August 22, 2011

Shirley

I was the first grandchild and people would always say that I made her a grandmother. They would say that for that reason alone she would always love me. If anything it has been the other way around. Shirley didn’t need any help to become the type of woman that made her an exemplary grandmother, but grandchildren become wonderful grandchildren only when they have good examples to follow. She was one of the best.

I gave my Grandma the nickname “Yellow Grandma.” I was very little and I needed some way to differentiate between the two and I used their favorite colors to do it. So I had a “red grandma” and a “yellow grandma.” It’s impossible for me to see the color yellow and not to think of her. This has always been such a happy association and I am fortunate that she will never be far from my mind because of it.

My grandma would live with us here in Utah for half of the year, usually during the winter, and she would live in Vermont during the other half. I have been trying to remember when this started and how old I was when my Grandma first came to live in our home and I can’t. It feels like she was there from the very beginning.

I remember her tradition of buying me Bill Peet books like Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent and Cowardly Clyde. She would call me into her room and hand me a new story. Sometimes the story was conditional and she would say something to me like “I have something for you, but your room looks just dreadful.” No one was better than my grandmother at using Peanut M&Ms and the promise of a new book to induce cooperation. I would sit on her floor and read these stories. I read them over and over again, sometimes practicing out loud. I loved sitting next to her and learning to read. When I was twelve, and old enough, she bought me Bill Peet’s autobiography. She encouraged me, both with words and through her example, to continue to read. She taught me that creativity is an important part of life and an important part of growing up. I think that my love for words is largely the result of her influence.

Some of my fondest memories are sitting with her in our old unfinished basement. We had a big wooden dining room table down there and my computer was on one end and her sewing machine was on the other. Her sewing machine would make the table shake and I would try to time what I was doing on the computer so the hard drive wouldn’t be spinning as much while the sewing machine was running. I knew that eventually the computer would crash, and there were a few times that a document would become corrupted or one of my saved games would stop working, but I never wanted to move the computer elsewhere. I loved the whirring sound of the machine and her little noises of frustration and triumph as she worked. I couldn’t understand the complexities of what she was doing on her side and she didn’t understand the computer on my side. But we liked sitting at that table together.

Our two interests aligned when she got her first computerized sewing machine with a digital screen and hundreds of settings. For one glorious afternoon I was able to help her work and she needed me there to answer questions. But in the end it was just another sewing machine and if there is one thing that she understood it was sewing machines. Over the next few weeks she would proudly show me the new things that she had figured out and from that point forward the only time that she would ask me for technological assistance was when she needed to send an email or wanted some help requesting information from a particular website. I offered to teach her how to do these things for herself. I told her that I knew she could do it. She would simply say “No, you are faster and besides, this gives you a chance to help your ol’ grandma.”

It was almost never allowed for me to watch TV while I ate dinner, but if I was in Grandma’s room it was OK. She loved the Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy combination and this quickly turned into another tradition and yet another way that she encouraged me to learn and be curious. My Grandma was very intense when watching Jeopardy. She would sit with her hands folded in front of her mouth like this. She would only occasionally say an answer, but when she did she was always right. I think that she knew a lot more of them than she actually said and that she kept quiet just to give me a chance. Sometimes she would wait for me to answer and look at me expectantly and when I would get a question correct that she considered difficult she would “mmmhmm” approvingly.

I love that I was always her little grandson, even when I was older. Two Summers ago I went to visit what has always felt like my second home in Vermont. My aunt and uncle own a little Inn and Restaurant on the shore of Lake Champlain. I was 27 years old. Grandma told me that she would let me drive the golf cart down from the house when we went to dinner. We walked into the kitchen, a kitchen that I have spent hundreds of hours working in and whose employees all know me. She asked me what I wanted to eat and then repeated my order to the Head Chef, Danny, as he smiled at me. When we sat down at the table to eat she gave me permission to get up and ask my Uncle Mike for a Coke. When we would eat breakfast together in the morning she would tell me that she had saved me the paper and asked me if I wanted to read the comics as we sat in the sunlight on the warm couch in the Shore Acres lobby. And all of this was our way of experiencing the very same dynamics that had been bringing us joy for almost thirty years.

I remember the sound of her going up and down the stairs—the deliberate and methodical placement of each foot. I remember how happy and proud she was when Julia graduated and how excited she looked when I would tell her how close I was getting to doing the same. I remember seeing how happy she was when she held Graham and how proud she was of Jenny for being such a great mother. I remember trying to say goodnight to her when she didn’t have her hearing aids in and how her default answer was always “I love you too,” no matter what you had actually said. I remember her playfully yelling at us to “Get of here. Grandma needs to get to sleep.” I remember her admonishing us with an “Oh Joshua” “Oh Jennifer” “Oh Julia” and “Oh Gretchen.” I remember her telling me “You be good to your father” and “Listen to your mother.” I remember coming over from my apartment to do some laundry recently and seeing Julia’s sewing machine sitting on our wooden dining room table upstairs. No one was home and I actually took my laptop out of my bag and set it up on the opposite end just to try and recreate a more modern version of the scene of Grandma and me in the unfinished basement. I remember a few weeks ago Jenny was showing me some new pants that she had made for Graham and the waistline looked exactly the same as the waistline of all of the yellow boxers that Grandma made me. I am so proud of my sisters for taking advantage of the time they had with Grandma and for learning these skills that she loved so much.

Shirley was a sarcastic optimist who would never let the “just awful” attire of teenagers dissuade her from clothing new children in beautiful smocked gowns; who would still let you control the radio even if she didn’t like the new music that was playing; and who knew how to sit and slowly enjoy a glass of wine, held by the very same hands that earlier in the day couldn’t possibly move quickly enough.

We take pictures to try to crystallize the times that feel important. The thing about pictures though is that they can be misleading. It’s not the poses themselves that we are trying to capture. It isn’t about the teeth that are showing or not showing. When you look back on an old picture you aren’t thinking about when the flash went off or what word the photographer said before pushing the button. We are simply trying to freeze the moments that happened before the picture—the feelings that were present and strong enough to inspire someone to say “We should take a picture.” I tell myself things like this because I have always struggled to smile on command. Grandma was a kindred spirit in this regard. Her hatred of photographs led to one of the most authentic pictures of me that has ever been captured. There is a photograph of her sitting next to me. She has the most nonplussed and annoyed look on her face and she is staring directly at the camera. I have my arm on the back of her chair and I am looking at her and laughing hard. You can see the mirth and love and adoration in my eyes. I didn’t even know that the shutter had closed. That was a real moment. I am so grateful for all of them that we got to share.

Yellow


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