It was my home away from home. Two blocks east of us on Main and three blocks south on Larson lived my grandparents. It was one of the first places I went by myself after I was allowed to cross the street (because there weren't many streets to cross.) I usually went for a visit at least once a day, sometimes many more. I could coast my bike all the way down Larson Avenue without pedaling because of the downhill slope. Enormous elm trees on either side of the street converged overhead forming a shady canopy for many blocks. I'd ride my bike up the gravel driveway and toss it down in the grass without bothering with the kickstand.
"Yoo-hoo, I'm here!" I'd announce, letting the screen door slam behind me. I always knew if Gram was home because I could smell her Occur! It followed her like an aura and no one else smelled the way she did. (Also, whenever she was home, the TV was on.)
"Yoo-hoo, come in!" she'd reply, as though all day long she'd simply been waiting or me to arrive. She would beam at the sight of me and pat a spot next to her on the black davenport.
My grandparents had only had one child--my father. My Gram always wished for a little girl so, when I arrived, it was a big deal and she never let me forget it.
I always thought my grandparents were rich. They had built their house when my dad was 10 years old, so it seemed very new to me. In fact, the year before they had built the 2 bedroom rambler, they had finished the basement and lived there for one winter. The following spring, the house had arrived on the train in sections and carpenters assembled it in one day! It all seemed unbelievable to me. Inside, it was immaculate. There was gray wall-to-wall carpeting and real wood paneling on the walls. (What did I tell you? Rich!) They had a long black davenport (so much fancier than a couch!) and matching chair, an oak coffee table which Gram had "antiqued" white, and a wood-grain, formica-topped table with sides that dropped down and chairs with metal legs. Gram loved to rearrange her furniture and repaint rooms. Whenever we went to her house, we never knew where we'd find things--or what color they'd be next.
I loved the set of black ceramic lions she had on her coffee table. Their mouths were agape like they were roaring and sometimes I imagined they fought. They were two of her things I wasn't allowed to touch. She also had a red glass candy dish that sat in the center of the same table. It was always filled with Bridge Mix or Circus Peanuts or sugar-covered Orange Slices and I could touch that all I wanted.
The glory of the kitchen was her old Fridgedair. You had to pull really hard on the handle to get it to open. Gram was always worried we'd pull it over on ourselves. We never did. She also lectured us a lot about never ever climbing into a refrigerator if we saw one outside because some little child had done that once and suffocated to death. (I always looked for a fridge outside but I never did see one.) Her fridge was always filled with good things like Snack Pack Pudding in tiny metal cans that we had to be careful when we pulled the sharp tops off not to cut ourselves, and peanut butter that she hid in there so the ants wouldn't find it. She couldn't keep ice cream frozen in the tiny freezer section so, if we were inclined to eat some, she'd have to get her purse out and send us to the store.
Her cupboards were equally bountiful. She had a red step stool beside the counter that we used to scale the heights and explore. On the first level stood the copper cookie jar where she kept bought cookies like Pecan Sandies and Fig Newtons and, on the REALLY good days, homemade Chocolate No-Bakes. The cabinets held cans of Spaghettios and Pringles. If she was absolutely out of everything else, she'd let us open the bags of chocolate chips and shredded coconut to make our own Mounds bars.
We were polite children. We always ASKED before we helped ourselves to anything. We'd say, "Gram? I see you have some cookies in your cookie jar."
And she'd say, "Oh, my yes--have all you want. I got them/made them for you!"
I learned lavish generosity from my Gram, not moderation.
She also let us raid her cupboards for non-eating activities as well. We used her flour to make play dough and then painted our creations with her food coloring. We made bubble solution with her dishsoap. We fed bread to the birds outside, and not just the stale crusts, either. We took her nice blankets outside to lay on in the grass. We clomped around in her old shoes, used her tape, scissors, string, Bandaids, and make-up for all kinds of projects and dug in the dirt with her good silverware.
Sleepovers at Gram's house were a retreat in indulgence. She wasn't fond of cooking and had a sign hanging in her kitchen that said, "Stamp Out Home Cooking." For supper we got to eat Spaghettios or hot dogs and Pringles dipped in Snack Pack Pudding. Or maybe we'd have corn on the cob and nothing else! (If ever she did happen to serve something we didn't like, Grandpa was happy to eat it off our plates for us.) Then she'd have us fetch her purse and we'd bike up to Capper's to pick out our favorite cereals to eat for breakfast. If Renee and I couldn't agree on what kind to get, she'd let us each get a box. Grandpa didn't have very good manners and she growled, "oh, Ken-ny!" at him when he walked around the house in his underwear or burped after meals. He just smiled and did what he wanted--we laughed behind our hands. Renee and I got to stay up "as late as we wanted" at Gram's==which was thrilling except we got tired and usually went to bed at our regular time anyway. I loved laying in her soft bed and looking at the lamp by her dresser. It was made of two glass globes with pictures of moose on it. The bottom globe was bigger than the top and you could have on just the bottom, or just the top, or both by turning a key. Gram always wore pretty nighties with slippery fabric and she snored when she slept, but I didn't mind.
One of my favorite things to do with my Gram was watch game shows. She liked Card Sharks, and Family Feud, and Hollywood Squares, but she especially liked word games. She got very impatient with people on Wheel of Fortune or Password who didn't know the answers to the questions and would yell at the TV, even though they couldn't hear her, and we'd burst into gales of laughter. Gram always solved the puzzles before the contestants did.
In the late afternoon or evenings, we would sit out in the backyard to cool off. Gram would watch from her lawn chair as Renee and I would run races--counting to see how fast we went. 'Funny how we got faster and faster every time... I did chin-ups on her clothesline pole and push-ups in the grass. She thought I had impressive muscles and unbelievable speed.
Gram's yard contained several points of interest. Since she had a real basement, there were window wells that sometimes trapped salamanders and toads after it rained. There was a lone, straggly pine tree behind her garage. My dad had planted it there on Arbor Day when he was in the 4th grade and, though it offered no shade or beauty, she would not permit it to be cut down. Sparrows sometimes made nests in the ends of her clothesline poles and I was forever hanging upside down, poking my fingers at them. Gram had a white lilac bush and some fascinating bell-like flowers called Lily-of-the-Valley which she told us were poisonous, "Don't touch them or you'll get sick." But my favorite were the spunky moss roses that grew in the heat on the south side of the house, closing up during the hottest part of the day and reopening at night. I don't think anyone ever watered them or did anything special for them yet they thrived.
Our grandma was able to make even rainy days fun. She would hide a thimble for us and we'd look and look, following her hints, "warmer, warmer, colder!" We also played "I Spy." She liked to hear stories about what we did at school and she liked to tell us stories about when she was little or about when our dad was little. The best story she ever told was how she used to take the train from Alexandria to Thief River Falls in the summer to visit her Grandma Gran's farm. Our great-great Grandma Gran had a big mean bull that our grandma, little Dolores, was scared to death of. It got really hot some days on the farm and the only way a little kid could cool off was to soak in the stock tank by the barn. One day, Gram was ducked underwater in the tank and, when she came up for air, she came face to face with the BULL who had lowered his huge head over the tank for a drink of water! Gram said she never moved so fast in her life; I always wondered if she scared the bull...
Gram had lots of hobbies. (I don't recall her ever having any kind of toy box at her house but she shared all her toys with us, or let us make up our own, which was way more fun.) Gram liked to do oil Paint-by-Number and ceramics. She loved Bingo. She had an organ with keys that lit up when you turned a light on under the keyboard and music books with letters to match the keys. She would give us concerts and play, "Beautiful Dreamer," and "Camptown Girls Won't You Come Out Tonight," and "Amazing Grace." When it was our turn, she applauded no matter how awful it sounded, and never asked us to turn down the automatic rhythm feature--which must have driven her nuts. Gram was an avid reader. In the front bedroom there was a shelf that held many volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, to which she subscribed. I read many novels that were far above my reading level just because they were there. Gram had an mesmerizing aquarium on a desk in her dining room. There was a nasty Angel Fish who picked on the other fish and she would tap on the glass to scold him. That fish, named after a bully at our school, looked right back at her in anger until his black stripes turned white like the rest him. She also had beautiful, sweet Black Mollies that gave birth to live babies that hid (from the Angel of Death fish) in the weeds floating at the top of the tank. Some of the time, Gram must have taken a break from her hobbies to work because once or twice a year she'd go through her closets and send us home with her extra treasures; leftover oil paints, half-used craft kits, fancy Soap-on-a-Rope. I never understood why our mother wasn't more excited when she saw us drag home all that loot.
We were Gram's little helpers, accompanying her to many of the places she went. She brought us to Bingo at the Legion and we helped her slide the little windows down over the numbers and giggled when she got mad that someone else won. She took us to the City Restaurant and let us order whatever we wanted--even if it was "two scoops of mashed potatoes and gravy" in the middle of the afternoon. My favorite dessert was a square of white cake frosted on all sides and rolled in chopped nuts. And, of course, orange pop--which I drank all by myself and ended up with an orange mustache. I loved sitting in the restaurant, looking at all the wildlife. The high ceilings were lined with glass cases containing dozens of birds and woodland creatures--all stuffed by a taxidermist. It was like a zoo of dead animals. The walls were adorned with framed Norman Rockwell prints. I especially liked one where some boys were running naked away from a pond that said, "No Swimming." The big wooden booths had mirrors on the inside walls and, while I ate, I made faces at myself and happily chewed with my mouth open. Gram took us to her ceramics class and let us paint our own chewing gum holders. Some days we went along to her Thursday beauty appointments to Chili's Beauty Shop in her home and looked at magazines while she had her hair washed and set. If we were good, and we always were, she'd reward us by getting out her purse and sending us off to buy ourselves a treat. One week out of every summer, Gram brought us on Vacation to a motel in Alexandria. Gram, Renee, and I laid around on the beds eating snacks and watching as much TV as we wanted. We'd walk to The Traveler's Inn for our meals and Grandpa drove up from Ashby after work to have supper with us. There was an outdoor pool to play in, and an ice machine and all the pop we could drink. It was the best vacation ever!
Gram was tougher than she looked. She could clean a dead chicken with her bare hands. She wasn't scared of anybody--not even my crabby band teacher. She had lots of physical ailments but never let them get in the way of enjoying our company. So it was no wonder that my favorite thing about Gram's house was Gram herself. She loved me completely and I knew it. Whenever I came to her house, she'd drop everything just to listen to me, looking at me with her sparkling blue eyes. She wanted to hug me a lot but respected that I wasn't very snuggly. So when I sat by her, enjoying the sweet scent and warmth of her companionship, I'd occasionally allow her to rub her soft old hand on my young, tan arm. "Such perfect skin," she'd murmur to herself. Or she'd stroke my cheek with her thumb and remind me, "You have my mother's dimples..." Such affection usually prompted me to get off the couch, out of range, with a smile.
Many years later, it was me who moved closer. Gram was in a hospital bed, dying of congestive heart failure. She was beyond talking now, and I was beyond retreating from her touch. I sat for an entire day, and half the night, just holding her hand--stroking the frail skin over her pronounced blue veins, tracing her hallmark red nails with my own finger. By now, I realized that Gram had never been rich at all, but that it was she who had made my life rich. I would periodically ask if she felt okay. She nodded. I would ask if she needed anything. She'd shake her head, no. Once or twice, she opened her eyes, looked a little bewildered as though she'd been somewhere far away. Then she'd see me beside her and smile. She mouthed, "I love you," and closed her eyes again. I put my head down on the bed against her arm and asked the nurse to bring a fan into the room. Her dying was the thing I'd had nightmares about since I was small. There just wasn't enough air.
My Gram was there the day I was born and I was there the day she died. We shared 33 years together on this planet and not a day goes by that I don't think of her and miss her still. The older I get, I wish I could tell her, "You were right!" about so many things she'd said through the years. Someday, I will sit with her again, see her smile, and let her hold my hand as much as she likes. Home for me, will be when I call, "Yoo-hoo, I'm here!" and she answers, "Come on in, I've been waiting for you!"