My grandmother died this afternoon. It was a mercy. She was in her late 80s, and had been in a nursing home suffering from dementia and other ailments for years. I went to see her yesterday for what I knew would be the last time. She was in a coma. There was nothing to say except prayers. The time I saw her before that was in the hospital a couple of months ago, when we didn’t think she was going to make it. She wasn’t sure who I was, but she begged me to take her back home to Starhill. She said she would rather go to Hell than back to that nursing home.
The home was not a bad place. She just was tired of being there. I don’t blame her.
My grandmother — she was my mom’s mom — was not particularly close to Ruthie and me. It was a complicated family story, and a sad one. But neither was there any hostility. I was cleaning the church in Starhill when Mama called me from the nursing home in an eastern suburb of Baton Rouge with the news. I prayed for my grandmother, and finished my work. There will be a baby boy’s baptism tomorrow in Starhill, and I’m standing godfather. Life moves on.
Driving home from church, I passed by the Starhill Cemetery, where my grandmother will be laid to rest next week, next to my grandfather and her daughter, my Aunt Julia, who died of cancer at age 42, just like my sister did. My grandmother — Uncle Jimmy’s sister — was a plain country lady who had a hard life. Burying a daughter was the worst of it, no doubt, but not the whole of it.
When I was a kid, the only reason why we would come down Audubon Lane is to go visit her and my grandfather. Not too many people lived on Audubon Lane in those days. That has changed a lot in 50 years. Now I’m one of the people who live along Audubon Lane. The house where my grandparents made their home has been swallowed up by trees. Life moves on.
Driving up Audubon Lane this afternoon, praying for my grandmother’s soul, and thinking about my happiest memory of her, I remembered her divinity. Have you ever heard of divinity? Here’s a recipe. It’s a traditional Southern candy made from sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, pecans, and egg whites. If fudge were made out of clouds, it would be divinity. I can’t remember the last time I had it. Does anybody make divinity anymore?
My grandmother made it from time to time when I was little. I can remember sitting on a stool in her kitchen once when I was very small, maybe five years old, watching her dropping the hot, sticky nuggets of divinity onto wax paper spread out on the table. Before long they would be cool enough to eat. Nothing else tasted like divinity. It was so pillowy and sweet. Back then, I was too little to know what the word “divinity” meant; to my ears, it sounded magical. It was what that impossibly delicious candy Mawmaw made was called. Divinity was the candy, and the candy was divinity, and Mawmaw made it, nobody else.
Divinity is traditionally snow white (see the photo above), but my grandmother sometimes added a little food coloring to her batches, which made them turn out in bright pastels. Decades later, when I first saw Wayne Thiebaud’s gorgeous paintings of cakes, pies, and meringues, I was instantly captivated by them, for reasons I have never been able to explain. Today I learned why. They reminded me of Mawmaw’s divinity.
I remember where I was the first time I saw her pastel divinity. She brought it over to our house in a repurposed fruitcake tin, lined with wax paper. She knew Ruthie and I loved divinity. When I opened the tin, instead of the usual white candy, there they were, pink, pale green, sky blue, lemon yellow. It was breathtaking, as if someone had given us a box full of colored Christmas tree lights that you could eat, and that tasted sweet in a way that nothing else tasted sweet. If you drank a sip of Coke after eating a piece of divinity, it foamed up in your mouth (the egg whites), and nothing else did that but divinity.
The next time Mawmaw made her pastel divinity, I was sitting on that stool, watching her push chunks of wet divinity off of one spoon onto another, onto the wax paper. By the time she finished, she had covered half the dining table with rows and rows of pastel divinity candies, cooling into stiff peaks and whorls, mesmerizing a little boy with their colors, their shapes, the harmonies and lines, and the promise that if put one in my mouth, the taste would infuse me with the same bright candied pleasure. They were just like a Wayne Thiebaud painting, I now realize, but you could eat them, and they were created not by a famous artist, but by my grandmother, a simple country lady who had a hard life. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that she made beautiful candy that no one else made, and that as a little boy, this candy made me as happy as anything else did.
The kitchen where she produced these nuggets of pure joy disappeared into the woods a long time ago. And now she is gone too, delivered at last from her many agonies, gone home, finally, like she wanted.
Helen Fletcher Howard died today. Once upon a time she colored my world with divinity.