It’s been a weird couple of days. No need to delve into detail that eludes and evades direct and rational discussion. My thoughts are muddy and muddled and making little sense. I’m running on fumes.
However, I have had a pleasant side-effect stem from all of this. I thought about my grandma a lot throughout my relatively sleepless night and the subsequent quiet contemplative morning that followed. Her presence was jarring, but not alarming. Being startled or unsettled by this would be the wrong reaction to have–she is a constant source of security and comfort when I find myself struggling. As far as I can determine–there was no reasoning behind her resurgence into my consciousness. It’s not her birthday. It’s not yet an anniversary of her passing. It’s just another day in August. However, the meaning behind her sudden appearance from invisible and usually unnoticed hand upon my shoulder to the forefront of my psyche is irrelevant and not worth dwelling upon. These are wonderful memories to have surge and sift through! I did not shepherd her away and will always without questioning welcome any thoughts of her to my day’s happenings.
But, it got me thinking of how grandparents are perceived and how they appear to be expected to behave in this day and age. They seem to have taken on a role rife with more responsibilities and myriad commitments than they had in the past. They’re no longer solely the voices of wisdom, offering up sage advice, and providing guidance when called upon to do so. They are not utilized only in cases of emergency or as a last-minute babysitter when something unexpected arises out of the blue. They seem to now be…. substitute parents…. almost replacing them (or usurping them). They do the fun and the not-so-fun aspects of child rearing. I find this bizarre. I find it jarring. And I don’t know how I feel about it, which is completely useless information to deliver to the internet. But, here i am.
I suppose that I feel so strongly about this because of my own personal experiences growing up. I maintain that one of the best things my grandma ever did for me was to not spoil me rotten. There were never piles of presents bestowed upon me or copious amounts of sticky sweet saccharine nonsense presented on my plate. In fact, I recall so few instances where money was spent on me at all–and those times that I do remember are etched into my brain as being particularly special, poignant and note-worthy It meant something more to me because of their infrequency.
As a young whippersnapper, my cousin and I would make plans to spend a night or two together at Grandma’s. My grandpa was no longer alive and it would just be the three of us. When we were there, we would partake in these little mile-long outings together. He and I would set out on these sojourns to the closest eatery, Jack-in-the-Box, for lunch by foot or by rollerblades–while my grandma would get behind the laughably over sized ship-style steering wheel of her gigantic automobile–the precursor to the SUV–the Scout II…and meet up with us at our dining destination. Chicken fingers, curly fries and a chocolate milkshake for me… cheeseburger, fries and a soda for my cousin… and for dessert? A trip to Eckerd’s Drug Store for a small little gift to play with during our stay at 1005 Thomas Avenue. When I say “little gift”… I mean it. The prices of these prizes never amounted to more than two dollars. We were both very fond of Hot Wheels cars and Andy and I would spend our allotted aisle time inspecting every millimeter of the tiny die-cast vehicles in their bright and crisp blister packs. The decision-making process was never taken lightly and could make or break the level of enjoyment derived from our weekend shenanigans. May the best car win! Vroom Vroom! Between the two of us, we had a fairly large collection amassed. He and I would admire each other’s cache with respect rather than envy… okay maybe I was the teeniest bit jealous of his green Mercedes convertible with its pearl finish and tan interior and perhaps he ogled my red Viper with gold hubcaps more than I was comfortable with. But, for the most part–we played together wonderfully. Hours upon hours were spent building up our fictitious towns– Legos and Lincoln logs forming the foundations for our garages and numerous edifices. The bulk of the time was spent creating the canvas upon which to park and show off our vehicles. Once that step was completed– the game was essentially suspended for that session. It was all about the element of construction and one’s ability to present their proud and shiny medley of minuscule machinery with the most flash and skill. He was a master crafter who could create wonderfully engineered and meticulously orchestrated wonders….architectural delights. Sound and sturdy. Multi-tiered and aspirational. Mine were… well…more akin to giant parking lots complete with crude fencing around the perimeters and with the propensity for roofs to collapse during the earthquakes created by foot traffic… or the hurricane-like forceful gusts of my panicked labored breathing as my concentration and attention span grew exhausted.
Yet, regardless of the outcomes–fun was always had in excess. We didn’t have fancy accessories or store-purchased kits with which to embellish our creations or give our creativity a boost. My grandma had an off-white plastic bin in the “toy room” at the back of the house… filled to the brim with an assortment of cut blocks of wood. There were a wide variety of sizes, widths, and textures–all lying there eagerly awaiting the hands of two elementary aged children to reach out, grab them, and give them a purpose again– Their origin remains a mystery, but there they were–cut, smelling of aging humid timber, and ready to be brought back to life. We literally were gifted a box of wood, appreciated it, and let our imaginations run wild with it! Frequently, there would be some dead bugs wanting to join the party(usually roaches, ick!), mixed into the array of constructional materials… but, once that situation was taken care of–we were granted with endless opportunities to build up our little worlds in the manner in which we saw fit. No instructions. No guidelines. No boundaries. No limits. It was all up to us. And we thrived because of it.
The other toys available? Well, had a couple of mismatched sets of plastic Cowboys and Indians figurines in a taped together ratty old cardboard box, edges feathered and tethered, disintegrating from the frequent wear of tear of our grubby little paws. We had a chest-of-drawers with coloring and painting books stored within the confines of those cavernous cabinets– real Crayola Crayons and a plethora of paint brushes from which to choose. There were many puzzles with varying levels of difficulty, materials and subject matter. Most, if not all, of these items seem to be acquired from garage sales. There were a few archaic plastic games from yesteryear.. a vintage Tomy Strolling windup bowling game and one that used baseball cards as batters. We had an exercise bike that was questionable in regards to safety–especially when the sole goal was to see how fast you could pedal. Bruised shins and unrivaled fear were commonplace. There were many many rounds of tic-tac-toe and intense matches of Go-Fish, Battle, and Hi-Lo. There were chain link dog leashes that we would hook up to the overgrown tree-like bushes outside–attaching them to our belt loops and pretend as though we were rappelling from dangerous and rugged terrain. We played with sticks and rocks. We rode trikes and bikes in the driveway–hooking up a little homemade trailer to the hitch and hauling “lumber”. We raked the lawn. We braved the darkness, the odorous nature of chemical inhalants and fertilizer, and the inescapable insects, using nothing but flashlights and an adventurous spirit as we perused the shed in the backyard for oddities and peculiarities. During our quieter moments, we would hole ourselves up in the rickety old 1970’s era camper trailer parked in the side-yard. We’d pretend we were vacationing out in the wilderness somewhere together– he recalling upon actual memories spent doing just that– me… cobbling together my own imaginary recollections to create a new original narrative. I never did go camping with them, but I got to live out the experience by wrestling and subsequently claiming my sleeping quarters in the bunk near the ceiling (the best spot!), by opening the hatch on the roof, climbing up the ladder on the back, by eating our sandwiches, playing cards, and reading magazines at the dining booth. Only thing missing was the bugs, the boredom and using the bathroom on board. Could have fooled me– I felt I was living and experiencing it all. But, I never left the driveway.
We would ofttimes find ourselves doing little more than lounging around in the back yard with grandma beside us… she recounting stories from her past to our wanting ears… we all rocking back and forth in that wooden swing… two vastly different generations…in such synchronization and solidarity…sharing bloodlines and backgrounds… and enjoying, no, REVELING in each other’s company with such feverish intensity that planning our next visit was being discussed before the current one even had a chance to end. We were lucky. We only lived a few miles apart. He lived fifteen minutes down the highway and I was just 2.5 miles across town. These sleepovers may not have occurred with the frequency that I remember, but that’s just the thing, isn’t it? In retrospect, it seems as though my childhood was chock full of positive and plentiful moments spent with my cousin at Grandma’s house. There were no frills and no fluff accompanying these visits. She was kind and compassionate, but never afraid to reprimand us when we got out of line. Her sternness would come as such a sharp right turn from her typical delivery–which was almost always genuine, cheerful and accompanied by a little bit of giddy laughter. It was so jarring that it rarely had to be utilized and was always heard and abode by without a second warning ever needing to be issued.
Our routines were relatively structured. We slept when she slept. Well, okay, she would drift off during the day with her head tilted back onto the cushion behind her–mouth agape, snores reverberating loudly against the walls and windows– we wouldn’t sleep during these periods, rather we’d chuckle under our breath and try to tickle her with bird feathers. However, at night… our schedule was dictated by her own. She would make a pallet on the floor of her bed and we would curl up in it while watching her dial-tuned television flicker steadfastly on throughout the evening–during the winter, the space heater warmed our toes and gave us comfort. Our dreams saturated with reruns of “Night Court,” “Mama’s Family” or whatever was on during the late hours. If we could get away with it, Andy and I would take turns playing Tetris on his Gameboy. I was not fortunate enough to have one of my own, but he was more than willing to share it and for that I continue to be grateful. When the morning came, she would not ever drag us out of bed prematurely, despite her rising at an ungodly hour. Nope. We could sleep until around nine–and then gather around the kitchen table for a simple breakfast of corn flakes, toast and jam, buttery pound cake, or on the rare occasion: Church’s Chicken biscuits. Other menu options throughout the day? I distinctly recall eating a lot of frozen microwave baked potatoes, handfuls of Fritos and saltine crackers, and to sate our eight-year old sugar-fiend selves: gummy orange slices, store-bought oatmeal and sugar cookies piled up to the brim within the parakeet and panda bear ceramic jars on the counter top, sherbet, icebox pudding pies with graham cracker crust and Cool Whip and whatever candy we inevitably picked up on our outing to the gas station at the end of the street!
Other times, we would stroll down Thomas Avenue, through the church parking lot, and straight into Candy Cane park with Sissy the dog and Grandma in tow. Here we’d swing on the metal ponies, climb on the monkey bars, summit the steel structures and tumble over the wood and tire “car” apparatus. Countless hours exploring and running free. So much time spent in our own world, developing and growing our ability to create something from nothing, all while under the watchful eye of our Grandma Helen. I can’t imagine how bored she must have been during these visits, but she never complained to us. She never made us feel as though we were an inconvenience or a nuisance. We never felt like we were unwanted. But, we also never made her the star of the show. She was our guardian, but we knew that we couldn’t (and shouldn’t) look to her as our sole source of entertainment. We did revel in the times that she would indulge us in trips down memory lane–me especially– flipping through old photo albums, scouring over nature books focusing on backyard songbirds or the mountains of Colorado, having her show me her old paintings and sketches. We lapped it up. However, for the most part, it was left up to the blank slate of our whim and whimsy to fill up and fill in the hours spent at her house. She offered the venue, the supervision, the patience and the few random tools we might require and then she unhooked us without hesitation, fear or regret and let our brains serve as the compass plotting the weekend’s course.
I was and am still indebted to her for this.
My nostalgic cup runneth over with such beautiful memories of her and the time we spent together. Yet, none of them are connected to purchases she made, items she bought or the result of any extravagant expenditures or grandiose gestures of any kind. She literally opened her home and her arms to us and that was all we required, wanted, needed or craved. She was enough. And she will always be enough. Even after Andy and I drifted apart and stopped spending our weekends at Grandma’s… she continued to remain a constant fixture in my life. Just her. Looking back, I don’t remember a single Christmas gift she bestowed upon me. But, I do remember helping to decorate the exterior of her home with my Dad and cousin– draping it in colored lights. I remember the Christmas afternoons spent sitting in her far-too-small living room with the ever expanding Smith clan and knowing what it meant to have a family that loved you– a family where the laughter deafened the sounds of tears and the warmth from love could thaw all the frigidity the world could ever throw at us. I don’t remember any birthday presents she brought to me, but I remember what she would write inside the cards. She never would forget a birthday and she was in attendance at every one. I don’t remember her taking us out to see a movie in a theater, but I do remember watching “Sister Act” on repeat on VHS tape in her living room. I don’t think she ever contributed to my large library of books at home, but she definitely took time out of her days to read out loud to me when I asked…. even though her selection was small and led to her reciting her least favorite of all: “Green Eggs and Ham” more times than I’m sure she would have preferred. And because of this… I can instantly recall her voice and the face of disgust she would make at the material as she read it out to me. I do not remember her buying me trinkets or figurines, but I do remember her letting me go underneath the spare bed in the guest room and hand select some of her own to take home with me as a keepsake: birds and dogs that continue to be displayed on my mom’s shelves. She might not have gifted me new stuffed animals whenever I asked for a new addition to the fluffy furry family I obsessed over, but I do recall that her favorite toy from when she was a little girl was a panda bear. And I take comfort in knowing where that little buddy is today (in a cabinet in my parent’s house). I don’t remember her buying any new clothing for me, but I remember playing dress up with her, trying on her jewelry and spritzing myself with her perfume, sorting through her and grandpa’s closet, and even still could probably recall 99 percent of her wardrobe by heart. I don’t remember her ever coming over to babysit. Yet, I remember her coming to every basketball game I ever played in. I don’t remember special accommodations being made for me. I don’t remember those things. But, I will never forget HER. She, with nothing more than her presence… her existence…her endless supply of love… was able to carve out a place within my heart that will never be able to be filled by anything or anyone else. It has remained empty since her passing over a decade ago. On the plus side, I was able to have her around until I was in the middle of my high school career. Not long enough….it never is…but, it was enough to have provided me with so many blessings and cherished memories and moments that will remain with me for the rest of my life here on earth.
No idea why I’m rattling on and on about this. I guess I just miss her. It’s raining and murky outside. I’ve been struggling mentally with many issues as of late. And so I’m choosing to focus on the few good thoughts that manage to make their way inside my mind. I guess I just want to remind everyone out there that material objects are overrated. I know it’s near impossible to grasp that in this consumerist culture. We are glued to our screens. We are always one-click away from owning more toys. It’s so easy and quick to buy buy buy more more more. More is better. That’s what they say. But, it’s not true. All you need is just…. enough. Subjective, I know. Enough for me as a kid proved to be what I could carry in my Hot Wheels carrying case and within my head and heart. I might not have thought that at the time. Yet, with hindsight… it’s all I have managed to carry with me through the years. We’re kidding ourselves into thinking that objects make us happy. We’re losing touch with that which really fuels our fire. We’re better off when we are the creators, the inventors, the engineers… when our happiness is not dictated by what we own but how we feel. My best memories of my youth were not due to things bought from Toys-R-Us but by the world I constructed out of dreams, wishes and desires. My grandma gave me the best gift of all in providing us an outlet with which to stretch our wings safely and securely. She did us a favor by not buying our love and affection, but by allowing it to develop organically. What is more authentic than that? We loved our grandma because she was our grandma– no strings attached. We never went to see her because of an expectation beyond that which only she as an individual… as a person… as our grandma could provide: her company, her attention and her love. That was all we wanted. And that was more than enough. heart emoticon
And man… do I miss her.