Thursday, May 22, 2008
Gramma Bella's Eyes
My grandmother’s eyes were cornflower blue. They were not the deep blue of the bachelor button variety however, they were the powdery blue of the pastel sort. Like the forget-me-nots that would bloom under our footbridge bringing color to an otherwise dreary world, Grandmother’s eyes demanded attention, and they told her story. Every wrinkle surrounding them testified to a life well spent.Photos, from her past, showed a young woman with eyes which shone with glints of light, like sunlight dancing on the gentle ripples of a clear blue lake licked by a passing breeze. Her eyes contained a twinkle which spoke mischief, as does the flirtive glance between young lovers.On January 28, 1905, her eyes first viewed this world, as she would tell it ,“in Inglesmount, Burghmuir, Tibbermore, Perth, Scotland.” Her parents gave her the name of Isabella Alexander Traill Lyall, but her family simply called her Bella. She was born into the upper middle class: a descendant of Scottish royalty. She was the youngest of five children. Anyone looking in upon this scene would have imagined a life of relative ease and comfort for this little one. Six days after her birth this would all change. Her mother developed an infection, commonly called childbirth fever, and closed her eyes to this world. Thirteen days later, her mother’s youngest sister would breathe her last breath as a victim of pneumonia. Suddenly, her birth, which had been a joyous event for this family, was shrouded by death.Bella’s father was named David. David had met his Goliath , and he was overwhelmed. He was left with the prospect of raising five, wee bairns (small children).His eldest daughter could help care for the young boys, but she was too young to be expected to care for an infant. He needed to work to support his family, leaving no one to care for the baby. His widowed mother passed on when he was in his early teens, leaving him to fend for himself. He knew what it was like to be without one’s mother. In desperation, he took his youngest daughter, his dear wife’s namesake, and placed her into the loving arms of her maternal grandmother. Bella’s eyes must have gazed into the gentle eyes of the woman who would raise her. Did my grandmother’s eyes bring a sense of peace and comfort to this woman grieving at the loss of two of her daughters? After Bella was welcomed by her grandmother, her father packed up what was left of his little family and moved far away. He moved away from the pain, the memories, and from his infant daughter! He ran away to England.Bella’s eyes would witness many things in the coming years. She saw a world war, “The War to End All Wars.”She watched her uncles as they went off to fight. Dressed in the tartan of The Black Watch, their kilts swayed as they paraded by. The soldiers legs looked strong and firm; surely, those legs would carry them safely home. She watched for the return of her countrymen, there were far too many who returned with eyes forever closed. With the loss of her mother, aunt, and, now, all the soldiers, Bella learned to mourn early in life.Bella’s eyes also watched for the return of her father. In the first seventeen years of her life, she saw her father, brothers, and sister maybe four or five times. She could not help feeling that he had blamed her for the death of her mother. I learned never to mention the English in the presence of my grandmother. The instant the word would alight upon her ears, her eyes would darken like the underside of a cumulonimbus cloud before a summer storm followed by a flash of anger like lightening slashing the sky. In muffled tones reminiscent of thunder in the distance ,she could be heard to mutter under her breath, “bloody English .” It seemed the very act of speaking the word aloud could bring down the fires of Heaven, to wipe clean the soul of any who dared speak the vile word, English. When her father left for England and made little effort to stay in contact with the family, they began to view him as a traitor to both his daughter and his native country. He became, in their eyes, no better than the bloody English.When Bella was in her early teens, her grandmother passed away. Her step-grandfather was left to see to her upbringing. John Traill was a firm but kind man, and he was the only father Bella had ever really known. John had served in the army, and at this point in his life, he was a craftsman. He built fine desks and sturdy rocking chairs. He knew how to mold and train men; he could shape and fashion wood into works of art, but what was he to do with a teenage girl? Never one to flee from battle, John did the best he could. “Stand straight, pull your shoulders back, hold your chin up, look people in the eye, and never let them see you cry,” were the words of wisdom he imparted to his young charge. When Bella turned seventeen, John packed their belongings, closed up the house and booked passage on a ship bound for America. His daughter had married and moved to the States, so that is where they would go.In my mind's eye, I can see my grandmother as a young woman standing on the deck of the ship, her eyes scanningthe eternal horizon, and anticipating the endless array of possibilities for the future. A shadow crosses her windswept face and a ting of sadness finds its way into her bosom reminding her of what was left behind.Within the Scottish lies a genetic disorder that affects the very heart and mind of each man, woman, and child.This disorder most often manifests itself by causing the eyes to water profusely. Mind you, these are not tears, for those are never shed in public. This watering of the eyes is almost always triggered by the drone of a bagpipe. The symptoms then progress to a deep longing for home, followed by a desire to return to the old country, -- Bonnie Scotland. This malady manifests itself even in the offspring who have never been to Scotland. I have often seen my grandmother gazing into the distance, slowly finding focus on that far distant place the land of her birth. This vision from her memories would seem to form a panoramic view before her. Slowly, her chin would rise; her shoulders would square themselves; and her nostrils would flair ever so slightly like the doe who has caught the scent of her mate. The corners of her mouth would rise into a satisfied grin. Her eyes would drink in this scene, this splendid memory, as though the very curtains of Heaven had been pulled back to reveal the glory therein.Grandmother found this new country strange and wonderful. Everything looked new. There was not a single old building in sight. The oldest building she could find was under two hundred years old. Grandpa John’s daughter lived in a place called Michigan, so this is where they settled.Bella loved this new home. She loved the trees in all their many shapes and sizes with their magnificent display of color in the fall. Pine trees with their whispering song and the sweet scent of lilac bushes filled her heart with joy, as did the glittering jewels which hung upon the winter branches. Wild berries and fruit trees were everywhere. She could not turn without running into water. Grandmother Bella loved the lakes. Deep-blue sapphire pools dotted the land, the green algae covered ponds teamed with bullfrogs and dragonflies, monstrous windswept beaches with thundering waves and rocky crags that reminded her of home. There were towering dunes which lead to sandy coves, streams and raging rivers bulged with salmon and catfish. Grandmother loved to fish. Deep rich soil covered the gently rolling hills and sloping meadows. Song birds filled the trees. Wildflowers sprinkled the land. Bella’s eyes loved to observe God’s handiwork.It was not long before Bella noticed a fine figure of a man. He was square shouldered and narrow in the waist, with a strong back, a firm rump, and tree trunk thighs. This man by all appearances looked every bit a Scotsman. His family came from Ireland by way of Canada. His name was Ray Grier, and Bella’s eyes warned her that he was a rogue. Her eyes were right , for he stole her heart.In 1925, with a touch of guilt, Bella married Ray. Would her ancestors ever forgive her ? She was a member of the McDougall clan by birth as well as a kinsman of Robert the Bruce, and Ray was “no a clansman.” She had married him in spite of this shortcoming. Clan loyalty was such a central part of her upbringing that Bella harbored a feeling of guilt throughout her life. Several years ago, I discovered grandmother’s bonnie young man was indeed Scottish. Ray’s family was from the Clan Gregor which had been outlawed by the King of England. In order to escape persecution and often execution, those of the McGregor Clan were forced to assume new names and flee the country. Ireland welcomed many of these refuges to their shores: Ray’s ancestors were among them. Those bloody English!Ray and Bella set about raising quarter horses. They purchased a small farm house on the banks of the Kalamazoo River, in the small village of Galesburg, Michigan. It proved to be “just right,” for raising the two daughters who would bless their home. There were hard times, but they survived. Ray was an electrician and started his own photography business taking pictures at horse races. His eldest daughter was at his side.Bella’s eyes grew older and they saw another world war. This time, she watched the young boys from her town march off to fight. There were no illusions; she knew many would never return. At this time, the few letters from home stopped. She never learned what happened to the family she left in Scotland.Ray played trombone in a local dance band, and Bella’s eyes loved to watch him play. He could make his trombone sing ,all the while, playing with his cigar hanging from the right corner of his mouth. Grandmother loved music! On Saturday nights, the entire family would go to the dance hall. These were joyous times, but they were not to last.Bella had noticed their eldest daughter seemed to be having problems: massive mood swings, fits of anger, exuberant laughter followed by depression, and impulsive behavior. This behavior seemed to increase as she grew older. When she was a junior in high school, she became involved with a young sailor. When they discovered that she was with child, they placed her in a home for unwed mothers. When the child was born ,they placed the infant girl up for adoption knowing their daughter was not ready to raise a child. They hoped this would give both their daughter and the young infant the best chance for a happy life without the stigma of an out of wedlock birth. Bella’s eyes closed in prayer in behalf of her little granddaughter, “Please bless her that she may never feel abandoned .”Bella’s daughter never forgave her mother. Then Bella’s eldest daughter, my mother, turned to a bottle of scotch whisky to block out the pain. Grandmother Bella’s eyes started to dim.On September 8,1955, Ray and Bella celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary. Their eldest daughter was married to a fine young Irish horseman, and their youngest was a senior in high school. Bella’s eyes looked forward to a bright future for her family.Late in the evening, on December seventeenth of that same year , a knock was heard on Bella’s door. Ray had suffered a massive heart attack while driving on snow covered roads and hit a tree. Ray would not be coming home. The fire died that night in Grandmother Bella’s eyes.I never saw the fire evident in her youthful photos. I was born three years too late. As year by year passed I watched her eyes grow dim. Her health started to fade, and cataracts stole her sight. She never mentioned this to anyone because she did not want to be a bother. When it was finally discovered she had been faking the ability to see, her sight was restored through surgery. She was, finally, able to look upon the face of her first great-grandson. Grandmother’s eyes cried for joy.Pain and suffering will cause some to become angry and resentful while in others it fosters a gentle, compassionate spirit. In my grandmother's eyes, I found a place of peace and safety. She had survived pain and sorrow and in so doing, knew how to succor others in their time of need. Children were her joy, and she was their protector. She would council the scolding parent, “ now they’re only little ones.” Her eyes looked with pity upon any suffering creature,animals were refered to as "little people," and no stray animal ever went hungry around my grandmother.When trials entered into her life, she would quote a line from a favorite hymn, “ The lord works in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He sets His feet upon the waves and rides upon the storm.”Early in September, 1979, my grandmother Bella’s eyes closed one final time. Many years have passed, and I miss her still. I have counted many as a friend in this life, but none knew my heart as completely as she did. I am the person I have become only because her eyes saw in me what I could not see in myself..This morning I looked into the mirror, and I found Grandmother Bella’s eyes.