I don’t know if it’s watching my kids with my parents or just a late winter reflective period, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandparents. (My dad’s parents, mostly. I didn’t know my mom’s parents very well, and they died when I was pretty young.)
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents when I was a preschooler. We lived in the same city then, and they often served as babysitters for my young parents. I have lots of warm memories of sitting on grandma’s lap watching Lawrence Welk or the evening news. Usually eating Triscuits, peanuts and sliced cheddar cheese from a pink plastic bowl. (I think those bowls reside at the family cabin now.)
I remember watching the circus that is making a Thanksgiving feast. I’d sit at the kitchen table, out of their way, listening to them bicker about how long the turkey should cook or how much meat to put in the stuffing. I was transfixed as grandma mixed flour and water in a jar and whisked it into the turkey drippings to make gravy so good I’ve never tasted its equal.
When grandpa could still drink (heart problems — the doc made him quit later in life), he’d pour himself a beer in this funny glass chalis he had and crack a raw egg into it. Then he’d sprinkle salt and pepper on the beer. It would float there like flecks of dust and stick to his upper lip when he took a gulp. He was always sure to call me in before he drank the egg at the bottom of the glass. He loved to hear me squeal in horror as the viscous protein slid down his gullet. Sunny-side up eggs still remind me of this.
Grandma had a tin bucket full of buttons. Buttons she’d collected from decades of worn-out shirts and outgrown coats. They were my favorite playthings. I knew where to find the pink container in the closet outside her bedroom and would pull out one of the built-in drawers beneath to climb up and get it. Funny, I don’t remember doing anything in particular with them. I’d just run my hands through them, relishing the way the different textures of plastic felt as they slid over my fingers. And I’d pick through them, one by one (even though I’d probably examined each a hundred times before) and inspect each little disc. My mom has the bucket now, and I’ve been too afraid of what it would feel like to touch them again to ask to see them.
Grandpa used to fall asleep sitting up in his chair. He’d be bolt upright, snoring like a buzzsaw. He and my dad are the only people I have ever known who have this talent. But grandpa would always wake up if you turned the TV channel off his beloved golf game.
Their little white story and a half house was alarmingly clean. There was never a dirty dish in the sink for longer than a few minutes. Grandma swept the kitchen floor after every meal. I never remember seeing even the most minute speck of dust anywhere. My dad and his siblings say it was like that when they were growing up, too. She had four kids. And a steel constitution, apparently.
Grandma had diabetes. She was meticulous about her diet and never had to take insulin. She’d make herself her own apple pie in a pot-pie tin — without the sugar. I loved those little pies so much that she started making me one in a pot-pie tin, too. So she’d make a big pie for everyone else and one little one for me and one for her.
Their grass was a thick, green carpet. I remember rolling in the most lush patch, just beside the garage and thinking it was the best smell in the world. They had a white picnic table that grandma used to cover with a plastic red-and-white checked tablecloth. To keep the dirt away from our food. Even though they probably painted the thing every year and she’d wash it down with a bucket and sponge before every outdoor meal — cooked on the bright yellow Weber I still get choked up to see at the cabin.
Grandma wore bright red lipstick called Million-Dollar Red. I’d reach into her medicine cabinet and carefully remove the little gold cylinder to inspect it, never daring to smear any of it on my own lips. It smelled like baby powder.
When Grandpa died, I was 19. He had gone into the hospital to have surgery on his knees. So he could play golf again. He was in his late 60s. I remember taking the call from my mom that his organs had failed in surgery. I heard the words like the phone receiver was underwater. I hung up and started packing my clothes, not even knowing how I’d make the six-hour trip home. I was numb and the tears sat like salty puddles, clouding my vision, not daring to drip onto my cheeks.
I was still an arrogant, snotty teenager, and I’d been shunning my family regularly since I was 14. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have time to ask my grandpa more about what it was like to live through the depression. Or about serving in the Korean war. Or about how he met my grandmother. Frankly, at the time, it never occurred to me that I’d ever want to know those things.
They asked me to give his eulogy. I was a writer, they said. I went the entire weekend before the funeral without writing a word. I told them I couldn’t do it. My aunt told me they’d record it for my grandmother, who was too sick to be at the service. I retreated into their den and stared at the fabric of their tweed sleeper sofa. I cried. I swore. Finally, I wrote and later spoke about magic and how my grandpa was the luckiest person I knew. How he taught me card tricks and how to win at cribbage. How he was always amazing us with a slight of hand.
Too bad that magic didn’t work enough to keep him here for a little while longer.
Grandma’s cancer came back not long after grandpa died, and I was too far away to spend much time with her, but at least I got to say goodbye. And she got to meet Ed. She called him Eddy at Thanksgiving dinner, and we all laughed.
She’d have loved him if she got to know him.