This time 17 years ago you would find me sleeping on the covered couch in the living room of my Great Grandparent’s house. It is almost 2 am and my Grandma Dorothy is in the kitchen, washing dishes and whistling her favorite hymns and songs that were famous back in the day. Her kitchen has those ovens in the wall…and for whatever reason, those ovens were pink. The back splash was made up of mirrors and there wasn’t much counter space. In the kitchen was one of those 50’s metal tables I love. She fed Grandpa Joe his meals there whenever he came in from working in the garage, the shed, or in the yard. Even in his 80’s he worked most of the day and would come in to eat dinner, watch “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” *all* the Rockies games, every “Wheel of Fortune,” but almost never “Jeopardy” because even though he was one of the smartest men I know, he had to drop out of school very young to work (6th grade, I think) and always thought of himself as dumb. His other favorite shows were “Little House on the Prairie,” and “Bonanza.”
There in my grandma’s kitchen, there was an additional deep freeze, and the dish washer which had to be pulled across the small kitchen and hooked up to the sink faucet to run it.
Next to the kitchen was the open dining room with the big table that currently sits in my dining room. It was always covered with a table cloth and then a clear plastic table cloth on top. I never understood why it was always covered, but I get it now….the top needs some work and isn’t the prettiest thing. But I always loved the curvy legs, the leafs (leaves?) we would put in for big gatherings, the food placed on top before Grandma would pray and bless the food, and the safety and love that that table represented to me. She could feed a crowd (and regularly did) on a shoestring and it was amazing.
Not far from the dining room table and next to Grandpa’s little table, sat her rocking chair. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually saw this rocking chair and I didn’t recognize it until I sat in it. Grandma always had it covered in some thick fabric she had pinned together so it wouldn’t slip and then some little hand towels over the arms. Kinda funny. As far back as I can remember, she slept in this rocking chair or on the short couch. Grandpa slept in the bed in the bedroom. I never asked why but I assume it has to do with her strange sleeping habits. Grandma was *very* nocturnal and would just take naps from time to time at night and during the day…otherwise she was at work in the kitchen, or in her garden. There next to her chair and Grandpa’s table was a bookshelf with the phone, all manner of crochet projects and mending projects, and her devotionals, Bible studies and gobs of notebooks she wrote notes and prayers in as she watched her tv preachers and favorite shows. She loved Seventh Heaven and turned on Nick at Nite which I loved watching for all hours whenever I stayed over. (I’m pretty nocturnal myself.) Even as a lanky teenager, you could find me curled up in the seat of this rocking chair and napping…it was just the best chair ever. Like Grandma: warm, comfortable, safe…
So I was there, 17 years ago, probably watching “The Facts of Life” as Grandma whistled and washed dishes. Our house had just burned down the Tuesday night prior so most of my family was once again, living at Grandma’s house. My step-dad was in the hospital again due to smoke inhalation and pneumonia but the rest of us were camped out at Grandma’s and there was no where else I would rather be.
Grandma’s house represented safety, love, wisdom, protection, acceptance, open doors, open arms, warmth, and the best food ever plus cookies we weren’t supposed to eat. Even in the midst of chaos, devastation, huge loss, and grief we were loved, cared for and had peace. They even welcomed in my ornery dog, Dixie a very dumb and very strong dalmatian/pit bull-the only dog out of our three to survive the fire.
When my step-dad, Eddie, got out of the hospital, we got a hotel room and half of the family stayed there and the other half stayed at Grandma’s and we took turns. No one wanted to stay with Eddie and everyone wanted to stay at Grandma’s so it was the only way… We were supposed to have a new house in six weeks (because modular home) but six weeks came and went and it was closer to six months before we were back in a house at our old address. Talk about chaos. Laundromats, hospital visits,trying to salvage anything and everything, scraping our frozen/smoky/melted belongings off the floor, throwing trash away that my parents would pull out of the dumpsters and insist on keeping (despite everything the firemen and Red Cross told us,) so many donations we had to get storage units to hold it all while we waited for our house…
Let me just say that at the time, the house fire was traumatic, yes, but it didn’t feel as traumatic as it has ended up being still…years later. This time of year I just have a hard time and never really know why until someone’s fireplace smoke ends up in my house and I can’t sleep because my house must be on fire…or I pull out the Christmas ornaments and mourn mine a little. My very favorite part of my childhood was my collection of Christmas bell ornaments that my parents added to every year. My family had a super weird but fun tradition of decorating for Christmas on October 31st because we didn’t do Halloween and my Mom LOVES Christmas decorations…so when fire took our house the week before Thanksgiving…it took all of our ornament collections too. The most vivid memory I have of digging through ice, insulation, and ceiling in the most putrid smoke and melted plastic smell you can ever imagine is finding what was left of my ornaments…the ones I was going to take with me someday to put on my own tree. While I have *so* many ornaments and gobs of bells to boot…I still cry a little every year and see my ornaments melted, and ground into the floor. It is a weird thing. And it seems silly in the grand scheme of things…we all survived the fire. It “just so happened” that the night of the fire, my mom, two sisters and I had come home from a ladies church event and were getting to bed really late for a school night. Any other night and everyone would have been in bed, asleep. The fire started in my sister Tina’s room and got so big, so fast, had she been in there, sleeping she would have been killed, not to mention, the fire literally chased us down the hallway…everyone else sleeping in the house (my sister Lisa and I actually lived in the shed out in the backyard…and yes, you read that correctly) would have been killed. But we were still up, getting ready for bed. I was kind of in denial about the fire even as it was chasing us down the hall…it was not uncommon for little fires to start in this house (don’t get me started…) so when my dog Dixie appeared by my side as we stood in the living room looking at the fire and deciding to walk out the front door I asked my Mom, “Should I bring her outside with us?” “I guess so.” She replied as she grabbed the phone to call 911 on her way out the door.
It wasn’t until we reached the driveway and turned around that I realized, (I think we all did,) that we were losing our home that night. The fire outside my sister’s bedroom window was shooting in the air higher than a telephone pole and getting higher, and bigger, and louder. I hung onto Dixie’s collar while Eddie grabbed a hose and started watering the fire. A neighbor joined him with a hose from the house next door. My Mom went around to the back door of the house and called the other dogs, hoping they would brave the smoke and come outside. She could hear them but they didn’t come, they were hiding under my brother’s bed, died of smoke inhalation, and the firemen brought them out after was fire was put out. SO sad.
I think another layer of the trauma was the embarrassment of it all. Our house was seriously *such* a disaster that the firemen were totally shocked that they couldn’t find drugs anywhere. People had to come and shovel piles of our now-ruined stuff into dumpsters, we became a charity case for the whole town…and while it was amazing that our town came together and did *SO* much for us and I am still SOOOO grateful (because wow!)…as a ridiculously insecure high school senior, it was very embarrassing. I was tired of being a charity case.
This picture was taken in front of that couch at my their house. I believe my Senior year of high school.
Anyway…I don’t know if I ever stopped to think how my Grandparents handled it all. For all those months of craziness and extra kids and dogs living in their home…they were just there. That night. Their door was open, their arms were open…they were just there. Like always. And let me remind you, these are my great-grandparents. In their 80’s!
One of the reasons Grandma’s house was the best was because Eddie didn’t like being there. He had to be on his best behavior, because if Grandma saw him mis-treating one of her great grand kids, she would say so. She was one of the few people who would stand up to him and he knew it. I hated when he would come over and invade our safe space. Ugh.
Grandma’s house was right around the corner from the tiny Christian school and church I attended. As often as possible, we would walk to her house after school and eat all her cookies, and hog her cable tv. She taught me how to use a sewing machine and we made a dress for me that was my favorite for years. She tried to teach me how to crochet but she was left handed, and I really didn’t get it. Thanks to YouTube, though, I crochet today in honor of her. She tried to teach me how to garden but for some dumb reason, I wasn’t all that interested back then like I would be now. So many times I would watch her literally pick a leaf off of some random plant, sing to it, put it in a little cup with the perfect water to dirt ratio, and some new baby plant would come to life. From a leaf. As someone who had killed cactus…I found this especially impressive. And now…I watch YouTube and am learning more about gardening in honor of her. 😉
When I was very young, we lived in California, but there were several summers I got to go visit Colorado for the whole summer with my grandparents who would visit my great-grandparents, friends, and other family. Most of our time though, was spent in Canon City, at Grandpa Joe and Grandma Dorothy’s house. I loved it.
I remember being around five years old one of those summers and walking into the back yard of Grandma and Grandpa’s house…that old screen door slamming behind me…and being sure that the Garden of Eden itself could not have been more green, lush, or beautiful than that back yard. It was this huge backyard with apple trees, grape vines, a huge garden, lots of grass, trees galore, a raspberry patch, and flowers, flowers, flowers. They didn’t have a dryer and she hung everything to dry…outside on the line when possible, which made great forts on sheet-washing day! There were a ton of outbuildings back there, full of stuff…this backyard was just the coolest place to play with cousins! There was also a swing set that seemed super old when I was very young. Ha! We spent a ton of time outside.
When we were inside, we played one of two board games. They had exactly two: Life and Sorry! My cousins and I would go for walks with my great Grandpa down the to mailbox at the end of the street. And he took us to go catch crawdads in the watering ditches (I can’t think of the word for those….maybe it will come to me.) It was a magical street. All their neighbors were about the ages of my great grandparents, with beautiful yards, visiting grand kids and retired husbands out tinkering in the garage or sheds. Across the street was a cherry orchard. It was quiet, peaceful, and beautiful.
The cherry orchard is gone now, and most of the neighbors have passed on. The street doesn’t feel the same.
Grandpa Joe wore lots of plaid flannel and work coveralls. I equate plaid flannel and often some coveralls with safety and security to this day. He was a mechanic by trade but also mined for years to provide for his family during the depression and was a farmer before that. He met my great-grandma while he was working as a farm hand on the farm where she lived. Their marriage doesn’t strike me as an easy one, (not that I saw that much of it!) but they sure loved each other. Like, really *really* loved each other fiercely.
My grandparents have this book of cards and letters that people wrote to Grandpa Joe for his 90th birthday and it is one of the most special things I have ever read through. EVERYONE mentioned Grandpa’s work ethic and his giving nature. People thanked him for the free work he did and car parts he gave to them during the Depression when he could barely feed his own family but giving and helping anyway. People shared stories of him giving his last dime to help a family in need…he was known for being a great man. I don’t know if he was burned by church or if it was just the generation he was in where men didn’t really go to church but he rarely went to church. He watched church on tv for hours every week and loved Jesus and prayed, but usually only came to church to see us kids sing, get baptized, or do a school production of some kind.
If I ever disappointed him (and I am sure I must have!!!) he never let me know. Not that I remember anyway. He just loved me. He would ask me questions about my life and then ask if I was ready to watch the Rockies. He had this particular smell…something mechanic related, maybe grease or something…but I miss it. I miss kissing him on the cheek or top of his bald head on my way out the door as I passed by his chair. I have a huge soft spot for greasy hands and plaid, flannel shirts. I miss his voice. “Why, Gina Mae!!!!”
As for my Great Grandma, whether I had just accomplished something brilliant or the stupidest thing I had ever done, she was always proud of me. It never wavered. There was nothing I could do that could make her stop loving me. I didn’t have to work for it, try harder, make her happy, be a different person…she just loved me and accepted me. She bent over backwards to be there for me when I needed someone. She was there. Always there. She spoke truth over me and knew when I was struggling I think more than anyone else. I could confide in her and she was safe. I should have confided in her more and listened to her wisdom more. I should have followed her around the garden and kitchen more. She taught me more about life and how to be an adult than anyone else. (Although my Memaw is a close second!)
She taught me not to honk at people. Not intentionally…after all, when she was driving around in her 80’s as an already very small woman who could barely see over the dashboard…she honked at everyone and everything so they would know she was coming. lol I even remember her honking at kids who were playing *behind the fence* in their yard so they wouldn’t run out into the road in front of her. She would just yell and talk to them from her car as she honked like they could hear her telling them to stay out of the road…It was super embarrassing and wildly endearing. She was a honker; but she couldn’t handle when people honked at her. It would fluster her so badly that whatever she was being honked at for, inevitably became much worse until Grandma was *so* stressed and upset by the whole thing that it was terrible. So one day, years later, I am driving down the road and something came up and I honked at the driver in the wrong and angrily flew around him and as I passed to give him a ‘what-in-the-world-is-wrong-with-you’ look, I saw him: a *much* older gentlemen who had made a simple mistake and now was so flustered and upset that he had caused someone grief and had been honked at. It reminded me of my Grandma and I haven’t been a honker since. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I have honked at someone in my many years of driving. Just in case the driver is someone’s great grandparent, I try not to honk. Chase isn’t much of a honker anymore either…after my years of yelling at him for honking at people. LOL
Grandma spent a good deal of time being upset that she couldn’t just buy us whatever or help us financially like she wanted. But the biggest gift she gave was herself and her time.
No one could whistle like she could. Seriously…a world class whistler. She could whistle anything and it would be beautiful, and perfect. And she loved to sing. She sang whenever she wasn’t whistling or yelling at Grandpa. Ha! Okay, so honestly…she was a major yeller. But generally only at Grandpa. I don’t know, but I understand that for most of their marriage, Grandpa was the yeller but at some point (maybe menopause??? lol) they reversed roles and Grandma became the one who yelled. For years I felt so badly for Grandpa for getting yelled at all the time until one day after yelling at him, Grandma was muttering about him being deaf….once she turned her back he WINKED AT ME and smiled. Grandpa was playing her!!! He was *really* playing her! What a booger! Pretending to be mostly deaf… Oh my gosh, I am still shocked. HA! I kept his secret, but he deserved what he got after that. “JOE!!!! Don’t do that JOE!!!”
My Great Grandparents became Great, Great Grandparents when Chastity was born. They were so thrilled. They loved my babies and all their great-great grandbabies…it was even different than the great love with which they loved us. It was deeper or something…I can’t explain it but it was magical. So special. I will forever remember Grandma Dorothy sitting with, playing with, rocking, and singing over my babies. And Grandad Joe, grabbing tiny fingers and talking to Chastity like she would be the next Queen of England.
Simple people. They lived a simple life but there was nothing simple about the way they served people and loved people.
Grandpa Joe died a few days before his 93rd birthday in 2008 and Grandma Dorothy died a week before her 97th birthday last month. It has been weird. Neither time was a surprise…they were in their 90’s after all and actually both times we were praying the Lord would take them Home. And so on one hand we were so glad they were rid of their earthly bodies and are with Jesus…but they have left such a hole. Evan was brand new when Grandpa passed away and it totally and surprisingly threw me into a postpartum depression. I had never realized that Grandad Joe = a safe man – one of the only safe men I grew up with, and what was the world without that safety? It was like the earth was literally crumbling underneath me and I somehow hadn’t noticed before how foundational his presence in my life was. It is like when Rory Gilmore talks about her grandparents in her high school graduation speech, she calls Richard and Emily her “twin pillars without whom she could not stand.” (Yes, there is a Gilmore Girls reference for everything.) I totally feel that way-yes, about my grandparents, *absolutely*, but underneath them are my great-grandparent pillars…holding us all up. I didn’t get to go to Grandpa’s funeral which I have regretted ever since.
I thought that Grandma’s death wouldn’t be as big a blow as Grandpa’s because I understand better how instrumental and influential they were and therefore would be more prepared and hopefully wouldn’t be feeling like the earth under me is crumbling…and it is kind of true…but still…phew. Just hard. I’m SO thankful we got to go back to my little town in Colorado for her service. I got to see her and say goodbye…hold her hand…kiss her forehead one last time and feel her soft white curls.
I realized I have to choose to think of them, not as pillars under us that are gone, and left us shaky and alone, but to think of them as the builders of the foundation beneath us. They left us a strong foundation of love, servant-hood, faith, prayer, and loving Jesus. That goes on and continues to shape us today.
I love what my Grandpa (my Pepaw) said at her memorial service. He married into this family and said that Family=Grandma Dorothy and that their love, acceptance, and faith are what caused him to become a Christian and follower of Jesus, himself. It doesn’t get better.
Something funny that occurs to me…I never knew her with teeth. She lost them pretty young, I guess and hated dentures so she mostly went without until she stopped caring altogether…that woman survived over thirty years on mostly yogurt and oatmeal! Ha!
At Grandma’s Memorial service, the pastor talked about how Grandma was a real, honest-to-goodness Proverbs 31 woman…and he listed all kinds of examples from the chapter…and wow. Sure enough. I was shocked. I really didn’t know the whole Proverbs 31 thing was *actually* attainable..I tend to see it as a list of things I should be doing better or should start doing. (I still carry some scars from Bible College…) But Grandma Dorothy was actually a Proverbs 31 Woman! I doubt she knew it even… Somehow, I find this comforting…because while Grandma was a remarkable, STRONG, intelligent, hard working woman and I am proud to be hers, she was just a person…flawed like I am. It gives me hope that while I am flawed, the Lord is ever working on me and changing me. That while Grandma probably started out having a good deal of the Proverbs 31 traits under her belt as a young girl…there were others that were cultivated throughout the course of her life and maybe I don’t have to be fulfilling *all* those traits all day every day for the rest of my life-I can grow into them…and also -that it seems like some of these traits can be for specific “seasons” in life…not doing all the things, all the time…maybe. And now that I see those traits in her that should have been obvious but I never thought of that way…I am seeing them in my friends and women around me! Maybe the Proverbs 31 Woman isn’t a unicorn after all, and my kids and husband can say these things about me someday…for His glory and our joy.
Thank you Grandma, for yet another lesson in giving myself grace, (because He does) in trusting the Lord for His plan for me, and for faith that He will get me there-and that I should just calm the heck down. I am at this moment realizing that these were always the themes behind everything you told me.
Grace. Trust. Faith. Calm the heck down.
I’ll have to embroider that on something.
The way you taught me.