Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Grandma's Attic

My Grandma was a second generation immigrant of German heritage. She arrived in the first quarter of the last century, being born into a large catholic family. Five days a week she arose at 4am to feed her family and pack them off to work and school before herself commuting to her job at the factory. She stuffed widgets 8 hours a day, returned home, cleaned, laundered, cooked, slept and arose to do it all over again. I seriously doubt she slept more then 5-6 hours a night in her entire life. Even when she had gone on to retire and just be Grandma. Right about 1968, having saved their pennies and milk money, my grandparents were able to invest in a lake place up in Small Town, MN. They would venture up on weekends to build during the day and fish in the evening and in short time they had a lovely second home affectionately referred to as "Nord" in deference to the lakeshore it was nestled upon.

Right about this time, I came into the world but would know little of Nord for years to come. Transplanted by a corporate transfer, the hustle, smog and bustle of Southern California is a world away from the pristine shores of Nord. Fortunately, the corporation was headquartered in Minneapolis which afforded at least one annual trek up north. We travelled by train, plane and automobile over the years and covered the two thousand odd miles multiple times. There was nothing quite like the news to my little ears that we were traveling to Grandma's house. I loved my grandma and my grandma loved me. Which was not a luxury shared by all family members. A phenomena difficult to quantify, my grandma seemed to hold favorites when it came to her clan. Speculation ran wild, from the ghastly to the inert, but in the end, it might just be possible that she preferred those who wanted nothing from her. It was rumored that Grandma had wealth and treasure in abundance; in reality, Grandma worked hard, saved with frugality and loved generously. In a family system which defined affection by "what can you give me?" some wanted her money and other's her love. I fell into the later category. I was a constant shadow to grandma. Baking, snapping peas, working the garden, traveling to town to "wash and set" the nursing home ladies hair, Pink Ladies, Catholic Mass, Ladies Auxiliary, trips to the bakery and quietly stolen games of gin were all woven into the fabric of life with Grandma; a rich tapestry indeed. It wasn't until later in my adult life that I learned I really wasn't all that great at gin, and all of those quarter payouts for losses were Grandma's way of giving me some spending money without ruffling the feathers of the body politic.

There were two classes of citizen at the Nord compound; those allowed in the kitchen and those shooed away with insult and indignation. The kitchen was Grandma's domain. While it was an elite class that held an all access pass, the true "piece d triumph" was an invitation to venture up into Grandma's attic. No one was allowed in Grandma's attic. A dictate which only served to heighten the speculation that great riches and treasure were cached in the crevices and corners of the domicile. In the fertile mind of my imagination the attic was a treasure trove. Boxes of costume jewelry, old straw hats, piles of crusty old paperbacks, and mounds of partially finished boutique crafts, a pair of broken snowshoes, some old pottery and white gloves! Right about the time I hit the age of teen girl romance, I discovered the white gloves. No fantastical point in a drama is better punctuated then by smarmy removal of white gloves, one- finger- at -a -time. I being my grandma's shadow, packratted my straw hat and white gloves away, stored right next to the little pile of coins I won in a fishing contest with my grandpa. (first fish in the boat, most fish and biggest fish netted 79 cents. The fact that it was the only fish we landed that night due in large part to the squeals and commotion my sister and I caused in the boat through most of the evening, notwithstanding)

Truly, the only thing of genuine worth in that entire attic was a mink stole. Not to be confused with Mink Stole of John Water's fame. No, this was the real deal, soft, strokable and infinitely valuable in the venue of theatrical drama. I had no mind for high society, but if I could have any one thing from my grandma, this swath of fur would be it. And Grandma knew this, and we discussed it often enough. She amused by my infatuation, me finding this the perfect complement to add to the drama that played out in my life.

A fitting complement it was. As I mentioned above, the politics of the family would not allow for Grandma to give me something that wasn't equally and exponentially distributed to all family members, but she would find a way to leave little blessings here or there. A bag of quarters tucked among the other treasures hidden beneath my bed; a Vegas jackpot that kept me supplied with grape slushies at the local pool for the entire summer. Or, a parcel of her most treasured "See's Candies" tucked into the pocket of my letter jacket, only to be discovered while standing in the dark cold of late fall, me starving and waiting for the after school activity bus to take me home. See's Candies were imported from the west coast and ferreted away from the hoardes that would consume them with no appreciation whatsoever, until the hoardes left and Grandma could repose to her chair for much needed rest. Her See's and a Harlequin as reward for those weeks of service. Those four candies melted in my mouth and warmed my soul that dark night.

The years passed and I married and a difficult estrangement ensued, which for me included the most grievous loss of my grandma in my life. While circumstances prevented me from visiting her in person, the imprint of her on my life was indelible. Last winter I received word that Grandma was dying. It was time to go see her again. Ironically, she spent her last days in the same nursing home we would visit to hand out water, deliver mail and work in the beauty salon. Now she was dying. There was so much to discuss and talk about, but in the end little was said as Grandma had suffered multiple strokes which left her speech disabled. Her ability to communicate was not completely thwarted and after all, I had brought her a pan of fudge, so we enjoyed our afternoon together. She desperately wanted to return to her home on the lake, but this was not to be. When she learned her medical complications would keep her in the nursing home until she passed, Grandma decided she was through with her time here and passed away three weeks ago yesterday.

It is a strange thing to grieve 18 years or so of your life that occurred two decades prior and my heart seemed short circuited by the convolution of the not so pleasant memories of those years. That was until last week when we packed up The Tribe and ventured to the Great Western Playground of the Greyhounds for a week of high altitude fun. As part of this week I dragged my reasonably enthusiastic family back along the memory lane of my youth, visiting every house, park and school of my young Colorado years. I regaled them with stories and vignettes of my life, all the while a fierce electrical stormed snapped and sparked all around us. Everything seemed so much more compact, smaller then what I remembered, yet exactly the same. And it thrilled me. We ventured on to Parker and dined with my sister, brother in law and nephews, an encounter made briefly awkward by the introduction, "hello, here are the cousins you have never met, and oh, hi brother-in-law whom I haven't seen in 16 years" But the more things change the more they stay the same, and family remains infinitely valuable, so in no time the kids were playing and the adults were enjoying beverages and the electrical storm raged on. As we lingered on the deck following dinner, I began to realize something happening deep in my soul. A sense of restoration was occurring. A new memory was forming, and all of the good things were coming back to me. For years I have contended with the dark, nightmare images of my youth; the places and things serving only as a backdrop to this drama. But now, returning with The Tribe, a representation of all of the good in my life, I was given the gift of seeing the whole picture again. The happy memories returned. I was able to see fully the gift of God's mercies that sustained me through all of the hell, bringing me to this point in history. Awe inspiring mountain ranges, land to roam and lose myself in, friendships to experience and above all, a Grandma that loved me dearly.

As we closed our dinner conversation, my sister bound from the table intent on showing me some little trinkets and costume jewelry she had been given by our uncle who is now the proprietor of Grandma's estate. Sitting with my back to the door I didn't notice her return until she had draped something warm and wonderful around my shoulders. It was Grandma's stole. In awe, I was speechless as I felt my grandma wrap her arms around me from an eternity away.

And now, the tears flow, and I end this story of Grandma's Attic