A Happy Ending
Last week I travelled to Connecticut to attend my grandmother's funeral. I'm not sharing this to lament her passing. She had in fact, looked forward to it, so she could be reunited with her true love. My grandfather died about 15 years ago, and she's been missing him ever since. Her death was five days before what would have been their 69th wedding anniversary, and six days before her 94th (and my 37th) birthday.
There were a few tears, but many more smiles at the thought of her and Ossie celebrating together once more. The funeral service was the warmest and most heartfelt I could imagine. We were all amazed when the printed pamphlets for the funeral ran out, and the people kept coming. They always try to print extra, but for her they underestimated by half.
The minister hit all the Biblical touchstones for funerals, but he read them in such a way that I felt like I was hearing those well-worn words for the first time. He captured her life so well you'd have thought he was related - even poking fun at the fact that she'd leave brand new clothes boxed up because she still had her old clothes to wear out. She had long ago picked out the hymns she wanted sung at her funeral, and my aunt read a poem called "A Garden Lives", which captures Grandma's world about as well as anything could. Tulip bulbs were handed out to any who wanted them.
She lived in the same home for almost 70 years. Two of her three daughters lived just across her back yard, on land my grandfather bought for them long before they were born. It was wonderfully nostalgic to visit their home one last time. I have a higher concentration of fond memories in that place than perhaps any other. Her big vegetable garden. The blueberry bushes. The flower beds. The see-saw my grandfather made. Sailing with my aunt and uncle. Playing "Marco Polo" with my cousins in my other aunt and uncle's swimming pool. Building elaborate "haunted houses" in my grandma's attic. Playing with the train table in their basement. Eating, and even sleeping, on the enclosed porch my grandfather added on to the back of the house. Drawing with chalk on the blacktop driveway. Looking through my aunts' and my mom's old toys, pictures, puzzles, games, 45's. My grandfather's workshop. Finding three four-leaf clovers in one day on their front lawn. (They are probably still pressed in tissue paper in my mom's big dictionary - under "clover".) Paintings of familiar places, done by a family friend. The beach. Getting lost at the beach during the 4th of July fireworks when I was about five, and having my name mispronounced over the loudspeaker, because I was crying too hard to communicate. Their early remote control TV, which you could trick into to changing channels just by clapping. A dozen or more TV stations instead of just four. Endless reruns of Gilligan's Island and the Brady Bunch. Blueberry buckle. Seven cousins ready to play at any time, right across the back yard. Family photos everywhere - hundreds of them, on every spare surface. An intricately detailed sailing ship built entirely from scratch by a good friend of my grandpa. Hiding in closets. Sitting on the sloped cellar doors. The tablecloth that my mom had everybody sign and write messages on, which she then stitched over to make permanent. The ever-present bird field guide, and birds everywhere. The ancient German cuckoo clock my grandfather repaired that use to entertain me to no end. The precise but impossible-to-describe scent of the house....
Walking through one last time, taking it all in, I was seeing it with slightly different eyes. I saw details in a different way. My grandfather's workshop was so cleverly organized. The lids of mayonaise jars were nailed to the floor joists of the floor above. The jars were then filled with various nails, screws, and other bits of hardware, and screwed onto the lids. You could easily see what you needed. He did a similar trick with a block of wood. He put several baby food jar lids along the four long sides of the block. He attached the ends to a bracket hanging from the ceiling, so the block could spin, and you could rotate it to see all the different jars. Even the stacked boxes of nails each had one representative nail taped to the front.
The walls of the basement pantry were lined with shelves. Each shelf was just deep enough and tall enough to fit a single row of canning jars, so nothing was ever hidden. The root cellar was actually two small closets, one for fruits and one for vegetables. Each section had a blacked-out window with a small vent that could be adjusted by rotating to let the desired amount of air in from outside. I always loved the fact that the clothes could be hung on the line from inside the screened porch. A window slides open, and the line is right there with a pulley going to a pole in the yard. And of course on top of the pole was this cool wind gauge that had a propeller that turned showing wind speed and direction, but the turning of the blade made a little woodsman saw back and forth forever on a little log.
To think all these memories accumulated in one or two weeks per summer.
I was struck by the fact that the sum total of their appliances amounted to a 40-year old gas stove, a fridge, a chest freezer, a washer and dryer, and a television. No answering machine, no blender, no food processor or disposal or microwave. No computer or stereo or DVD player. No VCR, DVR, computer. No answering machine.
My grandmother wasn't all cream and sugar, especially toward the end. But she never stopped living. She volunteered at a local thrift store for four decades, right up until she died. She bought most things second hand, and she used them until they were worn out. Then she'd find a new use for them and wear them out a second time. She put my poor aunts and uncles to work keeping her gardens neat and trim, and they could barely keep up with what she used to do by herself. She loved her garden, she loved her family, she loved her husband forever.
It was clear during my visit that things change. The trees are so much bigger, and I'm not a kid anymore, so the whole place seemed much smaller. And over the years, cousins have grown and have families of their own. Things you remember aren't there any more. It'll be so odd to have strangers living in my aunts' back yard after all these decades. But even so, the memories are everywhere.
An assortment of relatives walked through her house, looking for particularly interesting or special items to remember her by. I wanted something that would remind me of her every time I looked at it, but that I wouldn't have to worry about the kids breaking. I also wanted something that would get used and not just looked at. I took an old wooden chair/stepladder that had been a fixture in her tiny kitchen for at least half a century. I know my mom sat on it as a kid watching her mother cook, and I know my kids will sit on it and watch my wife cook. It may still be around for my great-grandkids.
We rummaged around in dark corners and opened long-sealed boxes. We laughed at my mom's old wallet full of pictures of her high school friends. We were amazed at a letter from my great-great grandparents, congratulating my grandma on the birth of their new daughter, and being thankful that The War was finally over. We marvelled at the hand-made items and the beautiful antiques - many still in regular use. We remembered things we hadn't thought about in half a lifetime.
We were all smiling when I left her house for the last time. And I'll always smile thinking back on it. I hope I can someday leave everybody smiling too.