I was thinking about grandparents this weekend. In general, and mine specifically. I can't recall what started my brain down the grandparent path, but for some reason I was thinking about grandparents. It started with realizing that the one real regret I have over not having children (aside from having no one to take care of me in my old age, which is a pretty selfish reason to have children, in and of itself), is that I've deprived my parents of the chance to be grandparents. And they would be most excellent grandparents, I have no doubt. I've given them lovely grandcats and granddogs, but I'm sure that's no substitute. Not that they've ever given me even one ounce of shit on that score, bless them. Sorry, guys. And thanks. (They're not going to actually read that, of course, having no idea this blog even exists. And let's just keep them ignorant on that score, okay?) But then the idea of grandparents in general led me to thinking about my own particular grandparents, all of whom are gone now, sadly. I feel very lucky to have lived in close geographical proximity to both sets of grandparents, and to have made it to the fairly ripe old age of 27 before losing one. It saddens me that some of my younger cousins were not so lucky. So, how about I just tell you a bit about them (the grandparents, I mean, not the cousins), okay?
My father was one of six children, born on a farm in western Oklahoma. When he was in high school, my grandparents gave up on farming and moved to northeastern Oklahoma. (After they moved, oil was discovered on what was their farm. If they had stayed, they would have been filthy rich. Sigh. Of course, then my father wouldn't have met my mother, so I wouldn't exist to be the granddaughter of filthy rich people, so...c'est la vie!)
Grandpa never really lost touch with the farmer inside, though. He ran a number of businesses through the years, but always had a little patch of land somewhere, always had a garden, always had a variety of animals around. (But not in the house--oh, no! Grandma put her foot down there. He was allowed to have one parakeet inside. That was her limit. But we'll get to Grandma.) I never ate a store-bought tomato or green bean in the summer--Grandpa kept us well-supplied with produce. (Oh...those tomatoes. I'm salivating just remembering them. So sweet and juicy...I've never since tasted one to compare.) He kept us supplied with animals, too. (Sometimes in the form of freshly killed and dressed rabbits--but I don't want to remember that part of it. I watched my father butcher rabbits once...and it's a wonder I waited as long as I did to become a vegetarian. Enough about that.) We had pet bunnies, and hamsters. Finches and parakeets. One year he gave both my sister and I beautiful fluffy-haired guinea pigs. She named hers Nancy. Mine was Peppy. Together they had the most fluffy calico-colored babies. Oh yes...I should mention that it was discovered, post naming, that Nancy was a boy. We never changed his name. (It did NOT seem to affect his virility. He was quite the stud.) Once we got a beautiful miniature pony! Eventually my mother put her foot down. No more animals. When I moved out of my parents' house in college, the first thing my grandfather did was ask me what kind of pet I wanted. I got a cockatiel, which, sadly, died from apparent overhandling by my friends. I felt terrible, but Grandpa didn't hold it against me, just gave me a much hardier parakeet instead. At that point he had retired, and turned the commercial building he owned into what he intended to be a small hobby pet store. Small animals--hamsters, mice, etc., and a huge walk-in aviary of parakeets in every color of the rainbow. Somehow word got around, though, that he would take in nearly any unwanted animal. Overnight, dogs would be tied to the front door or thrown over the fence, sometimes with a bag of food. He took in goats. Once he had a tame crow. He found homes for the ones he could, the others stayed. Eventually the local SPCA caught on, and helped out where they could. They didn't have an actual shelter, so his shop became it. He probably worked harder after retirement than before. Taking care of all those animals took a lot of time and energy. (Okay, is anybody still wondering where I got the stray animal gene? Didn't think so.) He was a magnet for stray people, too, and kept a big wad of cash in his pocket at all times. Good for helping out the occasional person (or granddaughter!) down on her luck. He never told Grandma about those loans, and he never really expected to be paid back. (In fact, when he died we found a note in his safe deposit box stipulating that "any debt owed to me at the time of my death by any of my children or grandchildren is to be considered paid. NO QUESTIONS.") He used to insist that I stop by the shop for birdseed for the parakeet, and when he realized that the larger the container he used, the longer it was between my visits, he started doling it out in baby food jars. Hee. He was the grandparent I was closest to, and I feel bad that in later years, after I moved out-of-town, I didn't always take the time to go see him when I went home. I guess I somehow thought he'd always be there the next time. Then one evening, he went to the shop to take care of the animals, came home, sat down at his kitchen table, and quietly died. He was in his early 80s. (So like him to take care of the animals first.) I helped to feed and water and clean up at the shop for the next couple of days, while we tried to figure out what to do with the animals, and, let me tell you, it was HARD work, even for someone young and healthy. I don't know how he did it all those years--I only know that he couldn't NOT do it. He was quite a guy. All the women of the SPCA were honorary pallbearers at his funeral. He died in 1989, and I miss him still.
Grandma may have been a farmer's wife, but she was first and foremost a lady, in every good sense of that somewhat antiquated word. I never remember her raising her voice--ever. Which seems impossible, seeing that she was for years and years a second grade teacher, but it's true! She never raised her voice, or her hand, and yet her word was law. No one ever wanted to see that slight look of disappointment in her eyes. She never said a bad word about anyone, to my knowledge, and she was the greatest mother-in-law in history. My mother's mother would never allow anyone in her kitchen or under her feet (more about Nanny later!), so my mother ended up a very young wife without the slightest clue how to run a household. Grandma kindly took her under her wing, taught her to cook and clean. And oh, how Grandma could cook! She wasn't a fancy cook--too many children, too many years on the farm for that--but her homemade noodles were legendary. And her angel food cake--it was like eating sweet, vanilla-flavored air, topped with perfect peaks of fluffy cloud-like frosting. There was usually homemade ice cream, as well--pineapple/banana was her specialty. Her house was always immaculate--she just seemed to do everything so perfectly. Need a crying baby soothed? Grandma's there. Need a loose tooth pulled? Grandma's there. Seriously, she was the best tooth-puller of all time. She'd sit the frightened, crying child ("it's going to hurt!") down, and calmly say, "I'm just going to look at it. Just look at it. Is it this one right here?" And before the child even knew what had happened, she had plucked that wiggly tooth right out of his/her mouth. Amazing. She always seemed so calm, even when all the aunts and uncles and cousins (and we were a big family) were running wild around her. Once someone let Grandpa's parakeet out of its cage during a big family gathering. (He was allowed one, remember.) Chaos ensued. The poor bird was completely freaked out, as we dashed about, shooing him this way and that. Grandma remained at the table, sitting calmly, when suddenly her hand shot straight up in the air and came down with, you guessed it, the parakeet. She plucked him out of the air, mid-flight, just as neatly as you please. She was an excellent seamstress and quilter, and made beautiful quilts for each of her granddaughters. Sadly, after Grandpa died, we realized that he had been hiding from us the fact that her memory was beginning to fail. Family dinners became bittersweet, as she asked the same questions over and over during the meal. Noticing the birthday cake on the table, she'd ask "Well, whose birthday is it?" Ten minutes later, again, "Well, whose birthday is it?" The doctors never diagnosed it as fullblown Alzheimer's, but soon it was clear that the Grandma we knew was mostly gone. We were able to hire a good-hearted woman to live with her, and she was able to stay in her home until she died in 1995, at age 85. My mother was very close to her own mother, but also had a very special relationship with her mother-in-law, and it was she who was sitting in the hospital (despite having lost her own father one week earlier--it was a bad week for my family) with Grandma, holding her hand as she passed on. She was the center of the family, the bedrock, and we've never really gotten used to her absence. I definitely inherited her chin--I hope I've gotten some of her better traits, as well!
My parents now live in my grandparents' house, with the kitchen wallpaper Grandma hung, and the beautiful rosebush Grandpa planted, and their spirits linger.
Okay, this is getting long, and I'm getting sad, so I'm going to save Nanny and Papa for the next post. (You're going to love Nanny--she was a riot!)