For most people of faith, the idea of heaven or Paradise or the afterlife is a pleasant one. Beliefs differ, but having a personal or cultural view of what happens (or what doesn’t) after the heart stops beating is pervasive in humankind, if not universal. Regarding my personal belief, consideration of the afterlife has little to do with its existence or even my chances of getting there. My concern lies with the two women I imagine sitting together, one drinking raspberry tea out of pale turquoise china, the other drinking decaf coffee from a simple white mug. Upon my death and—fingers crossed—admittance to the pearly gates, I am ushered to where they sit in the heavens. These women are my grandmothers and they are not happy.
This story begins with birth, as most things do, specifically my birth. As my mother went into labor, a close family friend died. My mother constantly reminded me that I was born with a large fleck of glitter on my person, which she said her friend sprinkled on me in passing out of this world. Angel dust, she said, you were born with angel dust. I have no idea how glitter got into my mother’s uterine lining, nor will I ever ask, but as a young child the story made me feel special—as if I were tied to the other side.
The glitter story was nice, but my interest in it was minor compared to my fascination with Great Aunt Margaret. A year or so before I was born, the woman I am named after passed away. From a young age I felt cheated of my right to know my namesake. My mother assured me that even though she wasn’t with me, my great aunt would always watch over me from heaven. A few years later when my grandmother died, my mother reminded me that our dear Grandmama would now watch over me too.
Prior to darling Grandmama’s death, I would go to her house for tea every Wednesday afternoon. My grandmother and I would sit on a small bench in the yard and she would tell me about the time Clark Gable came to supper at her house when she was young. I was the sort of child that cared a lot about Clark Gable and said “supper” instead of “dinner,” so it made sense that my best friend was a seventy-five-old woman. After she died I talked to her very much in the same way as I prayed, assuming that like God, she could hear what I said. This was incredibly comforting at age ten, but as I got older, I became paranoid that heaven is a sort of surveillance center. I remember at thirteen wondering if my grandmother knew that I was very interested in getting my first kiss at a classmate’s birthday party. It turns out I didn’t need to be worried about male attention, seeing as I was still deep in the territory of my awkward stage, but those thoughts were really creepy nonetheless. As a person with a substantial guilt complex, the addition of my grandmother’s judgment to God’s is a blow to my peace of mind. Every time I meditate on some “bad” action or thought, scrolling through last night’s data trace, I find myself making two sets of confessions. To God, I repent for thinking about sex, for unfulfilling hookups, for ungrateful thoughts, and a very long and detailed list goes on. To my grandmothers, I find myself apologizing for even knowing what sex is and wearing above-the-knee dresses to church.
If Grandmama can see me enjoying Alfred Hitchcock, did she also see me try alcohol for the first time on the golf course behind my friend’s house? Is she upset that I curse? That I wore one of her necklaces to a rave at Terrace and got pink body paint on it? She always abided by such gentle propriety that I sometimes think she may intentionally look the other way when I don’t wear a bra or say “nasty.”
My maternal grandmother, Nana, on the other hand, unquestionably knows everything I’ve ever done. I don’t care what you believe about life after death—it doesn’t matter. If you’ve met this woman, it is abundantly clear that she just knows. She died a year ago and I dream of her frequently. Dreamt, she is as clever as she was in the flesh; she raises her eyebrows in the unmistakable and silent method of scolding mastered in her 60 years of teaching. She inevitably smiles, because luckily for me, I was not only her student, but also her grandchild, which softened her famous sternness. Even in the dreams when she holds my hand at the beach—her favorite place besides the Empire State Building—she is not particularly happy about some of my choices.
I frequently think about them, Grandmama and Nana, how they cheerfully accepted roles of babysitter and math tutor, robbed of their first names in favor of these titles. In between stress dreams, I dream of these two skinny Southern women who loved and will continue to love me, God willing, in spite of having witnessed three Frosh weeks with one more to go. In all likelihood they are only just now getting over my irrational hatred of mayonnaise, which everyone knows is 50% of every elderly Southern person’s diet.
While the opinion that the dead are simply on their way back into the dirt is more common in the realm of academia then it is back home in the Bible belt, it does not console me. Even if atheists are right and nothing happens when we die, some part of me still believes that my grandmothers defied their fate to make sure I never forgot the principles of their teaching. I haven’t forgotten Nana’s cobbler recipe or to love the Braves above all; I keep Grandmama’s favorite authors and oversized sweater close by. It certainly isn’t going to get me out of a serious talking-to when I meet them again, but I hope that it communicates that I love them, wish to be more like them, and promise to get myself to church one of these Sundays.