My best friend’s grandfather is dying. He only has a few weeks or so they are guessing. He is not exceptionally close to his grandfather, but it is going to be hard nonetheless – if only for the fact that a genetic marker is gone…a unique place holder of a person in time and space and life is no longer there. An anchor pulled up that leaves the survivors a bit adrift. I have mixed emotions for my friend. I am glad he won’t be in a ton of agony and emotionally distraught over missing someone really significant in his life. But I am also a bit sad that he didn’t to experience what I had with my Grandma.
If you are a faithful reader, you know I have had a pretty rough childhood. If you are new…read the ugly truth and maybe the about me page. I didn’t have a lot of nurturing or anywhere near a normal situation. But I did have an awesome woman for a Grandma. She lived with her younger sister, my Great Aunt Dell, who was a pretty phenomenal gal herself. These two feisty, strong, straight forward women had a great impact on me.
When I was about 3 I lived on a farm in Southern Ohio with my mom, dad and brother. Grandma and Aunt Dell lived on our property in a trailer a couple hundred feet away. I did say SOUTHERN Ohio…did I not? But you would be amazed at my Grandmothers trailer. When you walked inside you were no longer in a trailer…you were transported to some other dimension in time and space. It didn’t feel or look like a trailer…it felt like a quaint Chinese shrine of some kind or something…she had impeccable style on a budget and was ahead of her time in decorating. And she kept it immaculate.
This little dwelling was my safe haven. It was the place I would escape to when the screaming was too much. I could go there when mom was talking to the voices that I didn’t hear and was freaked out by her behavior. I could just go there and know I was in a safe, neutral place. I felt the peace in that space. There was order, calmness. Grandma was the work horse of the house, Aunt Dell was the outdoor girl. She was a tiny 4’9″ (maybe) feather of a woman, but tough enough to wrestle a bear. She loved to take long walks. And I loved to accompany her.
I inherited her love of nature. On our walks she would pour out information effortlessly as we passed by any plant, tree or shrub as she called them all by name. I eventually started learning the genus and species of certain plants and Grandma and Aunt Dell would always get such a kick out of it when I got it right. They would make a big deal out of me like I was some genius kid, when really I was just soaking in and repeating the wealth of knowledege Aunt Dell was so kindly sharing with me.
Our farm was big – a few hundred acres. It was beautiful – rolling, tree covered hills, creeks and streams to play in, gardens to sneak snap peas from, lots of kitties and puppies, barns and corn cribs to play in, corn fields for hide n seek – a childhood dream. One of Aunt Dell and I’s favorite walking destinations was a place we coined, “The big rock and fallen tree”. Because there was a…can you guess? YES!…a big rock near a fallen tree…and it just so happen to make an excellent stopping point to have a snack, study lots of different species of moss and lichen, or sometimes just listen. Listen to the wind in the trees, the birds calling to each other, life standing still.
We had to pass a small cabin on the way to this coveted destination. This cabin was always a fascination of mine. Who built it? How long had it been there? Had someone actually lived there? It was so small and there was no flooring. Just a small structure, a tin roof and openings for a window and door. Nothing fancy by any means, but so magical to me. I still have no clue the real origins of it, but I was convinced that Indians had built it and lived there. Of course I was too ignorant to realize that Indians would never build that type of structure. But – hey…God love my famliy for not ruining at least one fantasy of mine.
One quest Grandma who would always stay behind and utilize her alone time to clean and cook and can vegetables and who knows what else…the one quest she would always give me was to find her favorite flower – the elucid and rare Lady Slipper. I always thought them to be strange and unattractive flowers as a child. I know now that this is a type of orchid that was rapidly vanishing and is definitely endangered…if not, sadly, extinct by now. I am personally responsible for probably helping that extintion along. For at the time, it was my task and mission in life to find her a lady slipper.
It was so thrilling to actually find one. And when I did find it, of course I had to pick it. By the time I got it home, it had become a wilted sad excuse of a living thing. But Grandma always made me feel as if I had just given her the most precious treasure in the world. She would fuss over it and put it in water and somehow manage to keep it for days despite the battering I gave it.
These are some of the greatest child hood memories I have. Shortly after I turned 6…maybe 7, Mom and Dad couldn’t stop the inevitable and had an explosive divorce that resulted in mom basically kidnapping me of sorts, took me into hiding for a few years where dad couldn’t find us, and I don’t remember ever seeing the farm in tact again. Dad had to sell it, Grandma and Aunt Dell moved their trailer and I never got to say good bye to the hills, the trees, the cabin, the big rock and the fallen tree, or anything. Not even the lady slippers.
I heard a few years later the farmhouse was burned to the ground. And the new owners of the land thought it would be profitable to rape the hillsides and sell the lumber. The result was a drastic degradation of landscape as erosion took hold and the hills fell into the streams and forever changed the place to something completely unrecognizable. I have never had the guts to go back and quite honestly, have no idea how to get there now of if the road even exists anymore. But I guess dad went back once and he couldn’t even speak about it.
Aunt Dell died a little over 2 years ago. Grandma followed her shortly after hanging on to life solo for amost a year. I miss them. A lot. I got to reconnect and spend some really good time with them their last few years. Despite the 2.5 hour drive one way with a toddler in tow, I would make a point of visiting them every few months. I learned so much about them that last year in particular. Grandma would open up and talk about their childhood…their corn husk beds, unheated home with dirt floors, and her dad’s first model T Ford! How she was fascinated and frustrated with the ‘Eisenglass’ curtain window-like enclosures that never worked properly to protect from the rain. She was becoming a real person…not just a far removed grandma like entity.
She told me of her romances and love with a man named Carl before she had met Grandpa and how he died in a parachuting accident. She showed me the yellowing sepia toned photos of faces and people that were long lost generational relations. Of course there would also be my dad as a toddler and teen ager, and Grandma and Aunt Dell as young women with hip hair styles and trendy glasses. And I never tired of seeing these photos…time after time after time. I soaked it in. I just loved hearing Grandma talk.
Grandma had always been a woman of few words. She was a blunt, matter of fact gal and said what had to be said, and not a lot more. She wouldn’t sugar coat things – I think I may have inherited her social tact. I still remember a convicting comment she made – so simple but harsh. She asked me if I had done anything with my music. She had many time been my lone audience as I banged out composition after composition on the old upright piano that we were storing for moms sister. She knew I had something special. When I ashamedly said, “No”. She said. “It figures”. Ouch!
A year after that I made my first and only real completed CD. It is just instrumental piano music, but it is something. The sad thing is that she was too deaf to ever hear it. But Aunt Dell loved it and told her all about it. Aunt Dell was Grandma’s ears, and Grandma was Aunt Dell’s legs and helper as Aunt Dell became increasinly less and less mobile.
So I loved those last years with her…listening to her chatter like a little girl sometimes about the details of her interesting life. Eventually she would talk herself out and since she couldn’t hear and would get so frustrated ‘trying’ to hear, sometimes she preferred to just sit together and hold hands. Which I loved too. One of my favorite moments is where I was at grandma feet and I leaned in to hug her, which turned into more of holding on to her and my daughter came up and joined in and we just stayed in that embrace for awhile. 3 generations collided. At that moment we were all one mass. Even though my daughter was only about 5 at the time, she seemed to sense the specialness and lingered in the beauty of something she couldn’t explain or fully understand, yet was drawn to.
I have a picture from that visit. One of the best pictures ever. I was blowing bubbles and in the picture you can see the bubbles and one very young sweet hand and one very old and wise hand…waving and playing together. Young, old souls. Which, inspired me to write a song of course. I’ll share in a different post…this post is long enough.
Both funerals were terribly disappointing. Sadly they were canned, non-unique, regurgitated words from a man reading off of some note cards to pretend that he really knew them. And one designated family member was chosen to say a few proper words, in which he received lots of praise for by those that chose him to do the job. They were Jehovah Witnesses, and I am not here to talk about the rights and wrongs of belief systems here. I am just saying – it was the most drab, insincere and unsatisfying endings I have ever had to experience. And I am still disappointed in myself for not storming the podium and saying what should have been said.
That these women were two of the strongest, feistiest, wittiest women you could have ever met. That though they suffered phenomenal hardships, they remained stable and true. They laughed out loud. They said the hard things. They loved each other and looked out for each other…their entire lives. Though they had each loved and lost in very different ways…they had each other…always. Their love and committment to each other was a beautiful and inspiring testimony of real love. They were able to live with each other peacefully for nearly all of their 89-98 years of life…because they were about 8 years apart.
It should have been said that they loved music! Grandma was a terrific piano player – a charismatic, keyboard pounding, amazing musician. Fittingly, Aunt Dell loved listening. Grandma was the doer the provider, the leader. Aunt Dell was the follower, the supporter, the companion. Grandma made the earth’s best blue berry pies. Seriously…there will never ever be a better pie. Grandma loved to have a beer now and then. Sh…! Don’t tell the Jehovah’s. But she did like a “malt liquor” as she would call it now and then…something like Blatz or something?? Ring a bell to anyone? Had a bull on the can or something…too funny.
And they loved nature. NO ONE TALKED ABOUT WHO THEY REALLY WERE!! They were nature faires. They were girls united together against the world. They were full of life. Aunt Dell was a wild woman who loved roller coasters and thrills, fast cars, and speed. Grandma was too practical for such luxuries and silliness, but they always respected each other’s differences. They were real. They were old ladies with young souls. They were full of life and experiences and had done something very few people in the world can claim…they stuck together in life! They loved. They put their own selfishness aside and stayed committed to each other and loved each other more than I have seen any other sisters love.
I wish I could have said those things. I wish I would have had the guts and grit to do for them what they deserved. I wish I had the courage and guts to do something in that moment that they had done their whole lives…the right thing. They were rare and unique, just like Grandma’s favorite orchid. They were sometimes hard to find. You had to go out of your way to get to them sometimes – they wouldn’t come to you. But if you made the journey and took the time to meet them where they were, what an amazing, priceless gift awaited. I wish I would have said all that. And I wish I could have found a lady slipper to give to Grandma…one last time.