Honoring the 100

My grandmothers were born one day apart. I don’t mean like one day apart as in June 29 and June 30 of two different years. I mean one day apart the same year. One had her first child at 33. One had twins at 17. They lived very different lives, but this year, on July 30 and 31, respectively, they would have turned 100 years old.

Both have been gone for a while now. The one with the July 30 birthday passed away in 2006. The one with the July 31 birthday passed away in 1998. Both gone way too soon for my liking, as they both taught me things about life that I would never have learned otherwise.

Yesterday, I went alone to the cemetery where Ludie was buried. It’s not very far from my office, and I volunteered to take flowers and place them in the vase on her grave. She’s buried next to my grandfather, Hurbon, who I never knew, for he died when my father was 11 or so. I’m not sure which month he died in, as the headstone didn’t say, so my dad very well could have been 10. Either way, my grandmother was left to raise her youngest child, the older ones having graduated, moved on, and/or married long before. My dad was the baby in the family by 7 years.

It took me a while to find the graves. I had only been once, to my recollection, even though my mom told me that I’d been other times to visit my grandfather’s. Of course, she never knew him, either, as she didn’t meet my dad until they were teenagers and lived on the same lake. That’s how they met. So, in a way, I credit my own existence to my grandfather, but then again, I credit it to his death as well, for my dad would never have lived on the lake if my grandfather had still been alive. It’s a quandry I’ve tried to reconcile in my mind but I can’t seem to get there. I guess it’s hard since I never knew him, and neither did my mom.

The funeral home lady drove me out to the graves, me following her golf cart as she found the plots. Even she had a bit of trouble finding their actual headstones, which made me feel a bit less stupid than I had previously. My family had told me they were buried “near a big tree,” which didn’t exactly turn out to be the case, plus there were about 150 big trees in this cemetery. After a few minutes, I put the live (not silk) flowers in the small vase and said thanks. My grandmother Ludie wasn’t your typical apple pie, spoiling grandmother, but that just wasn’t her style. It was just the way she was. What she was, however, was amazing. At 41, she traveled to Hawaii for 2 weeks, alone. At 30 something, she found out she had breast cancer (in the 1960s!), and kicked its ass. She never had a recurrence. Later in her 40s, she traveled to the Holy Land several times, once landing there just before a short-term war broke out. She stayed through it, walking the streets like she owned the place. She went back to nursing school after her kids were long grown. She lived in the same little house, decorated with her trinkets from far lands, with books on travel, and wasn’t a great cook but certainly tried. Most of all, she loved dogs.

My uncle tells a story about the dogs. When Ludie was in the nursing home later in life, she was allowed to put photos up on the walls. She placed photos of her two or three favorite dogs on the wall at the foot of her bed, where she could see them all the time. The photos of my uncle and aunt weren’t so lucky – they went behind the door. That was just her style.

My other grandmother, Josephine, was German through and through. She, too, survived breast cancer (yes, I know – strong history for me), a nasty black widow spider bite, working in a factory in Philly in WWII, and a husband who was not nearly as great at being a husband as he was at being a Papaw. She learned sign language working in that factory, and she taught me the alphabet. I still remember nearly all the letters today. It’s amazing what you can retain if you learn it while you’re young. It’s like your brain doesn’t have all the other garbage in it yet, so you just soak it up.

I often tell people that she both looks like the hotplate I have behind my stove, which depicts a cook in an apron with a large smile on her face, and that she would be THE definition of “Grandmother” in the encyclopedia. She embodied every single good quality that a grandmother would have. Hot cakes (aka pancakes) every morning for the whole summer? Yes. Ice cream and popscicles in the freezer? Yes, so long as the ice cream was neapolitan, as that has everyone’s flavor. Cold air conditioning only when the grandchild is there? Yes (me being said grandchild) Christmas tree with beautiful ornaments? Yes. No cleaning ever that I can remember, although her house was never dirty? Yes – it was like she was magical. Endless hugs? Yes. And so much more.

Oh how she would have loved my Sweetie. A Navy man who loves me? It just doesn’t get any better than that. I so wish they could have met.

Today, on what would have been her 100th birthday, my mom, sisters, and I went to her burial spot, as well. We put some flowers, took some photos, and actually sang Happy Birthday to her. She would have loved it. Then we went to lunch, went shopping a bit, and then we went to her old house, now owned by others. We were just going to drive by, but we ended up stopping just to walk down her street. Not enough for me, I decided, and I found myself, ringing the doorbell of that house for the first time in 20 years.

With giant crocodile tears in my eyes and streaming down my face, I told the sweet woman who opened the door that my grandmother used to live there. She was so kind. I wanted to give her a hug, maybe to see if I could channel some of my Mamaw through those old floorboards, through her, into me. She invited us in.

The place looked different, which I knew that it would. They have upgraded so much, and changed a lot, but the paneling in the living room was still the same, The red bricks on the exterior were still there. The “hump” in the carport was still there. (That was a favorite for roller skating in my day.) With tears streaming down my face, I literally could feel her presence there today. I felt like she was telling me it was okay to be there, finally. I have not been back mainly because I always wanted to remember it the way it was. Today was different. I wanted to see it in its new light and to be inside the house where I had lived so many happy times.

I looked at the living room, now different, and remembered where the couch was, remembered the gold/green carpet (not shag!), and pictured the Christmas tree in the corner, glistening with ornaments and lights. I remembered the night my uncles both asked their girlfriends to marry them. They said yes, and they are both still married to those girlfriends so many years later. I pictured the recliner where my grandfather sat and watched the Cardinals play on the television, where we watched many a Lawrence Welk and the Wizard of Oz when it was on network television. There was no cable TV at their house. I pictured the kitchen, now completely changed around, where those hot cakes were cooked. Most of all, I could hear in my head the laughter, the banter, the excitement, and the fun discussions that occurred around the table in the front room. That’s where most of the action happened, as our family had every family holiday there for many years.

After snatching a Kleenex from the bathroom where I had “washed” my teeth in using baking soda, I asked her if I could go out back and see the yard. She said, “Of course.”

Although it had changed, there was so much of it that had stayed the same. The boat house was gone, but they had built a nice pier and deck out onto the lake. My grandparents had bought the place in the late 1950s. It was a huge corner lot – the best on the street by far – with views all the way across the lake. The storm shelter where I slid down the face remained, as did my Papaw’s shed where the well pump was. His martin feeder and windmill were still there, as well as the picnic table where our Easter baskets were placed every year. The pampas grass, which cut my fingers as a child, was still down by the lake. Even the sidewalk where I rode my skates or roller board was still there. I remember having to go between the huge tree, now gone, and the picnic table or face injury every time. But, oh, was the ride so worth it!

I looked out over that lake, where Santa showed up in a flat bottom boat on year, with a Christmas tree, to bring me my rabbit coat (it was all the rage in 1978). I remember my uncle’s wedding reception and my Mamaw’s 75th birthday celebration in the backyard. I remembered so much that I found myself almost overloaded with memories, to the point that my eyes hurt from the stinging tears.

My great aunts, both widows and childless, lived down the street as well. Another great aunt and great uncle lived at the end of the street, and they had no grandchildren. Their houses still stand, now owned by others. I wonder if the strawberries (pictures) are still in one of their houses, and I wonder how many ice cold Budweiser beers were drank in the other, after a hot day mowing the yard. Oh how many memories I had come flooding back, and obviously out my eyes, today!

As we left the house, the owner asked me for a business card, wanting to know if I might work on their wills. My sister commented later that I might just make some money on our visit today.

I looked at her and said, “I think I’ll just do this one for free.” I really can’t put a price on the gift that that couple gave me today. They gave me the chance to see what I’ve often dreamed about all these years – running and playing in a backyard on a lake, knowing that hot cakes, ice cream, and all the love one would ever need await inside the screen door.

Happy birthday, both to Ludie and Josephine on this day. Thank you for all the gifs you gave me. My love to you both.

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