I have a 9x12 black and white photo of my grandmother and I from 1981, taken at the Old Songs music festival. We’re sitting in the grass on a hillside, my grandmother’s bangs slick with sweat, her eyes looking off into the distance. I’m three years old and I’m sleeping in her arms, my small limbs limp across her thighs.
My brother and I used to travel all over in the backseats of her blue touring van. We slept at the edge of stages at folk festivals and concerts. I knew those songs like they were water. It’s a body kind of knowing, the melodies and her singing. The picture almost says it all: about her, and about me. About being held by someone strong like that. When they die it’s a strange thing that happens.
In 2006 in the northwest room of her house I watched and heard my grandmother's final breaths—far apart, slow with morphine, the raw and astonishing gasp of each one after we thought we’d heard the last. And then no more came. And something escaped, loosened. But that’s when the surprise came. I looked at the bed and the wall and her. She wasn’t gone. She was still in the room. She was in our singing and she was in the house and she was in our bodies. I could feel her there, the fierce love she’d planted in us. That deep, unquestioning love. The strength of those arms that had held us, every one, and would have fought for us, and died for us, and wept for us. I knew right then that if you live this life right you won’t ever die. Just look at her face in that photo; she isn’t the kind of person who dies.
I don’t say this to be sentimental. I say it because I mean it. I miss her, yes—the way she was rude and funny and passionate and direct and made me laugh. But she’s not gone. Her love is planted so deep it’s the taproot spreading down through my feet. Her music is still the brightest thing I hear. Look at that face. She was a mountain and a mountain lion at once. She was tender, vulnerable, proud, easily hurt, but when she loved you it was like a rock planted under you. Sweet with trickling water.
When I hear her sing “My Dearest Dear” I know why my grandfather can’t listen to her records. To listen to her records makes her too close and too far away at once. It makes her something of the past. A false-lover, like in all those songs. It’s when you close your eyes that she’s yours. That you can feel that rock and that root. That you can hear her. That you can feel her. That you can let your limbs surrender, knowing those arms will hold you for as long as you dare to dream, for as long as you need to feel brave.