We didn’t have much money while I was growing up so I didn’t get to do much traveling. There was always something wrong with the car (if we had one at all) which meant only driving locally because it was “safer.” This made it hard to visit family since most of them lived out of state. My grandmother Helen lived in California like us, but she was so far south that it was best to visit by plane (which we couldn’t afford either).
Living with Mom was lonely. I remember asking her several times why we couldn’t just move closer to Grandma, or to Boise where I had thousands of cousins. But it was no use and as I got older I realized that she proudly considered herself the “black sheep” of the family. From that point on, I felt like I was destined to be alone. I had no siblings and with my dad dead it was just me and her. But if Mom isolated me from the rest of the family, she could continue avoiding their judgement on our poverty-induced lifestyle that she had created.
Despite being broke, Mom did manage to keep the phone alive. This was my one true savior. There many close calls but she would sacrifice to get the bill paid and for that I was thankful. Back in the early 90’s, there wasn’t much going on in the world of internet and technological communication yet. Oh what I could have done with Skype back then! Thankfully, we did have the good ol’ telephone and I always looked forward to chatting with Grandma during our weekly calls. Every Wednesday night she would dial us from San Clemente (so it would go on her bill) and we would chat for one hour. I would tell her about my previous week at school and give her random details about the animals living on our farm. She would always talk about new friends she had made at church or, if I was lucky, a story about when she served in the Marine Corp. during WWII. She was a great storyteller and I loved listening to her talk. With colorful details and funny accents, her voice made her memories vividly come to life.
At some point, during each and every conversation, Grandma would sing “You Are My Sunshine.” When I was really young she would sing it to me, but as I got older she would insist we sing it together. I loved that and I was proud of it. Then, as she grew older -and tired- I began a new tradition of singing it to her. I sang it to her while she lay sick in the hospital during my senior year of high school and we both cried. Sadly, that was the very last time she would hear me sing it.
When I had my son five years ago he was restless and angrily fighting sleep the first night we brought him home from the hospital. I sang him that first little verse of the Sunshine song and watched him relax in my arms. I’ll always feel like a little part of Grandma is with me when I sing it to my children. I hope to one day be able to sing it to my grandchildren too, although from a much shorter distance.