Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Today, God cut the apron strings

My mom called this morning. My mom never calls. And she called me while I was at work no less. Usually, I figure if mom is calling there is news, generally bad news. But today I figured she was calling with details about a family trip we have scheduled for next week.

It wasn't about the trip. It was news -- sad news.

My grandmother -- her mother -- died this morning. In recent years my grandmother has spent time living with my uncle and aunt in Nevada and my parents in Eastern Oregon. When I lived in Southern California and grandma moved to Henderson, just outside of Las Vegas, I made a point of going to visit her there. She moved to Oregon about a year before I moved back to the state, and since I've been back I have tried to make a point of going home when I can to spend some time with her. I never knew when the next visit might be the last. But I knew our last visit earlier this month would likely be the last. And, sadly, it was.

Unfortunately, now I don't know if I will be able to make it back for her funeral. Timing and finances are conspiring against it. Mom isn't expecting my father, brothers or me to be there, but I really would like to be there. Not to say goodbye to my grandmother. I got to do that a few weeks ago, even if it wasn't a storybook farewell. But more than 30 years have spent far from my childhood home and family. These days, it seems the only time our far-flung family gets together is for someone's funeral. I haven't seen my mom's sister and her husband and most of my cousins on my mom's side of the family since my aunt's funeral 15-17 years ago. And I hold out a little home that I might get to see my uncle's oldest kids, who I have rarely seen since about second grade -- except for two funerals.

I guess as I get older, as my parents get older, I seek some stronger connection to family. Maybe it's because my daughter is getting older too. I hope that someday maybe she will want some stronger connection to my side of the family. I hope she will want to know more about where she comes from. But I realize now I don't have a good understanding of where I come from to even be able to answer those potential questions from her. Most of my knowledge and understanding of my family is filtered through the partially opaque veil of time and memories of issues seen through the flawed vision of a child.

It's times like these I wish I was a better writer. Better at describing my grandmother and the people close to me. I am much more practiced at telling other people's stories. I feel so inept at capturing the essence of the people close to me or even my feelings about them.

It was difficult to see my grandmother in recent years, leading a sedentary life, spending her hours in a glider-rocker in my parents living room. She was always so active and vibrant. It was virtually impossible to catch my grandmother standing or sitting still for long when I was a child.
She was always out tending to the chickens in the chicken coop -- feeding the chicks, gathering eggs. Although I never witnessed the act myself, I also heard her in later years talk about butchering the chickens herself too.

Grandma always kept a large garden -- corn, squash, watermelon, cucumbers, tomatoes, snap beans, peas. The garden was a source of produce during the summer months. My grandfather would seemingly eat cucumbers and watermelon and corn on the cob with every meal while the vegetables were in season. And from grandma's abundant harvest she would can her own veggies in a big, rattling, chattering, steaming canner that created a hell of a racket that could be heard all throughout my grandparent's little house. She worked magic with that canner, turning cucumbers into the best dill pickles on the planned. I never cared much for other home-canned vegetables, like canned tomatoes, or the sauerkraut. But I could never get enough of grandma's pickles. There was also a little adventure involved in trying to get the right pickle out of the jar. To this day, a bite of a good dill pickle reminds me of grandma and her kitchen, but even a good pickle isn't quite good enough.

But grandma's signature dish, at least to us grandkids, was her homemade noodles. We used to beg grandma to make noodles on virtually every visit or family gathering. If we were really good, and grandma had time, we would be rewarded with her special dish. One of my favorite things was to sneak into the kitchen and steal some of the raw noodles from grandma's cutting board. She would roll out dough to just the right thickness and cut the dough into thin strips with a large knife. I don't know what she put into the dough or the broth, but the noodles were sliced heaven. It's been many, many years since I had grandma's noodles. But my uncle now carries on the noodle-making tradition in the family. My grandmother was a good cook and my uncle inherited that from her. That's a gene my mother did not inherit.

I was looking through some family photos my grandmother gave me that had belonged to my aunt. The pictures are in a photo album that belonged to my aunt and grandma gave them to me after my aunt's funeral about 15 years ago. I realized as I was looking through the photos that I never saw my grandmother wear anything but a dress. In one of the photos in the album, my grandparents are standing outside with my mom's oldest sister and brother in-law and their oldest son. Grandma is wearing a white apron over her dress. That's how I remember my grandmother, in a dress that extended below her knee with an apron over it. She wore the apron in the kitchen. She would collect eggs from the chicken coop by holding the bottom of her apron up to make a basket to carry the day's layings in.

The chickens she kept used to scare me as a small boy. They would come after you and peck you in the pen, so I avoided going in there. That was the adult chickens. I used to love the chicks every spring. Grandma used to bring chicks into the house every spring. Perhaps that was to keep them warm, or perhaps it allow us grandkids to see them when we were visiting. Who knows how many hours were spent watching those little chick, giving them names, watching them interact and holding the fuzzy-feathered, chirping chicks in our hands. They were so cute, but the adult chickens were so ugly and mean. But I used to enjoy helping grandma gather the eggs out of the chicken coop. I remember when I was finally old enough to be sent out to the hen house to gather eggs all on my own.

Grandma was always an imposing presence. She was not an overtly affectionate person or a hugger, a trait my mom and I did inherit, and one I'm still trying to grow out of. Of course my father's family was much the same. It's something I attribute to the German-Midwest heritage. But she put her love and affection into caring for her family, growing and preparing hearty meals and spending untold hours in the garden, hen house and kitchen.

I hope somehow the stars align and I get an opportunity to share memories with family and friends, to learn the things I missed about her and her life before I was born, or after our family moved so far from grandma's house and the years before she became the small, frail woman with a failing memory.

A few years ago, before her memory started slipping, I used to ask her about the family to learn things I didn't know about our family. But in recent years, she was remembering things wrong. The answers to questions could not be relied upon to be true or accurate.

It was hard to see grandma in decline. The last time I saw her was extremely difficult. But today, on the day she left us, I choose to celebrate the simple, yet special, memories I have of better times. I am glad my daughter got to meet her. I wish she got to know her as the vibrant woman I remember. I'm not sure if my daughter will remember much about that visit, but I wanted her to know her other great-grandmother and I hope she got at least some glimpse of what made my grandmother great to me.

I miss you grandma.


Gene said...

Nice tribute, G-Man. My sympathies.

The G-man said...

Thanks Gene. I appreciate it. Now is one of those times when I wish we were sitting around your kitchen sharing a pitcher of martinis, talking about the problems of the wider world and discussing all the wisdom we possess that the morons running things don't.

3rdtimesacharm ( 3T ) said...

My condolences on yours and your famlily's loss, G-Man. And, as Gene stated, it was a heart-touching tribute.

I know that to this very day, I have flashbacks to special memories I shared with both of my grandmother's. Each grandmother was unique and very different from one another; but each brought their own brand of love and warmth to their grandchildren's lives.

Not only will your memories always be with you, but the love she gave will always remain in your heart.

Sending BIG (((HUGS))) your way,


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