Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Memories...light the corners of my mind

I was fortunate to grow up with two very different sets of grandparents, unfortunate enough not to live nearby and see them often. Distance not withstanding, they all held--and still hold--very distinct places in my heart.

My mom's parents were not formally educated beyond the middle grades. Pap worked in the brick refractory (a job that eventually killed him) and Gram raised a large family while keeping the farm going. She was a no-nonsense type of gal, but never skimped on giving out hugs to us grandchildren. Neither was she shy about disciplining us when the need arose. To me, Gram is homecooked food, warm hugs, and warnings to be careful. Spending summers at Gram and Pap's house meant days spent on the big tree swing or catching crayfish in the creek (where we spread Mom's ashes in 2004), teasing the bulls and then running for our lives and, at all times, keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes and copperheads.

Summer evenings meant chasing fireflies and fighting, at bedtime, over who's turn it was to sleep in the always-coveted "squeaky bed." As an adult, it would drive me mad to sleep in that bed that made noise with every toss and turn. But as a child, it was the all-around favorite, and with 6 of us (3 cousins, my brother, sister, and I), it was a never-ending point of consternation. I like to believe we resolved the conflict by taking turns, but that probably didn't happen. Sis and Chrissy (my older sister and same-age cousin) were rather brutal when it came to getting what they wanted, and their take-no-prisoners attitude usually got them what they desired. I know I for one lived in fear of being the focus of their attention and did whatever was required of me to stay under their radar.

My pap died when I was just six years old, so my memories of him are few, yet vivid. I never heard Pap raise his voice, but he had total control over us kids. How'd he do that? A look? A gesture? I've no idea, but I never would have dreamed of disobeying Pap. My memories of him are all good...sitting on his lap in the pantry rocking chair and trading a kiss for a generous portion of rock candy, which he'd break up with a little silver mallet. The tin which stored that candy--and some magical memories--now sits on my own kitchen shelf. And if my house ever caught fire, it would be one of the first things I'd try to save.

I remember the last summer I had with Pap. He took my hand and said "Let's go for one last swing ride, Squirrel Cheeks," and up the hill we climbed. He pushed me higher than he'd ever dared that day, and I felt like I was flying. Underneath me ran a little side creek, and above me was nothin' but tree branches and bright blue sky, the kind that just begs you to try to touch it. I closed my eyes and leaned back on that old wood swing, legs stretched straight as possible, never fearful of falling because I knew Pap would catch me. I do believe he was the first (and last) adult I ever completely trusted not to hurt me. Did he know that would be our last swing ride together, or did his "last time" comment refer only to that summer? I'll never know, but when he got tired of pushing, he told me to "let the old cat die," which meant he wanted me not to pump my legs and keep the ride going. I did what I was told, but oh, how I did not want to let that swing ride end. With my butt firmly planted on that wide wood plank and my little dimpled fists closed tightly around the ropes, my world was perfect. Nothing could get to me on that swing, with Pap nearby. Life was always good there.

But the swing ride did end, as did Pap's life that following spring. Mom and Dad packed us into the station wagon and we set out to battle the forces of nature as we tried to make the long drive from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania to see him one last time before he died. I distinctly remember sometime during that trip Mom choking back her tears to tell Dad not to hurry any more, we were too late. And she was right. By the time we crossed the metal bridge that made a singsong sound, thereby earning from us the nickname "singing bridge," and which signalled we were entering our grandparent's tiny town, Pap had already drawn his last breath. I never saw him again, but his brief presence in my life captured a piece of my heart that will never belong to another.

My dad's parents were more cultured, refined. Distant somehow. His accountant father was rather cold, not one to show affection in any form I understood as a child. He spent most of his time in his corner bedroom, listening to the radio and reading. Always with a cigarette in his hand. Even his fingertips were stained yellow from the tobacco. I liked lying on his cool bed in that damp room, listening to the bugs outside his window. Mostly I liked interrupting his solitude because it was really the only time he paid attention to me. I'd ask questions I really didn't care to know the answers to, just to make him acknowledge me. Sometimes, when he was feeling particularly energetic, he'd toss the Frisbee with me. But that was the extent of our relationship. I wasn't sad when he died; I barely knew him. I don't know if anyone really knew that man.

His wife, a music teacher, was also rather reserved. I didn't come to appreciate the kind of woman she was until I was grown. To my child's mind, this gram was strict. Her home was more like a place grownups would want to hang out. I really couldn't relate to her much as a kid. I remember finding a bottle of witch hazel in our linen closet once and asked Mom what it was. When she told me, I replied with "Oh, Gram Shafer must use that." It was the word "witch" that made me connect it to her, though she wasn't mean in any sense of the word. She was just serious.

As I matured, I realized just how valuable my relationship with Gram was. She was directly responsible for developing my love of books and reading, as it was she who paid for subscription to a book club. Miraculously, hardcover books would appear in our mailbox each month, and at 42, I can still remember some of them. I believe it was Gram who bought the piano I've been playing for 38 years, and which sits in my living room, much worse for the wear. Gram was the one who informed me I was born with a gift, that perfect pitch and the ability to sing was not something one could acquire through practice. Time spent at her house nurtured in me an appreciation of symphonies and world travel...National Geographic and the nightly news. Tom Brokaw was as much a part of my childhood summers as back porch rockers, and I got something from my time at that house that I still value with my entire being: a love of solitude. Thanks to Gram and her home, I grew up loving time spent by myself, and to this day, I'm not afraid to be alone with nothing but my thoughts. In fact, I crave solitude, something I consider a luxury in a family of six.

And so I realize I had the best of both worlds when it came to grandparents. One set gave me the gift of hands-on love, hugs, nighttime baths and the joy of unsupervised adventures with cousins. The other encouraged my natural affinity for music and reading, and nurtured a love of learning for no other purpose than simply to know and be aware. I would not be who I am without all these people, and I am forever grateful.

Three of those four people are gone from me now; one lives in a hospice. Some days, she doesn't know her own daughter, who visits her daily and brings her two bite-sized York Peppermint Patties each time. "Oh, I haven't had one of these in years," Gram says, though she had two just yesterday. Gram sees her other daughter, my mom, waiting for her "across the river." I imagine they'll see one another again soon, though women in my family tend to live a long time, so perhaps not. Gram is 98; my other gram's sister is 101. Apparently, they've still got stuff they need to tend to.

Old people amaze me; I hope to be one someday. Then I can eat York Peppermint Patties everyday, too.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing...that was beautiful to read.

Judith K. Witherow said...

It's good to know another woman who knows the value of grandparents, and the elderly in general.
We all need to slow down, or we'll never acheive the wisdom that is ours if we take the time to listen while we have the chance.

Anonymous said...

"... In fact, I crave solitude, something I consider a luxury..."

I hear ya! I only have a family of 4, but that and 2 businesses keep me hopping and how I crave that solitude that I never get now. I used to think I had just been single too long (before I married and had kids) so it sure is nice to know that, no, it is just a state of being that others need too!!! Thanks!