On Grandpa’s Birthday

“I wish I could call Grandpa-Great,” Sonny said the other day. I wish so, too. Especially today, which would have been his 100th birthday.

I thought of him the other day while reading an article on minimalism. (He probably would have been bemused that this philosophy—which, for most of history, was just the way all people lived—is now considered a) the latest trend and b) something that takes work to achieve.) In any case, minimalists would approve of the handful of belongings he chose to keep toward the end of his life. Of course, when you are a nonagenarian and live in an assisted living facility you don’t need a car or specialty cleaners or an extra pair of boots or plates or half a can of spray paint that, who knows, you might use for something someday. You don’t bother with shelves of books, and any extraneous furniture is just in the way. When you’re 97 you’re satisfied with one TV; it doesn’t occur to you to acquire the army of devices that rule the rest of us.

Still, even for a 97-year-old, he traveled lightly. Almost everything that was packed up after his death harbored significance.

His chair. Grandpa often expressed concern that the kids would be bored while visiting him, as he didn’t have any toys. But no worries; who could be bored in a room that featured not only Grandpa-Great but a remote-control lift recliner, which he freely allowed young boys to operate as they chatted?

“We flew a kite yesterday. It was striped and shaped like a bird. Did you ever fly a kite when you were a boy?” (Up went the chair.)

“Yes.”

“What was it shaped like?”

“Like something that didn’t want to fly. We made our own kites, and they didn’t work very well. But we made them anyway.” (Down went the chair.)

“Did your mom let you watch PBS Kids while she took a shower?”

“No. We didn’t have TVs.”

“What did you do instead?”

“We fixed our kites.”

He would point to his collage of photographs, many of them over half a century old, and tell of the people they featured. “That was your Papa and his horse. He loved that horse . . .” And stories poured forth from the comfort—and entertainment—of the chair.

A framed print of a bird in flight. This piece of mass-produced art seemed inconsequential until my dad and uncle took it down to box up. Discovered taped to the back of the print: a sheet of notebook paper on which Grandpa had hand-copied the poem “To a Waterfowl”  by William Cullen Bryant.

Whither, ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
      Thy solitary way? . . .

. . . He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
      Will lead my steps aright.

It can’t be a stretch to presume that that he words he had copied on notebook paper (and likely in his memory also—“We used to memorize things,” he said once, and proved it by reciting a few lines of Shakespeare) gave him assurance. The print must have served as a ready reminder of this comfort.

A desk. Its contents were the usual: Pens. A letter opener, its handle engraved with the name of bank, both the engraving and blade dulled by decades of letter opening. Paper clips, because every desk houses paper clips even though most people seldom use them. (Do they?) But also, tucked farther back:

A small toy horse, one leg broken off. The horse had been a gift from his parents upon their return from Mayo Clinic around 1923, when Grandpa was seven. The memories of receiving the toy horse in a time when gifts were rare (“We used to get one thing for Christmas, and we were happy” he mentioned once) must have been inextricable from those of the devastating diagnosis that his father also brought back from Rochester. How often did Grandpa hold that horse during his father’s last months and in the first months without him? In any case, he kept it for over 90 years, remembering.

A Camels pack, still holding a few cigarettes, circa early 1950s and deliberately crushed. Although Grandpa was frugal and seldom wasted anything, he’d apparently quit mid-pack and saved the evidence for over 60 years. I wonder why he kept them. To recall a battle he’d won? To remind himself to avoid destructive habits?

A treasure trove of treats. Fun-sized candy bars, mints, jelly beans or candy corn or miniature candy canes (depending on which holiday was in the vicinity) squirreled away for his great-grandkids. Although he couldn’t remember our names at the end, he never forgot the candy. “Make sure the boys get some candy before they leave,” he said. “Did they get some candy? They can have more than one.”

And, of course, he left behind memories, too many to mention. But one that stands out is one that he deliberately planted. When we were kids, he and Grandma would ask visiting grandchildren to read aloud from the Bible after supper. The reader was free to choose the passage. (This did involve risks; just ask the hapless grandchild who, as a young teenager, let the Bible fall open randomly and started reading before realizing too late that the passage was one of those embarrassing ones about lust. Oops. If you ever wanted to hear Grandpa laugh, you could just ask him to tell of how his grandkid, blushing and stammering, read aloud about harlots in front of the familly.)

But one evening during a visit, instead of asking my sisters or me to read, he chose the passage himself and asked us to listen closely. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’ . . .”

He unpacked each metaphor for us—“when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim . . .” But upon concluding (“ . . . and the spirit returns to God who gave it”) he did not expound further. He was confident that we understood his message, which was subtle but clear.

As were the other messages he left us, woven into his few remaining belongings.

So his spirit has returned to God who gave it, and although I can’t help wishing he could have held out to celebrate today, I am glad to have so much time with him, and I am glad that Sonny and Ace knew him and remember him. I am thankful for him—what he gave when he was here and what he’s left behind.

Happy birthday, Grandpa.

 

 

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One Lace Tablecloth

My grandma loved to crochet. Once, during a visit to Iowa with my dad in the late 90s, I admired the lace tablecloth on her table. “Oh, do you like it?” she said. “I’ll make you one.”

I cherished the offer. Still, that was the visit in which she kept forgetting that I’d already eaten breakfast. She repeatedly asked if I wanted certain household items that she and Grandpa weren’t using anymore, and although I gave the same answer every time, it didn’t seem familiar to her. She often seemed a little perplexed over references to conversations from within the past hour. Eventually my eyes locked with my dad’s in silent acknowledgment that we could no longer hope that Alzheimer’s would withhold its sinister fingers from her. So I knew that she would not remember her offer to make me a tablecloth, let alone be able to undertake such a project, despite a decades-long history of skillful needlework.

On the plane back to Michigan, I mulled over the visit and Alzheimer’s and her offer and her many previous crochet projects. A few days later, she phoned: What were the dimensions of my table? What color thread did I prefer—white or ecru? And the following week, the same phone call. And then another. Each time I answered the questions, surprised that she had not forgotten the tablecloth, each time knowing that creating an intricate crocheted tablecloth would be too confusing for her at this point.

A few weeks after the last phone call, I received a package. It was the lace tablecloth. Behold:

tablecloth

My grandma died 10 years ago tonight. I miss her.

She loved crocheting, birds, the color blue, and beautiful things. She took joy in feeding others—in feeding them lavishly. (Lavishly, I assure you.) This year’s Thanksgiving dinner featured two of her famous pies (peach cream and apple), compliments of my sisters, and everybody got all excited.

She wrote regular letters to my sisters and me when we were kids, telling of farming and church dinners and birds and coffee with her sisters and the upcoming Tulip Festival and construction on the highway and that Gramp said to say hi. Of family reunions and upcoming visits, and what would we like for dinner when we came? She often included newspaper clippings: “Thought you would like this,” she’d pen on the clipping in her distinctive handwriting. Or, “This reminds me of you.” Her letters invariably included three sticks of Juicy Fruit, one for each granddaughter. (In the winter the gum had grown brittle from traveling for days in the cold; in the summer it would be melted and we’d have to put it in the freezer for a while if we didn’t want to have to scrape it off the wrapper.)

Grandpa and Grandma had two sons. I often wish I could compare “mother of two sons” stories with her. Ask what she would do. Inquire whether her experiences had been similar. Laugh and shake our heads together.

She once mentioned that when my dad and uncle were young, the TV would mysteriously break on the first day of summer vacation and not work again until the first day of school. It’s hard to imagine what was on TV in the 1950s Iowa that would inspire her to divest the television of its tube for the entire summer. Didn’t they only have three channels back then? Surely not all of the few options would have even appealed to kids. Surely my dad’s and uncle’s indulgence in TV would have been minimal anyway. But long before “screen time” was even a term, she hacked it off at the knees. Even a meager amount would not be allowed to muddle up an Iowa summertime. So I probably wouldn’t need to ask her opinion on today’s “screen time” practices.

I would like to ask her if people ever told her that she should add a girl or two to the family, and if the implication that two boys weren’t good enough irritated her. But knowing her, she probably didn’t care about other people’s opinions on this topic.

I would like to tell her of the time Ace took a toad into the house and of his passionate protests as I chased them both back outside (“I only lost him once so far, and it’s okay because he didn’t poop!”), and then wait for her to tell me a story like it.

I would like to tell her of Sonny’s extensive rock collection—none of the rocks may be discarded (none of them), because one is shaped like Australia, and another probably contains gold, and one of them sparkles and it’s so cool, and that one is a souvenir from our vacation. All of them (all of them) are special. I’d like to tell her about this and then listen as she tells a similar tale.

I would like to ask her at what point in any particular ruckus she’d kick her sons outside. (Even if it was snowing hard. Not that I’ve ever done that.)

I would like to ask her whether she ever stood outside her sons’ bedroom at night, listening to their whispers and soaking up their brotherhood.

She would write letters to Sonny and Ace, and tucked along with the letter would be two pieces of Juicy Fruit and several newspaper clippings (do they still make those?) telling of toads and snakes and rocks. “This reminds me of you,” she’d note.

The evening after she died, J and I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah, its significance magnified and resonating among my swirling memories and emotions. Maybe someday the Messiah will cease to remind me of her, but that day has not yet come.

I wish she could have known Sonny and Ace and that they could have known her. But this morning I showed them the lace tablecloth and explained how it came to be. On the way to school we talked about Grandma some more. (“Tell the story about the huge lunches she packed that week she babysat you and your sisters!”) And tonight I played selections from Handel’s Messiah and told them the words were true.

I look at the tablecloth, and I hear her words from the newspaper clippings: “This reminds me of you.” I hear the Messiah: “This reminds me of you.”

Lots of things remind me of her, and for that I am thankful. Especially tonight.