Two and a half years ago, I made a permanent move back to my hometown. It took me all of one day to realize that my deceased grandmother, my Mimi, my most favorite relative, was absolutely everywhere.
My parents’ home was formerly my grandparents’ home. When my grandfather died, I was 16 years old. For months, I had been staying with my grandparents to help my Mimi care for him, but dementia had stolen his mind and it didn’t take long before he needed round the clock care at a nearby residential facility. He passed away a few weeks after that. I stayed with my Mimi a few months more, and we grieved together. Eventually, my dad, stepmother, and little brother moved in. Eventually, I moved away. Eventually, my Mimi died, too.
When I came home for good, I could smell my Mimi’s cologne and cigarette smoke in her former living room. I could sense her when I stood at the kitchen counter, in the lazy Susan corner where she poured and sipped her coffee while looking out the window into the front yard. I could hear her swearing under her breath about spiders on the screened back porch, but admonishing me not to kill the ladybugs (she loved ladybugs and would set them on that kitchen windowsill and call them her friends). When the dog whines during thunderstorms, I can hear her soothing him. When the heat and humidity create an outdoor sauna, I recall her rubbing tanning oil onto her arms and legs and laying out on one of those 1970s-era lounge chairs beside the pool.
“How can you stand this heat, Mim?” I’d ask every time.
“I love it,” she’d say every time, lying back and closing her eyes.
She is everywhere in that house, that yard. When I see hummingbirds visiting the lilacs and impatiens she loved, I experience her warmth for all living beings. Except snakes. When a baby milk snake found its way onto the back door step last month and my son almost stepped on it, I could almost hear my Mimi’s shriek.
One of my favorite stories about her, which my grandfather used to tell with relish, was the time she freaked out over a black snake in the front yard while my grandfather was at work and beat it to death with his walking stick. She beat it. To death. She thought it was venomous, and when he told her it wasn’t, he could tell she was visibly upset—but then she stuck out her stubborn chin and insisted, “The only good snake is a dead snake.” But the black and rat snakes eat all the mice and rats, he told her. “I’m not afraid of mice or rats,” was her reply. She had to ice her shoulder and couldn’t move her arm for a week. The stubborn was strong with that woman.
She fed the deer, the squirrels, the birds, the rabbits. Our yard was full of animals year-round. She gardened. She took in strays, and every time one of them died, my grandfather would roar that there would be no more animals. A few months would go by and she would just bring another one home. Up swelled her heart, out went the chin.
She was a voracious reader, loved being outside, and had a wild imagination. I used to get her to make up stories to tell me, and she’d pretend to be exasperated by that request, but would spin these epic tales that I was always sorry to see end. She should’ve written books. She read more books to me than all my other family members combined.
We are a lot alike, my Mimi and I. She experienced abuse within her marriage, and she had one child. These facts contribute to her spirit’s presence in my life now. I escaped, to home. Her former home. The one from which she never escaped. She died in the room that became my son’s room two and a half years ago, across the hall from where her own son, my father, sleeps.
Collective consciousness, quantum (inter)connection to place, spiritual DNA—I’m not trying to explain my Mimi’s omnipresence in my life so much as bear witness to it and, in owning my character deficiencies, try to be more like her. I won’t offend any of my living relatives, not a one, when I say she was the best family I had, because all of them adored her, too. She was compassionate and kind on a level that I rarely see—she wouldn’t even hang up on telemarketers. She played piano and made incredible oatmeal crispies. My friends all called her Mimi. Not one person in this tiny, gossipy town ever had a thing to say against her.
This is not an elegy, though. I guess my point is that I’m realizing: I don’t think that those we love most actually leave us, ever. Being aware of my Mimi’s presence when I smell impatiens, see a ladybug, eat watermelon (her favorite), or pass one of those ABF freight trucks (“Look, it’s one of my trucks!” my Mimi used to exclaim, because she was Audrey Brown Fleegal) has been a powerful and unexpected reminder for me that some connections are too strong to ever be severed.
Coming home has been a mixed bag of relief and release vs. despair and frustration. I am safe here. I also have old demons here. My Mimi was always a calming presence, and I feel she’s still with me—not just popping up from time to time to let me know I’m ok, but moving through my days with me, puttering around my parents’ house and yard, ever-patient and loving and surely wishing she could spoil her great-grandsons, whom she never got to meet.
I must deserve her continued presence. That awareness came like a kiss on the forehead after a broken fever. It has helped me heal and move on, and it’s helped me reconnect with my living family, the natural world, this little town, and my very own self.
Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of two full-length and three chapbook poetry collections, most recently antidote (Winged City Press 2013). Her poems have appeared in North American Review, Fourth River, Barn Owl Review, UCity Review, decomP’s Best of 10 Years anthology, Crab Creek Review, Knockout, Best of the Net 2011, and more. Her essays have appeared at Quaint Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine and Delirious Hem. She co-founded Blood Lotus, teaches online writing courses for the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing, and works for the Peace & Conflict Studies department of a private liberal arts college in central PA. She’s @shapeshifter43 on Twitter and blogs at anotherwritingmom.wordpress.com.