My life has changed in so many ways in the last two years, and writing fell to the wayside for a while. I hope to return to it soon. In the meantime, my dearest grandmother sparked my dormant writing muse, and I wrote this in early February for her as she was dying. She died on February 10th. I was able to visit her before she passed, and it was beautiful to see her being greeted by her loved ones on the other side. I hope it conveys how much she meant to me.
How do I put my feeling into words on a page? How do I qualify or quantify what you’ve meant to me? How do I really tell you how amazingly special you’ve been in my life? My instinct is to tell you what I learned from you. I feel that a person’s life is valued in their interactions with others. So here goes, Gram.
With each memory of you, I learned a life lesson. Honestly, I don’t think I truly realized those lessons until I became a mother and began my own teaching of the next generation. Coupled with their associated memories, here are 10 lessons I’ve learned from my time with you.
1. Some of my earliest memories are of you, with you. The fuzziness of early childhood veils your words then, but my memory is filled with heartwarming love. Your hushed voice whispering, lulling me in love and pulling me to dreamland. I wasn't an easy kid to put to sleep. I still use the memory of your whispers to help me sleep. I always wondered if you liked caring for a little girl after your three sons. I was all pink and frilly.
Lesson: Quieting the mind elicits sleep.
2. Your little yellow house in Wilmington, IL is a bit vague for me. What I do remember is the car ride from Milwaukee. I felt like it took forever to get to you and Grandpa. My life, at that point, was kindergarten and every other weekend in Wilmington. We'd gather around your table, beginning with a prayer, and enjoy each other's company. I'd beg to sit next to you on the step stool chair. I would try to sit like you, and often admired your dainty pink floral coffee cup. You made me feel special with my own set of fancy silverware and a tiny jelly jar glass. All the while, Grandpa would be telling me to eat my “wetchtables” as he had a glimmer in his eye. Sometimes, I’d catch the smiles between you two when you felt Kristen and I were being cute.
Lesson: Helping children feel that they are part of the adult world is empowering for them, and sitting around a table nurtures family togetherness.
3. There were other times when we would visit Wilmington, and we’d find you and Grandpa at the Ben Franklin store. I would literally twitch with movement in the car thinking about jumping on the black mat to magically open the glass door of the store. I’d sprint to the penny candy, dig in, and dump my loot into a white paper bag. I felt as if I owned the place, and loved it when the cashiers would smile and wave to me. Chewing on my latest treat, I’d run to the side of the store to the office. I’d climb up the steps and enter your work world. Your desk seemed oversized, and I gleefully punched the buttons on your adding machine pretending to be you. You greeted me with love, hugs, and grins. It was the best feeling for me. Your seeming unending love blanketed me.
Lesson: Girls can grow up to be working women, contributing to society and maintaining their independence.
4. Soon after, Grandpa and you sold the store and moved to Oxford, WI to be farmers. For me, the farm provided so many lessons and wonderful memories of time with you. The farm was solace for me. It was the one place in my childhood where I could go and be completely free of stress and worry. From the old wood stove burning and glowing orange from its cracks in the night to the expanse of old oak trees in the woods, I explored what felt like every inch of the farm. You would often take us out to the field in Big Foot to go visit Grandpa working or to pick choke cherries or berries for jam. I loved sitting directly next to you as you drove, and would wait to hear your infectious laugh as we’d bump along through the ruts in the road out to the field. I saw the glimmer in your expression as you’d accelerate to make each big bump even bumpier.
Lesson: Sometimes you have to accelerate to amplify the effect of living.
5. My childhood memories of you are often of sounds and textures I experienced. I can vividly hear Grandpa snoring on the couch for an afternoon nap while the latest football game was being called in the background. You often would keep us quiet at the kitchen table with rounds and rounds of Gin Rummy or Crazy 8s. Whispering directions as we played, keeping the cheating to a minimum, encouraging the following of rules, and sometimes losing so one of us could win. The too-big-for-me cards in my hand made me feel like I had made it in the world. I was a big girl, like you.
Lesson: Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. It really does matter how you play the game.
6. For this city girl, the farm provided me with immeasurable respect for the food I ate. It was where I learned that the grocery store didn’t magically make meat or offer fruits and vegetables. You and I spent hours picking strawberries in the patch, and gathering eggs from the coop. I never liked going in that coop, but you firmly guided me. “Just reach in and grab the eggs. The quicker, the better.” I loved holding the chicks each spring, and watching them sprout white feathers. You encouraged Kristen and me to name the cattle, or cows as we called them. Thus began the litany of cows with M names, inspired by 1970s TV shows: Mork, Mindy, Mickey, Minnie, Mandy, Maude, etc…. I vividly recall the day I realized that Mindy was on the table for dinner. I cried myself to sleep that night.
Lesson: The food chain is not fair, but life enabling.
7. The farm was a place to work, but where you could also have fun. I often climbed the ladder to the hay loft, and promptly became freaked out by the barn swallows scattering. You’d shout, “Be careful up there, Jenny.” I loved looking out the conveyor opening and feeling like I was above it all. I spent countless hours in the woods, dodging pies the cows left as I went, and touching every tree I could find. I stood teetering on fallen tree trunks, peering up at the green canopy, enjoying the shade in the summer’s heat. The rope swings Grandpa hung from the tree in the yard were where I’d watch you weeding the garden, digging up potatoes, or picking vegetables. Pumping my legs to go higher and higher, I can still feel the sun hit my face as I’d swing high enough to leave the cool shade of the tree. That swing was also where I’d sit mesmerized looking out over the fence lining the field and see the gorgeous wild flowers you’d plant on the fence line. The daisy pin wheel also spinning in the breeze, cast against the blue sky scattered with cottony clouds.
Lesson: Nature provides peace and calm to souls that are stressed, and even if you try your hardest, sometimes you step in a cow pie.
8. While visiting you at the farm, we’d end up at St. Ann’s on Sunday mornings in Brooks. With Father Kelly leading and Grandpa ushering, you’d bring little items to keep us entertained and quiet in our pew. Those pink and white circular mints you had buried in tissue inside your purse still make me think of you when I see them in stores. Kristen and I often vied to sit on your lap during mass. Kneeling next to you to pray was always comforting. I enjoyed seeing your rosary wrapped around the back of your hand. It was hard to resist the little girl urge to wear it as a necklace. Afterward, you often introduced me to your friends in the parish, “These are our granddaughters, Jenny and Kristy. They are here visiting from Milwaukee.” I ate up the attention it brought. “Oh what a pretty dress you have on! Look at all of that beautiful red hair!”
Lesson: Getting on your knees to ask for God’s grace is fulfilling, and church provides a sense of community.
9. Eventually, it was time for you and Grandpa to retire from farming and make the move to Rugby, ND. I think I was about 12 then. That last visit to the farm, I made a conscious effort to memorize its layout and touch all my favorite spots again. I climbed to stand on the lower rung of the white fence around the barn to peer inside at the cows drinking water. I stood in the breezeway between the old house and the new house to feel the wind wash over me on its way to the back pasture. I pumped my legs long and hard on that rope swing, and spun until I was dizzy in the tire swing. I ran to the rain meter to check out how much rain the crops had gotten. I walked down the road leading to the field to pick berries. I stood inside the barn and listened to the barn swallows tweeting and the cattles’ breath huffing. One last time, I heard Grandpa say, “Come boss. Come boss.” And, I heard your voice shout out to us from the breezeway, “Come on in. Dinner’s ready.” I was so sad to drive away from the farm that last time. I knew I’d miss it for the rest of my life, and that is still true.
Lesson: Life brings change. Enjoy what you have, when you have it.
10. Your move to North Dakota meant I didn’t see you as often. I had to rely more on my memories of you and the occasional phone call. Time and distance separated us, but you got to return to your home town, where you likely learned many life lessons too. During this time, I grew up, and went out into the world. Even with the distance, my love for you never waned. It has stayed with me, and will be forever a foundation upon which I built my family. So as you are preparing for the journey into never ending life, I want you to know that your influence, guidance, and love prepared me for my own life journey. I thank you for every hug and kiss I received, every scolding I needed, and every time you shared your wisdom and experience with me. Having you in my life is immeasurable to value. I love you, Gram.
Lesson: You can never have too much love.