My favorite story Doris told me was about their new phone number in Boston.
Big Jack was going to law school at Harvard, and neither of them had ever really lived outside of Alabama. Big Jack spent most of his days at the library reading, and when he came home to their small apartment, it was just to get something Doris could “throw between two pieces of bread” for dinner.
One night, after Big Jack had fallen asleep and Doris was putting away his coat, she found a folded piece of paper in his front pocket. It had a phone number written on it. Doris was sure Big Jack had a girlfriend, so she woke him up and demanded to know whose number he was keeping in his coat.
Big Jack wouldn’t say, but he smiled mischievously.
This made Doris angrier. So she sat on the bed and threatened to sing “I’m Henry the VIII, I am” endlessly until he confessed.
Big Jack let Doris sing the whole night. The next morning, as he was leaving for school, he smiled and said, “The number in my pocket is ours.”
Doris told me this while she patted my hand and I drifted off to sleep. When my grandparents came to visit, Doris always slept in my room, and I’d ask her to hold my hand until I was asleep.
I called her “Doris” because everyone else did. I never thought it was strange to use her first name. According to Doris, however, I pronounced it “Darse” until I moved up North with the Yankees and started pronouncing each syllable.
Which brings me to my other favorite story about Doris.
When our third son, Lindell, was born in 2007, Dustin was the one who called Doris to tell her the news. Because I lived with Doris and Big Jack while I was in college, Dustin had gotten to know them like his own. But it was late when he called that night, and Doris was confused.
“The baby is here,” Dustin said. “And we’ve named him Lindell Grant.”
Doris said, “Well!” and hung up the phone.
The next morning, Doris called my brother, Will, and said, “Imagine the nerve of that girl naming her baby after General Grant! Big Jack ought to be rolling over in his grave by now.”
“No, the baby’s name is LINDELL Grant,” Will told her. “Not General Grant.”
Doris eventually forgave Dustin for that scare. Even though at our wedding Doris had pulled me aside at the last minute and said, “It’s not too late to back out,” she would later refer to Dustin as her “Number 2.” We never knew who “Number 1” was, but Dustin was glad to be counted among her favorites.
Once Dustin and I had children and were living in Florida, long after Big Jack had died, we often went up to Alabama to get Doris and take her with us on trips to see my parents in Virginia. Doris would sing to my sons one of her standards: “In a cabin in the woods, a little old man by the window stood ...”
Except, when Doris got to the part that goes, “‘Help me, help me, help me,’ he said, ‘or that hunter will shoot me dead’,” I out-sung her with, “Or that hunter will steal my bed.”
Doris would stop singing and say, “That’s not how it goes. It’s ‘Or that hunter —’”
I’d out-sing her again.
Then Doris would look at the boys and say something like, “Now, your mother is all lop-sided wompus. She can sing it anyway she wants, this way or the other way, but the song goes, ‘Or that hunter will—‘“
Again I’d out-sing her.
Then I’d smile as I looked in the rearview mirror and saw her patting baby Lindell’s hand, like she always did mine when I was going to sleep.
Two weeks ago, Doris broke her hip. A few days later, she lay unresponsive in the hospital. The day before Doris’ 94th birthday, my mom asked me to write something to read at her funeral. None of us thought she’d recover. That’s when I began this column.
I couldn’t remember the last time Doris and I had a good talk. The day she didn’t remember the Boston-phone-number story, I stopped calling her as much. It was hard to hear her so confused. And in December, a phone message from her telling me that she will love me forever, one that I had saved for 6 years, was accidentally erased.
I thought I’d never hear her voice again.
But the next day, on her birthday, Doris woke up. Over the phone she told me, “Oh how I love you,” and then she handed the phone to the nurse.
Perhaps I should have deleted this column/funeral speech then. It seems premature now. Except, what a gift to have the chance to tell someone these things while she is still here with us.
Sarah Smiley is a columnist and author of “Dinner With the Smileys,” a memoir of a year of dinners and motherhood.