I write to you, yet again, from deep in the heart of Texas: Cut & Shoot in Montgomery County, about an hour north of Houston. Sadly, we have come here to mourn the passing of Tessa’s grandmother Lucille Tessman (known to everyone as Nonnie), an incredible character if ever there was one. Fans of “Five Wives” will remember her back-porch bon mots, but those closest to Tessa will know her as a touchstone of stability in my wife’s childhood.
Sandy, Nonnie and baby Tessa, 1969
Nonnie’s mother died of the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 when she was a baby. The actual story is that she died from dancing (caught the flu at the party), but losing your mother is only slightly worse than losing your father, which Nonnie did two years later. He had a heart attack in the driveway and collapsed dead on top of her brother. The locals blamed the new “iced water machine” that was put in the press shop, which led Nonnie to say “my daddy died from iced water, and my mamma died from dancin’.”
Her troubles were only beginning: she was then shipped to an aunt’s home, where she was routinely harassed by the other kids, and then came the “Tomato Tom-Tom” story which I told you about a few months ago (read it if you haven’t yet, it’s unbelievably sad). She stopped growing at 4′ 11″. She then married an abusive husband who died a year into the marriage while having sex with her best friend. It’s a miracle she came out of any of this with her mind intact.
But then she found the love of her life, married him before the war, had two great kids and lived to be ninety. I knew our last visit with her would be our last, but at least Lucy got to meet her namesake, if only for a few minutes of wonderful lucidity.
Today we went to the wake, an open-casket viewing ceremony that, admittedly, was my first. I had seen many on television, but was wholly unprepared to see Nonnie’s body right there in front of us. I don’t know why it has taken me this long to truly get it, but there’s something about the open casket that seems… culturally bizarre?
Note to Lucy and family: please, please don’t do this for either me or Tessa.
On the way home, the rain began to pour in thundering loud sheets, the kind of rain that even the “fast” setting on the wipers can’t handle. Lucy hasn’t really seen rain since she was a newborn, and studied the ferocious window intensely. Finally, she smiled. “Bubbles!” she said, “Bubbles, bubbles, bubbles, bubbles bubbles bubbles bubbles bubbles bubblesbubbledbubbles!!!”
She knew bubbles from her Gymboree classes, but the thought of millions of naturally-occurring bubbles in nature has to be the best thing I’ve ever heard.
After putting her to bed, Tessa and I went through Nonnie’s stuff, including her purse – one of those odd, intimate objects you never expect to end up in the hands of others. I never thought Nonnie particularly remembered who I was, since I met her in the twilight of her memory, but inside her purse was a picture of me and Tessa on a rowboat from September 2001.
It said “Tessa and Iren.” She may have not fully understood my name, but she carried us around in her purse for the last half-decade of her life, and that’s something. So here’s to Lucille, to Nonnie, to the gifts she gave my wonderful wife, and the name she gave to my daughter. We won’t remember her as that little gray person in the casket, we will remember her worrying, her laughing with Tessa, her puttering around the 20th century, a tiny hurricane blowing in from the Texas coast.