Love’s Echoes

My grandfather died four months ago today. I miss him. But in a way he’s still here. Every day I’m reminded of him in the way that love subtly announces its presence.  He is the reason this blog exists. My Granddad loved telling stories and in doing so made me into a storyteller. So in writing this I’m remembering him, remembering the roots of my family.

Though my children will never have the opportunity to know my Granddad as well as I did, he has a profound effect on their lives. My grandparents were present for every major and minor event in our lives. They accompanied my family on trips, but my Gran and Granddad also took my sister and me on trips. I remember on a drive to the States when my grandfather handed a grim faced border guard a notarized letter from a lawyer stating that he and my Gran had permission to take my sister and me out of the country.

Before my son was born, I talked about my relationship with my grandparents to my in-laws often. My husband didn’t have that same depth of relationship with his grandparents. Part of that was age; my grandparents were young when I was born. Part of it was distance; my grandparents lived close. And also a question of fairly dividing attention; until I was sixteen, it was just my sister and myself on the one side whereas Tex has many cousins. There wasn’t precedent in my husband’s family for that kind of grandparent interaction.

But for my mother-in-law, Zoey, and my father-in-law Pat, my stories struck a chord. They wanted that experience with my son and daughter. To be there. To be present. To be a major part of so many of our family’s memories and to have a relationship with their grandchildren that was entirely its own wonderful entity.

So my in-laws do. My son goes for bi-weekly sleepovers. He visits their farm once a week and has routines and traditions that are his and my mother-in-law Zoey’s alone; ice cream after dinner. As soon as my son walks in the door, my father-in-law Pat sets up the VCR (For the younger generation this is an old style of DVD player.) and put’s on Mini-Tex’s favourite movie. They go out to the garden and say “Hello” to the scarecrow, and he rides the tractor and Mini-Tex takes Pat’s old fishing rod, with the hook removed, out to the boat that’s been parked on the lawn for a decade.

And I encourage it. All of it. Even the visits to the well when Mini-Tex sits up front in the truck with the airbags off. I don’t like it, but I recognize how important it is. The well and fetching water is part of my in-laws life and Mini-Tex loves being in their life just as much my in-laws enjoy being in his. I know from experience that my role in this is to stand back and let that relationship happen. My Gran still comments on this during our twice weekly phone calls- that she and Granddad loved that they were always given access to my sister and me.

I think about how much I loved and still love Granddad and then I invite Zoey and Pat to watch my son’s swimming lessons-it’s automatic. I offer for them to stop by for a quick play while they do errands in town. I send them letters and pictures of the kids when they go south for the winter. I do all of that because my grandfather taught me how to ride a bike. Because Granddad made my math homework take 300% longer because he had to explain how knots work because he sailed even though it wasn’t relevant to the question. Because Granddad used to wheel a TV into my sister and my room at their house and play the Hobbit as we went to sleep every time that we visited.

I include my in-laws every chance I get because I miss my grandfather. Every day. I feel my Granddad’s absence keenly but seeing my children receive what I had – the daily unconditional love of a grandparent, somehow takes the sting out of my grief.

 

The Greatest Love Story of My Life : Casablanca, The Notebook, Beauty and the Beast all in one

My favourite love story doesn’t have a prince. It doesn’t feature Ryan Gosling. And shockingly, even though I love my husband to the moon and back, my favorite love story isn’t even my own- it’s my grandparents’.

What has always made my grandparents’ relationship remarkable to me was the fact that they liked each other. I grew up in a house that felt like the United States during the 1960’s Cold War, where at any moment one side might detonate the nuclear bomb of divorce and annihilate my world. Thus, the feeling of genuine friendship that my grandparents shared, formed the basis of what a loving marriage looked like for both me and my sister.

You couldn’t separate one person from another. Gran came with Granddad; their names were said together, always, because that was their life. My grandparents tackled the world head-on, side by side. They danced west coast style together, they sailed together, they biked together, they geocached together. It didn’t matter that every single one of those interests belonged almost exclusively to my Granddad, they did them together. My Gran spent her life sewing matching costumes for their nights out dancing, scrubbing the boat to ready it for a trip, preparing elaborate lunches to feed my particular Granddad during their outdoor adventures. Gran supported Granddad while he captained the ship of their life.

The way that my grandfather supported my Gran was more subtle. As a child, my sister and I would watch for his love- in the way that Granddad would come up behind Gran and hug her. Or the way that, despite living on modest means and carefully budgeting every month, Granddad insisted that they could afford a sewing machine the price of a used car so Gran could add detailed embroidery to her sewing projects. When I went to university, Granddad truly proved his love for Gran by buying her two dogs then walking the canines twice a day, every day, after that.

In the same way that my sister and I liked to bask in their love for us, we would delight in our grandparents’ love for each other. As teenagers, whenever our family traveled together, despite having our own space, somehow Diana and I would end up in Gran and Granddad’s room. They wouldn’t be paying any attention to us necessarily. My sister and I just enjoyed watching our grandparents be together.

Even the off moments of my grandparents’ marriage were endearing. The same night that Granddad unwittingly revealed Diana’s actual age (as opposed to the one on her fake ID that she carried in her pocket) to the nightclub bouncers, my sister and I sat in my grandparents’ room beforehand. Both Diana and I were ready for a night of dancing, but Gran and Granddad still had to put on their matching country Western outfits. Granddad carefully set a map on their bed of how to get to the club and said to Gran that the directions were there and could she please remember to bring them.

Fast forward to the four of us walking to the dance club, Granddad is about two minutes away from loudly declaring Diana’s underage status to the bouncers. Granddad turned to Gran and asked whether she had brought the map. “What map?” my Gran asked. “The one I said that I laid on the bed for you to bring in your purse, and you said ‘Mmmm hmmm’” replied Granddad.

“Dear, you talk an awful lot, sometimes I don’t always listen” my Gran confessed. All of us laughed and I marveled to myself how wonderful it must be to live with someone for so long that on occasion you just allow the cadence of their voice to fall around you without listening, not in an inconsiderate way but more in the manner of letting your chatty spouse talk. Then my Granddad shouted Diana’s age to the bouncers, setting off a course of events that would end with my other, paternal grandmother being dropped off by the police at midnight and the spell of goodwill was broken. Evidently we hadn’t needed the map, only a set of Ontario legislation for Granddad.

It wasn’t just my grandparents’ friendship that makes their love special to me- it was the endurance of that love. My grandparents met, married and had children in their teens. They traveled across the globe as a family when my grandfather was in the military. They lived in more places than I have, which is astounding because I’ve moved a lot in the past couple of years. And through all of that, they were together, creating stories, supporting one another.

My whole life, I’ve been fortunate to watch my grandparents live their marriage vows; for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Often I’ve marveled at the achievement of loving the same person for your whole life, choosing to endure every peak, plateau and decline together and the determination it must have taken for both of them to achieve this.

The last time I visited my grandparents, my grandfather turned to me and said “Gran and I are friends.” I smiled at him and replied “I know” because I do, their love for one another has been a fact of my life, every day since I was born. My only hope is that I can create the same caliber of love story for my own family.

Love and Thunderclouds

“Are Grandma and Grandpa at my house?” my three year old asked me as I walked him home from daycare. His grandparents had appeared the day before and stayed over to help us with our upcoming move. Tex’s parents had dropped my son off at daycare but I had neglected to inform my little boy that Grandma and Grandpa wouldn’t be there when he returned.

“No buddy, sorry” I replied.

A grey cloud appeared over my three year old’s head and I heard a clap of thunder as his face darkened. “I want to go see them!” Mini-Tex all but stamped his little foot.

I felt badly, because I understood my son’s sentiments exactly. I was raised partly by my grandparents. Every other weekend when we were small, my mom would drive my sister and me to their house. What followed were the best two days of my week, filled with love, extra attention and fun.

As we got older and started school, my favourite moment was the school secretary announcing over my classroom’s intercom “Please remind Sarah not to take the bus home today”. That announcement signaled only one thing- that Granddad was picking up Diana and me from school, then he was going to drive us to his and Gran’s house.

My grandparents were present for every important event in my life, every performance, every achievement. My grandfather left school at grade ten and only later completed his GED, so education was paramount to him. My sister and I would proudly display every one of our report cards and he would fawn over our academic triumphs.

Christmas didn’t begin until we stepped foot in their house. It didn’t matter if it was the 27th or the 29th, to heck with Santa, as far I was concerned, Christmas at Gran and Granddad’s was the “true” Christmas. To me, if my grandparents weren’t there, it was as though I couldn’t totally celebrate.

The worst part of the year came after Christmas. Each January, Gran and Granddad drove down south for twenty nine months. Or at least that’s how their winter sojourn felt to my childhood self. Like my birthday wasn’t actually my birthday until they returned. Sure I enjoyed partying with my friends, but I never truly turned a year older until I received a hug from my grandparents and the completely unnecessary congratulations of living another year.

From the outside, my son’s scowl looked like frustration and anger but I knew better. It was an expression that said “I love my grandparents and they love me and we are accustomed to being together”.

As I apologized to my surly looking three year old, I did my best not to smile and in my head, I made a mental note to talk to my husband about when we could visit his parents next because even though I’m grown up, a part of me desperately wants to see my grandparents too.

The Last Good Day

In his novel “The Fault in our Stars” John Greene writes about the concept of the final day of your life that you enjoy before you start to die in earnest- the last good day. Or at least that’s what I think he was talking about. I read the book in French and even though I’m fluent, there’s always a part of me that questions whether I fully comprehend the meaning of a text in my second language. But for the purposes of this post we’ll pretend that what Mr. Greene was talking about.

Something my friend Sula said to me while my grandmother was dying, that brought me a lot of comfort was; “You knew your grandmother as a person, not just from social functions, a lot of people don’t get that.” And it’s true. My grandmother cared for me often when I was a child, and I visited her house on occasion as a young adult. In university, she would vacation with my family. While I could write exclusively about all of the lasts that came with dying, those wouldn’t express the depth of our relationship, or who my Grandma was as a person.

My Grandma was close friends with everyone, but especially her neighbor across the street, whose pool we used to swim in, any time we liked because Grandma was always welcome there. I remember shivering on the Antarctic iceberg that was my grandparents’ foyer while my grandfather was still alive because he insisted the house be kept at 12 degrees Celsius or some equally chilly temperature. Then I would burst out the door onto the sunlit porch with flipflops on my feet. Grandma always called them thongs which caused Diana and I to giggle silently because thongs were underwear not beach apparel. Then the dash across the street, only stopping to squish my toes into the tar that covered the cracks on the road, before pausing at the mulberry bush to grab a sweet snack.

My grandmother loved plants; she gardened right up until she moved out of her house. It used to alarm me the way she’d eat the fruits off of random trees; I was always worried she’s accidentally poison herself. There’s some poetic justice in the fact that I married a man who does the very same thing.

Then I would throw ourselves into the pool; splashing, swimming and jumping to our hearts’ content. Invariably the friendly neighbour would come out at some point to talk to Grandma. We did this from the time I was very small. All of my cousins did in fact. I still remember Grandma carefully catching my second youngest cousin Sophie as she leapt from the side of the pool. The last time was around when I was twelve, the friendly neighbour still welcomed our visits but was too ill to come out to say “hello”.

When I was nineteen, my grandmother paid for me to accompany her on a cruise with herself and three thousand other old people. It was every teenager’s dream; Metamucil with every meal and being in bed before eight pm. I kid. What I remember from that trip was how healthy my grandmother was. During the voyage, old people were falling everywhere, breaking hips and arms but my grandmother was as steady as a rock, scaling the endless staircases at castles and monuments. This is how I remember her- triumphant, standing at the top of three thousand steps while all the other old people were moaning and watching from the bottom.

That wasn’t the last time that I saw my Grandma accomplish a great physical feat. Three years later, my family visited Maui. One afternoon, my Dad dragged his eighty-three year old mother up Mount Haleakala. At the top, the air became thin and even my father had to sit down. I wish I could say that was the last instance of elder abuse in our family, but it continued. A couple years later, we took Grandma along with us to Disney World. She spent a lot of time sitting on benches but only because we insisted on charging at top speed from show to show.

My grandmother kept that can-do attitude into her late eighties. My Dad and I took her out to lunch one day. She had just begun reluctantly using her cane. However she still preferred to move unaided or take the arm of the nearest person instead. It was winter and the walkway of the restaurant was slick. I went to grab her arm but she jerked it away from me saying defiantly “Let me go when I can go!” My grandmother was always independent and her own person.

When she was ninety-two, my Grandma moved out of her house and into an assisted care facility. The woman who moved there was quieter than the Grandma I remembered from my childhood. But she still loved to rejoice in her family’s achievements. And she loved her great grandson so much. Mini-Tex would climb all over her. He was a chubby little baby and at that time, my grandmother was a frail nonagenarian. I winced and would grab for my son, terrified that he would break my Grandma’s arm by accident as he gave her sloppy kisses and hugs. But she loved it.

The summer before she died was the last time that I saw my Grandma being independently mobile. When she first arrived at the care home, she would store her walker outside of her room. The next time I visited, the walker had moved inside her room, but my grandmother would move independently without it.

The last summer, the walker remained at her side. Mini-Tex thought the mobility aid was a fabulous toy and would push it around. Then he’d tire of merely making off with his relative’s walker and go steal a stranger’s. As I was chasing my toddling son across the atrium of the care home, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my Grandma sitting on the couch, trying to use her foot to catch the edge of her walker that Mini-Tex had rolled away from her. Even at ninety-three, she still wouldn’t complain or ask for help. This was the visit when my grandmother took delight in pushing her great grandson around on the seat of her walker.

The last time I saw my grandmother, she was barely able to push her walker. My Grandma spent a large portion of my visit lying down on her bed. Workers came to move her from her chair in the dining room back to her walker. I had spent my whole life taking cues from a stern, opinionated woman. I thought the whole reason that we sat so long at the table after dinner was because Grandma wanted to enjoy the ambiance.

Once in her walker, it became obvious that my grandmother lacked the strength to push herself back to her room. So I enlisted the help of my two year old to push her. I took one handle and Mini-Tex took the other. It worked pretty well until Mini-Tex got over excited and ran too fast, tripping on his winter boots.

That was the last time. For everything. She was really quiet that visit. But she watched my two year old, and she listened to my stories, as she had my entire life. It’s been a year since she died. Even though it was heartbreaking to witness so many lasts, I’d still love one more day with her.

The Original Storyteller and The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

My grandfather is the reason this blog exists. He told wild, interesting, funny stories to me before I could speak. My Granddad spent my childhood captivating audiences and his family. Those experiences are the reason why I myself became a storyteller and why my two year old son, who carries my grandfather’s name, now starts sentences with “Remember the…?”

For the past little while, I’ve been struggling with the nature of my blog. I debated whether I should keep it in its original form- a place for wickedly amusing happenings in my life, or transform it into something entirely different. My husband remarked that three years ago I lost my funny entirely and have since been penning a subdued form of Reader’s Digest humour, so maybe the change has already occurred.

I began this blog, with the same hope that many other writers have- to strike it big, be recognized and be published for the larger masses. It never happened but still, I kept going. Over time, as with anything, my writing became better, more descriptive, more fluid. Even the process of writing itself became easier. When I started The Great Unwashed, it would take me an entire evening to come up with a couple hundred words. Slowly, the work of writing, editing and publishing became much faster.

As the years passed, I built up a portfolio of work. To date, I’ve published nearly 400 posts. When my son was born, something that I felt proud of was that my baby would always know my voice- no matter what. Not the sound of it, but the cadence of my words, my stories, what I found funny, what hurt me, what buoyed me up. Should anything ever happen to me, my son will have this. And obviously his baby book, where I write ridiculous long paragraphs of how much I love him. Undoubtedly he’ll throw the thing on a fire in his teens. But I digress.

There are unforeseen benefits that have come as a result of writing regularly for five and a half years. Ultimately, what I love about my blog is that it chronicles my life, and my stories. This year has been a tough one for me family wise. Hef died to start with. (Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time understands the depths of my obsession with the bunnies and recognizes what a blow this was to me.) So I knew the next twelve months were going to suck on some level if this was a warning of what was to come. Then my grandmother became very ill and passed away as well. Her death wasn’t unexpected- she was older than Hef. But this made the dark winter months significantly darker. Most recently, my grandfather was given an upsetting diagnosis.

The moment I received that troubling news, a decision was made. Nearly two months ago, The Great Unwashed ceased to be the only place where I write- currently I have two other writing projects on the go, so this blog can be whatever I choose. I pick family stories, whatever is clattering about my head on that particular day. The following are my heart’s musings for the day.

When I was fifteen and my sister was thirteen, our cat attempted suicide. Ringo concluded that he’d had enough of the excessive attention my sister lavished on him, that a life spent chasing a laser was not worth living and that perhaps my mother was buying the cheap cat food when truly Ringo deserved the expensive stuff with chunks of chicken rather than the machine pressed junk. So in a fit of angsty feline rage, he threw himself off the upstairs banister.

This is my version of the story. Despite cleaning our cats’ litter boxes for over a decade, I am not, nor have I ever been, a cat person. My mother has a different version.

Ringo was an acrobatic cat. Around the neighbourhood, he was known as the cat on the roof, because he would jump from the deck railing to the lower roof, finally making his way to the top of our forty foot house. Ringo was a thin, determined cat who knew what he wanted out of life- generally it was your chicken dinner. He walked around our house like he owned the place. Seeing as I spent my entire adolescence shoveling Ringo and his brother’s waste, I felt he had good reason for this.

Ringo used to taunt death by jumping onto our upstairs railing and walking along the thin curved piece of wood, twenty some feet in the air. He never once fell. At least until that day.

My mother recognized Ringo’s miscalculated landing immediately, had she not been in a hip to toe cast at the time, from a ruptured Achilles tendon, she herself would have rushed to Ringo’s aid. As it was, my mother’s cast cost Ringo the precious seconds it took for her to yell, “Dad! The cat!” Ever the knight in shining armor, my grandfather rushed to catch the now falling cat.

Granddad didn’t get there in time. But the point is he tried. Granddad tried even though he would constantly claim that we only had one black and white cat because he couldn’t tell the difference between the feline brother duo – Ringo and Splat. He tried, even though he hated cleaning up cat vomit especially when it was from a cat that didn’t belong to him. I have suspicion that Granddad does not actually like cats.

For all those concerned about the cat- Ringo used one of his nine lives that day and walked off without a scratch or even so much as a limp, whereas Granddad had to feel sorry that he didn’t catch our cat. Twice; once when he failed to actually catch the cat, and the other time when my mother relayed the tale to my sister and me over the phone while we were on vacation with our Dad.

This was the Granddad story I wanted to share this evening. He would tell you it’s less a story about him and more about our daredevil of a cat. True, but like so many of the stories of my life, Granddad was there, and I wanted to remember that he played a role. My grandfather of course loves having top billing but for this story he was there.

Also, the roof cat might not have been Ringo. My parents have had so many pets in their life that the cats blend together into one furry, Sarah-hating animal, that I spent years cleaning up after and chauffeuring to the vet.  All except for Splat who was almost as dirty and uncoordinated as me, God rest that filthy feline’s soul. If there is a lap to topple from in heaven, Splat is laying legs akimbo and irritated on the floor.

All of the Good Bits

Some of the last words that my grandmother uttered before she wasn’t able to talk anymore were “I’m not going”. The statement was in response to her family’s attempts to put her in the hospital where she would receive an increased standard of medical care. I love this so much. This anecdote is pure Grandma- a woman who knows her mind, has made up her decision and by God you are going to respect it. That’s the woman I lived with my entire life, the one who inspired me to show that same determination. And the one who strong armed me into celebrating my marriage with Tex.

Our wedding took place on Tex’s family’s farm two provinces away from my family. There were fifteen people there, including Tex and myself. A month later, a party was planned for Tex’s entire family. I’ve been married before. Tex hasn’t. So I wanted his family to be able to celebrate our nuptials, whereas my family had already done that. Admittedly with another man, but a party is a party right? My Grandmother, who wasn’t able to attend the ceremony because it was on top of a steep hill in the middle of nowhere, was having none of this. She hijacked her own 91st birthday party and ordered a three tiered wedding cake. I was not included in any of this. I was merely told after Grandma had picked out the cake and everyone had RVSPed. Classic Grandma.

The same trip to trip Hawaii when Grandma became a boozehound, she also was a mountain climber. Just for a point of reference, my grandmother was 81 at the time and Haleakalā is 3,055 m high or 10,023 ft. for my American readers. “Dad!” my sister, mother and I cried when he brought Grandma back from their hike up the mountain together, “I can’t believe you made Grandma do that!” Looking back, I realize, there was no making Grandma do anything. Ever. Somehow, she funneled all of her octogenarian determination and hiked for hours and hours to summit Haleakalā and take the triumphant, laughing photo of herself and my Dad that’s in our family’s scrapbook. I hope I’ve got half her fitness when I’m that age.

My grandmother has always been a wildcard. Once, she drove across country with four children and her husband, a chemical engineer. My late grandfather drove most of the way and he did so in the same manner that my own chemical engineering husband completes tasks- thoughtfully, at his own pace, so that it will be right the first time. At some point in the trip, my grandfather got tired which was fortunate because my grandmother was tired too- of watching the scenery plod past her. My Grandpa laid down in the backseat and Grandma took the wheel. When my grandfather awoke a couple hours later, he was astounded at how far Grandma had driven. With four children, there are four more sets of eyes to watch for cops and four more people to silently cheer as you set land speed records with an Oldsmobile.

Despite the fact that my grandfather made an excellent wage as an engineer, he gave Grandma very little to run their household, which meant that she frequently got creative. This was how my grandmother ended up being the only woman in a refinishing and reupholstering class. She would dumpster dive to get her materials and then spend her nights sanding the wood down and pulling the fabric taut to cover surfaces. My grandma was full of ingenuity and chutzpah. Many of the pieces she refinished and recovered live in our house. When the movers transferred her furniture from my Grandma’s house to mine, they commented about the nice quality of it, some forty years later.

My sister commented today that something she misses most now is the fact that when my sister asks Grandma how she is, she doesn’t hear the words “Oh, I’m fine” in response. In my whole entire life, I have never once heard my grandmother complain. I’m fairly certain that even after she bumped her head and needed stitches, when she awoke to the firefighters peering over her, she undoubtedly answered “I’m fine” when they inquired how she was feeling. I have this suspicion no matter her state, even if Grandma was dizzy, in a huge amount of pain, with blood from the cut dripping into her eye and she would always answer “I’m fine” with that same cheer and intonation. It wasn’t until I heard Diana say this that I remembered how much I loved this aspect of my grandmother. I’m sure in the coming days, weeks and months I’ll add to the list of everything I will miss about this wonderful woman.

Fileting Open My Brain To Extract Everything That I Can

Sorry, that was a little graphic. But I felt it necessary to warn you of what was coming.

My grandmother is dying. At thirty-two, I’ve never lost a truly dear loved one; someone who loved me and raised me and cheered for me the whole way along, as loud as they could. I’ve never experienced that. And now it’s happening. There’s a part of me that wants to write something for my grandmother to say good bye, to say thank you, to tell her how much she means to me. But according to my husband, people don’t really do that, not through a letter that one of their uncles would have to read because I live a province away. It’s more of a bedside confessional sort of thing.

In thinking about this, I also realized that now is not the time for that sort of material. At the end of life, people tend to be in discomfort, or only partially conscious or unconscious even. The time to tell them you love them happened every single week, month, year and decade before that.

I did that. Not as often as I should have, but I did that. I wrote thank you cards for every birthday and Christmas gift. And once, in September 2016, I wrote a post about and dedicated to my grandmother. I was able to read it to her in person. She listened quietly, then afterwards, she cleared her throat and said “Thank you, Honey.” My grandmother rarely used terms of endearment. She was a woman of actions not words. In that moment, I felt her warmth and approval. I wish that I had written more posts like that, because those couple hundred words didn’t come close of capturing what a force my Grandma was in my life.

If I can’t give what I would deem a “proper” good bye, in lieu of that I’m going to write down every solitary memory or scrap of a story that I have, so I can hold my grandmother close to me again.

Whenever either I or my Dad would visit Grandma, she would always send a rose, from her garden, home for my mom. She did this for all of the aunts. It was like she couldn’t allow us to leave without a show of her love for the family members who hadn’t visited her that day.

After my parents divorced, understandably my mom didn’t feel welcome at my grandmother’s house, so it became protocol that my sister and I would be picked up at a house down the street. I’m fairly sure that Grandma didn’t know about this arrangement otherwise she would have put the kibosh on it earlier. Two years later after my parents separated, my soon to be husband and I were visiting Grandma. When Grandma found out that my mother was coming to pick us up, she insisted that my Mom come in for a visit.

I dutifully texted my Mom Grandma’s instructions, then met my mother in the driveway while Grandma continued to drink tea with Tex in the backyard. “You have to come in” I told my mother. “I can’t” my Mom replied. My parent’s divorce was an acrimonious one and at that time was still going on. “Well you’re going to have to take that up with Grandma, because she sent me to come get you so I can’t return alone” I stated. This was a fact- if Grandma asked you to do something- you did it. There was no questioning my grandmother.

So my mother followed me into Grandma’s house, probably cowering a little in her orthotic sandals because Grandma had a cutting and blunt way with words when she wanted to. My grandmother greeted my mother with kindness and forgiveness. My Mom walked away, once again with a rose from Grandma’s garden. And once again I was struck by the power of my grandmother’s character.

It’s unclear when the obsession with the firemen started, whether it was before or after her fall, I can’t remember, for the sake of a good story, we’ll say after. On one of the trips my Grandma took with my Grandpa, she fell and hit her head. When she came to, she was staring up at a couple of gorgeous firemen. My mother remarked that after every other one of my grandmother’s trips with Grandpa all she talked about was the food, but that trip, every story included the “handsome firemen”. And so became the running gag that my grandmother loved firemen. Each year, for Christmas, my aunts would buy her a firemen calendar. Grandma fell once more, I believe, during a trip, and once again was rewarded with attention from firemen.

More than a decade after this, my grandma was sitting in the car with our family, preparing to take our annual drive to see the Christmas lights in her neighbourhood. I commented that the two simple red and green floodlights that she used to decorate her house were quite old. “Oh yes” my grandma responded- “the wiring was showing on one of them so I taped it up.”

“Ruth!” My mother exclaimed. “You can’t do that- it’s a fire hazard!”

Quick as a whip, Grandma turned around to face my mother who was sitting in the backseat with me and quipped “Did you ever consider that I might want the firemen to come back?”

We all laughed. But the thing with my grandmother was – we had no idea if she was serious or not. Even to this day.

My grandmother was always game for anything. When I was twenty-one, my Dad took everyone to Hawaii: myself, my sister Diana, my mother and my Grandma. One of the nights, we went out to a luau that was all you can drink. My sister, mother and I took that descriptor extremely seriously and ordered every single cocktail on the menu and seconds of the ones we liked. My Grandma didn’t drink ever but unlike my late grandfather, she wasn’t a teetotaler. We’re not sure what happened, whether it was some of the energy of the night or maybe it was the tastiness of the drinks, but something got to Grandma and she started sipping away.

For the record, Grandma wasn’t drunk, she left that level of debauchery to my sister, mother and me, much to my father’s dismay. But oh boy did the pictures we took ever make it seem that way. There’s a section of the scrapbook I made from the Hawaii trip entitled “The Night Grandma Became a Booze Hound”. Grandma good naturedly posed next to Diana and myself, all three of us sipping hurricanes and margaritas and the like. Then my grandmother posed next to my mom and finally, we took of a picture of Diana and me each holding a drink up to her mouth while she drank from both of them. It was like the photographic, elderly version of a keg stand.

She laughed a lot that night. I wish I had a video of her laugh. I have these stories instead. Do me a favor and go tell a loved one a little bit about how much they truly mean to you. Bonus points if you haven’t spoken with them in a while.

 

 

 

**I did not change the name of my grandmother because she’s kind of like my Aunty Betty- she’s so wonderful that the whole world should know who she is.

Just An FYI-My Grandma Was Fierce Even Before Beyonce Made That A Thing

My grandmother is ninety-three and a half. She’s come full circle in life to the point where just as in childhood, halves matter, because halves represent a whole six months of life that you have remained on this earth. As a result of distance, I see my grandmother an average of every six months. With each passing visit, I witness the way that time becomes more precious at each end of life. In the same way that a newborn is no longer a newborn three months or even a month later, my grandmother changes with each of my trips home.

My Grandma has lived a long and wonderful life, and while a part of my heart breaks with each small loss of mobility or mental acuity, I know that no matter how little she can move or remember, my grandmother absolutely still loves me. And that’s enough. It’s enough for her to roll a ball to my son, even if she can’t recall his name; his giggles still bring her joy. We don’t need to go on walks to neighbours’ houses or drive to her favourite charities to drop off goods; talking about her endless good deeds and our past adventures suffice for now. I know that other members of my family struggle with the changes that age has brought, but I am at peace with it. Or at least I was until my father made a statement which sliced through my calm acceptance.

Throughout my life, my own mother, when speaking of her mother-in-law, my grandma, would often comment that she wanted to grow up to be Grandma, which is to say – loving, tolerant, fierce and determined. My parents divorced late in life, so my stepmother is a relatively new addition to our family. I had assumed that my stepmother would share the same admiration for my grandma as my mom. That was until I heard my father carefully explain who my grandmother was to his new partner over Christmas and I realized that my stepmother had no clue of what my grandmother was actually like.

I can’t reverse the effects of time, but I can preserve the woman I love with my words and stories. And I can share these memories, with my stepmother and my son and my newborn little nephew so that they might be as inspired by my Grandma as I am.

Above all, my grandmother is loving; if there was ever a person who deserved such a large family as ours –it’s her. Care is a part of her very being. When I was younger, my grandmother always had causes, endless causes; the women’s shelter, Meals on Wheels, her church, the youth shelter, the neighbours’ kids. My grandmother loved and wanted to help everyone in the world, and so she did, whether it was through volunteering her time or some food or money, my grandmother was there.

The world loved her back too. I remember when she was moving out of her house, listening to her neighbours talk about dropping their children off with her when they were in a pinch. Or the fact that her cleaning lady continued to clean my Grandma’s house for a decade after retiring because they had become such close friends. And all of the thank you cards from charities that lined her mantel.

More than tolerant, my grandmother was accepting. For most of my childhood, it felt like my grandmother was continually executing the wills of family members. She would stand back and watch all the family squabbles that follow a death and the division of property, then would step in and attempt to work her magic to divide things as fairly as she knew how. Good, bad or drama queen behavior, my grandmother accepted everyone.

The quality that helped my grandmother to end family disagreements was her fierceness, her habit of laying down the law in a way that made it clear that arguing with her wasn’t an option. I personally have never been on the receiving end of one of my Grandma’s quips or diatribes, but I’ve heard enough of them to have the fear instilled in me. To this day, even though many of my Grandmother’s qualities have faded and diminished with age, I do not cross Grandma, because I know with absolute certainty that there’s a stern gaze or cutting words hiding behind that nonagenarian façade.

As much as my grandmother loved people, she called it like it is. When my sister poo-pooed a suitor’s attempts at wooing her, despite it being my sister’s birthday, my grandmother looked straight at her and declared “You’re difficult”. My cousin once had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of a lecture, after he announced during a family Sunday dinner that he had gotten a job. My grandmother called him lazy and predicted that he would arrive late as always and wouldn’t keep the job. Even hearing the words secondhand from my father, in spite of the fact that they weren’t about me, I wanted to sink into the floor in shame.

I can only recall two times, that I upset my grandmother. The first was when I moved in with my boyfriend. The stony silence on the phone after I told her that my boyfriend and I shared both a bedroom and a bed still rings in my ears to this day The judgment was so profound that years later when my sister moved in with her boyfriend she jokingly thanked me for breaking that family ground with Grandma so my choice was the first and therefore the biggest disappointment.

The second time, well, to be honest, I should have known better. One of my cousins once starred in a fashion show.  I was enormously proud of my young cousin for chasing after her modeling dreams and figured that my grandmother was too. And no doubt Grandma was, however that didn’t mean that she wanted to look pictures of my little cousin Sophie jumping in a bathing suit or posing with half naked men every day. A month after I gifted my grandmother framed photos of my cousin’s modeling career, my Grandma handed the present to another cousin saying “Get rid of this”. From then on, I stuck with my tried and true Christmas and birthday gifts for her of donations to her favourite charities.

I want to hold onto the memory of my grandmother’s determination. Memories of her always contain a sense of motion, because she was always propelling one project or another forward in some way, whether it was a family dinner or harvesting flowers and vegetables from her garden, my grandmother had an agenda. I try to inject that momentum and drive into my own life. But I never feel as successful as her.

This is the woman I know, the grandmother who took care of me when I was sick, who would cut flowers to bring home to my mother, the one who I look up to. Age has filed down some of her sharper points but what I’m always struck by is the kind warmth that remains. If I live to be ninety-three and a half, I hope I am as happy to see everyone and content as my grandmother is. It’s heartening that even in the decline that comes with extreme old age, my Grandma remains someone I aspire to. But as charming and warm as she is today, I still want to remember and share her sharp-as-a-tack self.

This Troll Is My Grandfather

20171007_120126Because he’s crotchety and barks at people for no good reason. Not really, my grandfather isn’t like that at all, for starters, he only yells with good reason. The following is an abridged and incomplete list of reasons that my Grandfather has yelled being:

  1. Making noise in the backseat
  2. Not learning how to ride a two wheeler fast enough
  3. Pinching your sister
  4. Pulling your sister’s hair
  5. Calling your sister “weasel elbows”
  6. Doing anything besides sitting silently next to your sister without touching each other at all
  7. Trying to swim in a flooded basement
  8. Yapping at the neighbour’s car (that one was the dog)
  9. Not eating the fat on a piece of meat (that was me, the dog will ALWAYS eat the fat)
  10. Showing inadequate amounts of enthusiasm for Granddad’s current interest that he is explaining to you at length
  11. Being in the wrong gear while cycling uphill
  12. Speaking above a whisper volume when Granddad has a migraine

As you can see from the list, my grandfather is both an extremely reasonable and even tempered fellow, not at all troll-like.

But yet, I’ve kept this troll doll for ages. Clearly because of its wicked hairdo; I wake up every morning with my fingers crossed that my own tresses will have formed such an awesome “just rolled out of the cave and off to bludgeon a mammoth” style of their own volition.

All joking aside, I’m not a sentimental person. Tex actually stopped me from sending my framed degree from my Bachelor of Science to the second hand shop. Yet, I’ve carted this troll doll with me across the country and through multiple moves- why? Because I love my Granddad.

My love for my grandfather runs so deep that this tchotchke and I have been together for almost thirty years. At first I kept it because it was a fun toy, then I kept it because it was terrifying and I had grand plans of playing “hide the awful troll” in the same way that my sister played “hide the beady eyed ostrich”, scaring the bejesus out of me when the ostrich surprised me in unlikely places. But most recently I’ve kept it because it represents my relationship with my grandfather.

While unpacking after our recent move, I realized that I kept the troll out of the fear of not being reminded of the stories that accompany it. This is the point in life where being a writer is almost akin to being a super hero, as I realized that I could record the memories, and find a new home for the troll doll.

My grandparents took our family to Walt Disney World. It was supposed to be just me and Diana but then my mother threw a hissy fit, stating that my Gran and Granddad had never taken her to Disney World. This was how my father, mother and uncle went to Walt Disney World. I’d say “with us” but that isn’t true, looking back at the photo album my mother has and the notes she made about the trip, my sister and I spent about 95% of our time with our grandparents while my parents and uncle shucked their parental and uncle-y duties all devil-may-care, in favor of exploring the theme parks.

The first time I visited the Magic Kingdom was with my grandfather. My sister was ill and stayed back at the hotel with my Gran while my parents went on roller coasters and drank endless shots of tequila. (That last part may be a fabrication, but they did really and truly delight in not having a five and seven year old in tow.) The wonder and joy I felt at walking into the Magic Kingdom is tied with the sense of happiness and security I felt at having my grandfather all to myself in that wonderful place. My Granddad enjoys recounting the story of me running at a wandering character and hugging them with all of my might on that day.

That trip was the first time I realized that my grandfather was a flirt. Actually, flirt is the wrong word, my grandfather is charming, utterly charming and engaging with everyone. He just makes a point of being more so with the female persuasion. Disney Cast Members all wear badges with their names. Upon returning to the hotel, I remarked to my mother that Granddad knew all of the cashiers’ names.

As much as my parents delighted in their independence, my grandparents delighted in my and my sister’s joy. They rode the tea cups with us countless times. Diana’s and my explanation to my parents upon entering the ride with them (while they were sobering up before their next tequila binge) was “You spin the wheel whichever way Diana wants, as fast as you can, until Granddad yells “I’m gonna barf!””

My grandfather loves history, especially family history. Growing up, my sister and I donned crowns with electric candles on them and would wander around family parties at Christmas delivering hors d’oeuvres. Seeing us dressed as St. Lucia and honoring our Swedish and Scandinavian heritage made my grandfather so happy that we continued to dress up even as teens if asked.

Thus the Norwegian pavilion at EPCOT, which in the early 90’s still offered unique Scandinavian products rather than all things Frozen related, was a kind of heaven for my grandfather. For starters, it was staffed with gorgeous Norwegian women who were obligated to smile at my grandfather’s stories which he imparted in detail to his blonde, cheerful listeners. The variety of Viking related goods gave Granddad many talking points to remind Diana and me of our heritage. To this day my grandfather never misses an opportunity to share the tale of our brave ancestor Stoingvald who fought to defend his country even after his enemies cut off his legs at the knees. Our visit to the Norwegian pavilion of course prompted said story, so Granddad acted out the battle with Stoingvald on the roof of his home for all the tourists and smiley Swedes.

Granddad bought me this troll that night. I kept it because I wanted to hold onto the love that I hold for my Granddad and that my grandparents hold for me. I kept the doll because it recalled a time when vacations were as endless as the hugs and attention from my grandparents. I kept it to remind myself of my grandfather’s foibles and the way they make me smile. I kept it so I would remember all those stories each time my eyes lit on the troll while in the rec room.

But love, memories and stories aren’t housed in objects, they make their homes in our hearts. It’s through retelling that the memories live on. I don’t need the troll to remind myself to retell the stories of its youth, I can keep a picture of it and pen the words it holds for me instead.

 

This post is of course dedicated to my Granddad from whom all my stories originate because he is the original storyteller of our family.

That Time My Gran Terrified An Olympian

My Gran can be pretty scary when she wants to be. Of course she’ll hide behind that fascade of pie making, dress-fitting, grandmotherly goodness but underneath, my Gran is as tough as nails. And when she wants to, she’ll remind you of this fact.

Once at Thanksgiving, she commented that I was looking slim. I brushed the compliment off saying “Oh it’s just because I haven’t put on my winter fat yet”. My Gran looked at me sternly and said with a thin lipped voice “You’re not going to do that again this year”. That winter, and only that winter, I didn’t put on weight; each time I met a donut I liked, I thought of my Gran’s expression and left it on the plate.

I wasn’t the first person she scared, nor I imagine, will I be the last but once upon a time, when the strap was still an approved method for teaching, my grandmother terrified the bejesus out of an Olympian.

It was a Canadian winter in the 1960s, which is to say that the drifts were up to your nipples and it was still snowing. This was a particularly bad night for weather, but in spite of that, the twin boys’ parents had gone out, leaving them at home with a babysitter- my mother.

My mother can be as flustered as my Gran is fearsome. And on this howling blizzard of a night, these two boys were taking advantage of that, running wild around the house, whooping, hollering, causing all sorts of mischief. Finally, my mother couldn’t take it anymore, she called my Gran, “Mom please come help, they won’t listen.”

As frightening as my Gran can be, she is always there for her family, so on went her sweater, her coat, her hat, her mitts, her boots, all this just to cross the street. Once she arrived, my Gran was at a loss, along with being an accomplished seamstress and cook, my grandmother keeps her home spotless. Not wanting to drag snow into her neighbour’s house and create puddles, my Gran opened the front door which my mother had left unlocked and jumped out of her boots into the house.

Seeing this tall, angry woman who had just walked across the street barefoot when it was thirty degrees below zero Celsius, the  boys stopped in their tracks. “Both of you, go to bed” my Gran said sharply. Supposedly they never misbehaved again out of fear that the woman who doesn’t need shoes in the snow would return.

My grandmother never laid claim to inspiring the one twin to shape up his act and begin rowing his way to the Olympics but she’s a humble woman. I’m just glad she never told me to do such a thing, otherwise I might have found myself backspringing my way across sweaty gym mats rather than in front of a computer telling my stories.