Friday, April 11, 2008

Years ago and 1,500 miles away

My mom's mom died when I was 15. I have a wealth of childhood memories with her in them, and then suddenly, my high school memories lack her presence. Hers was the first funeral I attended that affected me deeply. My grampa passed away just a couple of years ago. He lived a lot of years without her, and though many men wither away when their spouses pass on, he lived almost all of those years with vitality and exuberance.

There's so much I miss about them that most days I can't fully acknowledge it all. It hurts too much. Most of all, I wish they could have met my husband and my son. I think, though, that I'm lucky to have known them so well. My husband never met his grandfathers at all. So I'm blessed. This entry is a small tribute to them both.

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I got my love of baking from gramma. Every summer when we visited, we'd have a baking day (at LEAST one day, if not more). Everything in the kitchen would be dusted in flour. And we rarely made boring old drop cookies -- we made the real deal, rolling out tables full of dough and using old tin cookie cutters in magical shapes to create masterpieces of baked art. Once the cookies cooled, we frosted and sprinkled to our hearts' content. She never once chided me for sampling raw dough or eating frosting or using too much colored sugar on a cookie -- whatever I did was beautiful in her eyes. She gave me a sense of fearlessness in baking and I love her for that.

I got my love of reading from gramma, too. She read anything she could get her hands on -- newspapers, books, magazines, prayer pamphlets, church bulletins. And she was always good for a story when I climbed into her lap. She praised me when I read out loud, and bought me books for holiday gifts. She helped me discover the art of imagination through the printed word. Thank you, gramma.

Gramma loved to sing. She sang enthusiastically every Sunday in church. The thing is, she had an awful voice. It wasn't musical in any way -- it was just hers. It was the instrument she had to give praise with, and she used it unabashedly. Even as a little girl, I recognized the purity of that. The hymns I heard her sing are still powerfully poignant for me, and my memories of her singing Christmas carols and hymns with all her heart are why I weep at mass with my family each December.

** ** **

Grampa was one of those men who sailors might call "a good man in a storm." He was the quintessential neighbor. He was always ready to lend a tool, help with a stubborn piece of automotive equipment, pitch in with a tough job. He did it graciously and with good humor, never expecting anything in return. As a result, he was a very busy man -- he was always out helping others. And yet every year when we visited during the summer, he made sure we had whatever special play privileges we wanted that we couldn't have at home -- a sandbox in the backyard, bunnies in a specially made hutch on the back patio, borrowed bikes to ride around the neighborhood. How he orchestrated this every year, I'll never know. The bikes were always the right size for us to handle, the bunnies were always sweet and fun to play with, and the sandbox was always big enough for us to play in and have our own corners, without crowding each other.

We also had free rein in his workshop in the basement. Grampa's workshop was a special place, specifically because it was all his -- you could tell gramma never set foot there, since there was sawdust all over the floor and a general feeling of bachelor-y mess that only a man's space has. So we knew it was special to him, and yet he invited us in as a matter of course, turned the space over to us, and gave us carte blanche to play with anything safe, non-toxic and blunted. We cracked countless hickory nuts in his huge vice, spinning the heavy handle and chortling with glee when the nuts split open between the vice's massive teeth. We sorted through thousands of nuts, bolts, screws and nails and placed things in tiny jars according to size and type. We played with water-based paints, creating "art" on scraps of paper, and conducting "experiments" as we mixed color after color (all to achieve a uniform grey time after time). And through it all he let us play, sometimes laughing silently at our antics from across the room, delighting in our budding creativity and enthusiasm.

** ** **

What I remember most about gramma and grampa is how they loved and adored me and my brothers. I don't remember a single gift they gave me, though they showered us with special toys. What I remember instead is the way that they delighted in what I did, said, wrote, drew, baked or sang. I remember gramma's hugs and kisses, the way she smelled, the special gramma-way she had of enfolding me when her arms went around me. I remember grampa's quiet pride, his silent chuckling when we amused him, the gentle way he had of teaching us how to behave without ever raising his voice or scolding us.

They were, and are, amazing to me.

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