would be a long time to live. It is the exact age my grandmother would have celebrated today if she had not succumbed to the evil grip of cancer in December of 1990. However, this is not a post to mourn her, but to celebrate her life.
I have not said much in the past, and that is probably somewhat logical. I tend to live in the here and now, occupied by the three little people that mean so much to me. However, given that they have never met their great-grandmother, I thought I ought to jot a few notes down before my memories begin to fade.
Clearly, I don't remember meeting my grandmother, or Grand-mère, as she liked me to call her, but likely not too long after I was born. She and my grandfather lived in a grand home in Toledo, a place which I dubbed "Ohio House", but later became known as Happiness Hotel. This was around the time of the release of the Great Muppet Caper, and if I remember correctly, the nickname probably had to do with family laughing spells. Ever so popular, they were generally the highlight of a visit.
Someone would start a story, whether it be Grand-mère, Aunt Peg, or maybe Mom. Many stemmed from the retelling of classic stories from Grand-mère's childhood...one of her sisters "driving" the car at age six (the gear slipped into reverse and the car bounced back and forth between the house and a large tree), the famed roller skating on the dining room table (at 40 feet long, what else was it good for?), or another sister announcing to a dinner party of easily 50 plus guests that, "No one could go to the bathroom because we don't have any toilet paper!" (all stories circa 1920s). The stories might seem simple but they were fleshed out so that one could see the guests in their finery, hear the clink of the glasses, and listen to the gasps of laughter as the little girl's voice finally reached its intended audience.
There were many other tales, some even involving me. No one could forget the time that I answered the phone (was I 3, maybe 4?) and mangled the name of the local hardware store so much so that my grandmother was sure it was a crank caller. Nor can anyone forget the all-time classic: learning German. In preparation for a trip to Germany to visit my uncle, my grandmother decided to teach herself German. She was already fluent in 5 languages, what was one more?
She never undertook a new language lightly, and the entire kitchen was soon covered in labels to boost her vocabulary. She even brought her study guide on vacation to Palm Beach for a working vacation to get a head start. I was also there, having been spirited away by my generous Aunt Peg. It was a whirlwind week of fun, and, at that point, having not been to the beach in years, it was a trip I still recall fondly.
There is always a rainy day on any beach trip, and this one occurred on a Tuesday. We decided to jump right in, and the three of us began to learn together. We ended up in fits once again, trying out conversations that involved everything from Alaska to a conversation with a waiter about our toilet being broken. Maybe simple, but I can still see the three of us howling away like fools in that condo, rain streaming down the windows...
Now lest you think my grandmother was without fault, well, even I have to admit I very rarely saw what I would deem imperfections. In fact, perhaps the only thing that ever struck me was her perfectionism to a fault. Though, in hindsight, the lessons, such as how to properly thank one for a waste basket, have stuck with me forever.
In 1982, she sent me a treat: a metal waste basket with Garfield emblazoned on the outside. Wow! Garfield was the rage, and everyone was collecting books, stickers, you name it. I had whatever books my pocket money could purchase, and not much else, so this was a treat from heaven. If I remember correctly, it came from the Popcorn Factory, so it also had a large bag of buttery yum inside.
Now this was from my grandmother, and no one forgot to write a thank you note to my grandmother. Ever. I sat down, whipped out my stationery, and in my still developing and somewhat stilted 5th grade script, thanked her for the wonderful trash can. Oops.
My grandmother was not only a fabulous thank you note writer herself, but also greatly enjoyed letter writing in general. She loved to correspond by mail, and took pains (yes, including a ruler) to make sure her writing was even. After all, one would not want to smudge the heavy (and usually monogrammed) card-stock from Neiman-Marcus. About ten days after I mailed the thank you note, I received a short, but sweet note in the mail from her that was along the lines of the note below:
Dear K.J. (childhood nickname, long time to lose),
Thank you so much for your note. However, I am very disappointed, and might not be able to order from that company again. In your note, you thanked me for a trash can. I had no idea that is what you received, as the item in the catalog was very clearly described as a waste basket. I hope you were not too disappointed.
I watched my wording after that note. She was so clever in her writing, though, that I never took it for more than it was worth. She didn't mean it as anything more than a gentle reminder to watch how I phrased my notes. I don't think I have penned a letter since without thinking of that time and double-checking my verbiage. Now, if only I could find that note for my scrapbook, as despite the fact it was a bit of a warning, I truly appreciated her taking the time to write. Just like she took the time to mail us treats every November.
Each year around Thanksgiving, two large envelopes carefully addressed to me and to my sister would arrive in our mailbox. Inside of each was a stand-alone Advent calender of her choosing. She always kept tabs on our interests, and purchased accordingly. One year I would love Peanuts, the next year a more religious calendar was preferred. It was a special treat that lasted until I went to college and had she lived, I can't help but wonder if she wouldn't have extended the tradition to my children. Sadly, I am not quite as good at remembering, and generally forget to purchase until the 6th or so of December.
I could go on and on, but my fingers are a bit weary, and tomorrow is another early school day. Though in Grand-mere's honor, I am thinking it is time for just a taste of coffee ice cream before bed. Oddly enough, Kelsey is the one who picked out the flavor just the other day...almost as if she knew. Happy Birthday, Grand-mere, wherever you are...
The above pictures represent a few of my favorite memories with Grand-Mere. The top photo includes both my grandmothers, as well as mom and me. It was the afternoon of my First Communion, which took place at St. Henry's in Nashville. The next photo was snapped just following high school graduation, in May of 1990. Grand-mère's visit was a total surprise, and I am still grateful to this day, as it turned out to be one of our last visits. She lived in Toledo, and I was still in Memphis until August, when I would depart for school in Washington, DC.
The letter is a one of many samples I have of her writing. So careful and so thoughtful.
The last photograph was taken just prior to my senior year in high school, if I remember correctly. I think we were waving good-bye to my dad as he headed to the airport after dropping me off at their house. I would stay to be a counselor at a camp in Michigan, and spend time visiting with my grandparents. Why the bathrobes? Tradition. After a visit, we nearly always left in the early morning to drive back to Memphis. She would still be in her bathrobe, tissues handy in one of the pockets for dabbing her eyes as we drove out of sight. We thought this would be a classic photo, and if nothing else, a amusing wake-up call for the neighbors.