For My Grandmother
She was born Theodora Putnam Downing; her family instantly named her Bimby. She loved her friends and her family fiercely and delightedly–but not, ever on the phone. Talking with Bimby on the phone went pretty much like this.
“Hello? Oh, it’s good of you to call. I’ll call you next time. Bye.”
Bimby did not like talking on the phone. She was, however, a prolific letter writer. She would write a letter that seemed to say nothing important or profound at the time, but did, in fact, mean everything.
She wrote to say, “Howdy, Bub.”
Many, many afternoons and evenings at family gatherings with the conversation flowing over and around the room. I’d look over and catch Bimby’s eye. She would flash her glorious smile at me and say, “Howdy, Bub.” It meant everything and nothing at the same time. It meant,“I see you.” and “I’m glad you are here, on this day.”
It meant everything.
That is how she was, present, and keeping in touch–but not ever on the phone.
When I was 4, I was very sick and in the hospital for quite a long while, just over a month. I was, secretly, sure I was going to die. I’d felt so sick for so long and was frightened all the time. When I was finally released from the hospital and was still weak and ill. I was convinced they had let me out to die at home. Bimby was there, though, that first night home from the hospital. We shared a room.
She snored. All. Night. Not on the phone. Right in the room with me. I loved it and loved her for it.
All that night, I slept on and off. I’d wake to her snoring in the next bed and drift back to sleep. If Bimby was there, I would be fine.
That is how she was. She was there, and I felt better for her. She was present and keeping in touch, all through that frightening night. “You are fine.” she snored,
“Howdy, Bub.” she snored.
Our family moved to Annapolis in 1978. Bimby was there so we would be fine. She never made a big deal out of it but we would come home from school, my sisters, Tracey, Mindy, and I. We’d find a stew in the fridge. Our beagle, Daisy, would have had a walk.
Bimby would have left a note explaining how to heat the stew, instructing us to take the dog out again and follow up with a short list of suggestions we ought to do to help Mom out.
She had been there, and we were all better for it. It meant Everything. It meant checking in and keeping in touch.
It meant, “Howdy, Bub.”
Bimby loved fiercely and gently. She was only ever cross with us when, we kids, gave Mom a hard time. Then, we would get either a sternly worded letter or an earful—and not a phone call, either. Having said her piece, she would follow up with instant love and forgiveness. That meant everything. She was always the best at reaching out and changing us with the power of her regard–
“I see you.“ and, “I know you”, she meant
“Howdy, Bub” she would say.
It means everything. It meant everything.
She has gone. She has gone on. Who, now, will see us, tell us we are fine, help us to see ourselves better than we are.
We must see each other, help one another to be better, offer advice and forgiveness, be present with one another here, on this day and in the days that are still to come. And that means everything.
On the occasion of her 80th Birthday, Bimby’s beloved brother, my Great-Uncle Peter wrote this poem in her honor. I’d like to share it with you, today.
It was early in September
That our family got a member,
A girl that it would long remember
Eighty years or mora.
To Sloane’s Hospital she came,
And when her mother picked a name,
It was an old one. She became
The family’s fifth Theodora.
But her father, feeling dimly
That name would far too long for him be
Re-Christened her instead, “The Bimbi.”
A name that stuck forevermore.
An Army brat, her life nomadic,
Her wandering childhood was erratic.
Adapting became automatic
From Texas to Atlantic’s shore.
Hartridge, Burnham, Ferry Hall,
Her studies often seemed to pall,
But dancing lessons were a ball
In Tanya Newcheff’s ballet corps.
Her flashing smile, her graceful carriage
Inspired beaus with dreams of marriage.
They were not easy to disparage
And banish from her Glencoe door.
Only one had such persistence
That he wore down her resistance.
Bing refused to keep his distance.
They were wed forevermore.
Next June she had a fine boy baby
And three years later to the day be-
Gat a girl. Without delay, she
Brought her family up to four.
Fort Sill, Fort Orde, Fort Bragg, Fort Devons,
West Point, Carlyle, Norfolk makes seven,
Each of them she made a heaven,
And there were plenty more.
Casa Blanca’s ghost was hapless.
Alaska’s wilds were nearly mapless,
At last they settled in Annapless
Beside the Bay’s bright western shore.
At eighty years, she’s more than okay.
She is a champion playing croquet,
So now I send a birthday bouquet
To the sister I adore.