Miles to Go Before I Sleep

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tonight, my family made the four hour trek from Dallas back home to Oklahoma. We generally do our best to stay away from road trips (two parents, five kids, and a dog all squished into a suburban isn't always the most relaxing situation), but we made an exception to attend the annual Christmas party with the extended family down south. Everyone but myself and the driver had fallen asleep,  the backseat a tangled mess of heads on laps, legs in the air, with a snoozing dog inexplicably woven through. My face was pressed up against the cold, foggy glass, and I gazed out the window as the black silhouettes of trees against a sky of deepest blue, peppered with stars, fell into the distance behind us. The lines from one of Frost's poems ran through my head over and over, stuck like a broken record: The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

Though the Christmas party was the official excuse for our visit, the real reason was my great-grandmother (known affectionately to her family as "Nanny"). Her health had taken a sharp, downward spiral and, with more than a handful of scares under her belt, we felt she deserved the company of all of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren this Christmas. We all went to drink her in, the "just in case" sitting silently on our tongues.

Nanny is a very tiny woman with thin lips, straight white hair with sharp, Dutch-boy bangs, and clear hazel eyes that glow from behind her glasses. She likes things "just so." After tipping my hat to the cousins, I clung to her side like ivy for the duration of the party. I held her heavy oxygen tank, awkwardly attempting to not step on her heels as she walked from the living room to the kitchen and back again. I explained the concept of a "white elephant" to her and tried to keep her from getting a bum deal from the crafty relatives.

She has never really been one for stories, but that night she told me about how, as a young mother in the fifties, she saw an African American woman walking home from the grocery store carrying big bags of food. Nanny pulled over and offered her a ride, but the woman shook her head and said that her parents taught her to never get in the car with a white person. Not to be deterred, Nanny offered to at least drive the woman's groceries back to her house and leave them on the porch for her so that she wouldn't have to carry them home. Every week after that, Nanny would drive the woman's groceries home for her.

I laughed maybe a little too hard at the comments she made about her two husbands ("Frank had hair covering his whole body, but Mack had hardly any at all. And that wasn't the only difference, if you know what I mean..." And then she graced us with a ladylike wink.)

As we said goodbye before my family squeezed ourselves back into the suburban, Nanny clutched my hand and said, "Think of me when you get married someday." She caught herself and quickly said, tightening her grip on my hand, "Or maybe I'll just stick around to see it myself. How about that?"

I've never really understood the poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" before. Now I think I do. As I looked out at the dark forest through the frosty window, I imagined my Nanny walking between the trees, unhindered by her oxygen tank or her walker. Maybe she was carrying someone else's groceries. I wondered to whom she had promises to keep. To past husbands? To dead mothers ("It's so nice you have a mom you can talk to. I was always able to talk to mine. I wish I could now.")? To me? Her image faded in the yellow light of an approaching town, street lamps, a boarded-up bar called The Watering Hole, gas stations, trees, forest, blackness...

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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