her and her small town, nineteenth-century ways. We were leaving her in the dust. And so, out of pity, I made it my job to see to it that, for as long as my grandmother waved and followed us with her eyes, at least one of us – me – would return the look and the wave.
Pressing my two sweaty brothers aside, I’d turn and kneel on the back seat of the Ford and gaze out the back window as my uncomplaining grandmother shrank and disappeared into the distance.
Here in California, when my children were growing up and carpooling to school in the morning, I followed my grandmother’s example. I walked them out of the garage to the driveway to meet their ride. I helped them into their seatbelts, then I stood in the driveway waving good-bye and blowing reassuring kisses until the neighbor’s car disappeared down the hill and around the corner.
When Peter was a baby, same thing. When all the bedtime rituals had been completed, teeth brushed, storybook read, kisses and massages applied and lights turned off, it was I, not Peter, who drew out the final good-night. Heading for the door, I blew kisses across the room. And closing the door behind me, I popped my hand through the crack to throw one last kiss at my little son.
Peter is twenty-nine now. Months ago, he left California to live in Minnesota with his girlfriend. Like his family before him he’s left home. He’s gone away. He’s taken himself off to a distant place, and has no plans to return any time soon.
The other morning, their holiday visit over, Peter and his girlfriend piled their luggage into Jon’s little silver Toyota for the trip to the airport. Jon started the engine and backed the car onto the driveway. I stood in the garage in my bathrobe waving good-bye.
I don’t know how long my son watched me and waved. But as the garage door dropped between us I felt myself disappear from sight, piece by piece. My face. My hands, mid-wave. The hem of my robe. My slippered feet. Until finally, like my grandmother, I was gone.