Family Archaeology: Grandma Vera

Grandma Vera fixed the roof herself and served lettuce in wedges. The metal gate to her back door was spring loaded. I climbed that gate as a girl and pretended it was a bucking horse. “Good land, that makes a racket,” she hollered at me as she planted iris. But she let me play.

Grandma Vera bought used polyester pants at yard sales. She grew up poor and unloved in a small Wyoming town. She was not a woman who said I love you. Instead she worked and skimped to give her four sons and their families a better life than she imagined possible for herself.

Her home consisted of three small rooms and a bathroom in the back of a gas station. Furnished entirely from bargains at yard sales. She put all of her boys through college and helped some grandchildren along the way as well.

Grandma hoarded junk–old shoes, paperbacks, table settings, broken lamps–she’d resell for nickels, dimes, dollars. She didn’t buy anything new for herself and she wasn’t attached to things. Except her first fancy purse. An outrageous luxury purchase made back when she taught in a one-room schoolhouse out on a lonely prairie. A finely crafted mesh metal purse. Delicate looking but strong. Enduring. With a rainbow of colors in the light like fish scales, only prettier.

Vera took the purse out once to a fancy dress dance party. Before she settled for a loveless marriage. Before she put the purse away in a drawer.


Two Packs


My dad surprised us with Sno Balls, chocolate cakes filled with a marshmallow goo and covered with pink dyed coconut flakes. He brought them home from the 7-Eleven. He came home with two 2-packs for our family to share. My mom, my dad, my brother, and myself. I didn’t really like them–so sweet they were too sweet–but I joined in because they were his favorite treat and it made him happy to share them with us. I wanted to like them for him and would try to eat them in three sloppy bites, same as he could do.

Family change is a strange thing. Whether the change happens from separation or divorce or the tragedy of death. Or the act of slipping apart and away from each other over time. We went from an even numbered family to an odd. Dinner meant four place settings at the table. Then it didn’t, even though I sometimes forgot at first and put a fourth plate on the table–an extra plate I’d awkwardly try to remove before it made my mom cry.

One lonely time I brought Sno Balls home from the convenience store. Some attempt to taste normal again. But then there was the outcast leftover Sno Ball in the torn wrapper that made us feel more pointedly the absence of being left behind.

And then eventually with hard change comes renewal and happy and better. All good. But always the quick shot of lonesome pangs whenever I pay for my gas at the station and pass by forsaken 2-packs.



But what we have lived

comes back to us.

We see more.

From “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” by Denise Levertov

There’s a pond just ten minutes from my office. I’ve been past it so many times without stopping. It’s on a dirt road. It’s that little bit inconvenient. And I’m busy. Heck, we’re all busy, all the time, every day it seems. My car will get dirty, I tell myself.

I took the dirt road today. I pulled over and parked and let my car get dusty. Got out and walked the shoreline. The ducks preened in the sun while turkey vultures circled prey on the far side. There’s a boat tipped over with a huge hole in the bottom. It reminded me of Grandma Alice teaching me how to catch sunfish for fish fries. Bobbers and bib overalls. Oily rainbows reflecting off sunfish scales. Grandma as giddy as me with each catch.

It’s good to get off the paved roads and pull over–good to cast lines.

Memories Like Orange Blossoms


There’s the smelling and the not. The being in tune and the fog. The scents of sorrow and the smell of life’s renewals.

George served in World War II. He went away to war with a fiancee and an earnest faith in provisions. He came home from a prisoner of war camp thin and sickly. His family moved from his home state of Illinois while he was overseas and his fiancee got involved with another man. He went monotone when speaking in the briefest detail about surviving WWII and imprisonment under inhumane conditions. But George’s voice broke as he pressed his thumb into his palm when he talked about coming home to no home at all and no loved ones to greet him. It wasn’t until then he quit believing in god, he said.

He’d lived on belief in an image of his future. It got him through the hunger and the stench of being assigned to dispose of corpses. The image of his parents and his girl welcoming him home and the dream of starting new in peace and with lots of bread and butter and pork chops.

George was my mom’s longtime companion. A man who treated me like a daughter. Better, in fact, than some fathers. A man who hoarded canned goods and Christmas decorations like a person determined to never starve again. He survived a prisoner of war camp and further survived the loss of the dream that kept him going. Everything changed in the home he left behind in order to serve. So, after the war, he got on a train for California because he’d heard the jobs were good and the weather marvelous in the Los Angeles area. The train trip was lonely and he was disheartened.

Defeated, discouraged, tired, weak, he paid no attention to the changing scenery on the trip West. Until the moment something reminded him there is unexpected joy in living. The train stopped in Riverside, California while the orange trees were in blossom. It smelled better than anything he ever could’ve imagined. It cleansed the nightmarish rot. The blossoms of the orange groves snapped him back into awareness. They rejuvenated him.

He chose to stay and started fresh. Built a good life. Lived a long and good life. Independent until the last year. That last year in an assisted living facility without a kitchen or a pantry in his room. We put up a Christmas tree and a fresh pine wreath on his door his last year. Ate a bland Christmas dinner at a cafeteria table that overlooked the duck pond.

Twice over he was rushed to the emergency room where we found him restrained to the bed and delirious. In an absolute panic. A panic mixed with anger. They were holding him down to rape him, he said. We were all in on it together, he said.

It’s then you know you can’t take heart aches and bad memories away from people. It’s then you know the sacrifices were worse than you let yourself believe.

By the time they released him into home hospice care to await the end, he was back to cracking corny jokes–back to being George. Kind. Passive. George’s bravery was in experiencing violent inhumanity and opting to never perpetrate the same. George found faith again in his life and he lived in peace. He slowly drifted into a coma and died in peace. He was a peaceful man.

I am grateful to all who serve in the name of giving peace to a greater number of others. Because of that sacrifice I can live, love, lose, work, write, cry, dream, scheme, plan, hope, imagine. I can hike in the mountains and enjoy the invigorating smell of pine needles. I can putter in my garden and appreciate being alive and being free to smell roses and sage and jasmine and marigolds.

And, for George, orange blossoms.

An Open Field and a Workshop

When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.  ~Chinese Proverb

My grandpa wouldn’t spend $10 on a garden tool but he’d spend $12 on used parts to invent his own weeder. I spent my favorite summer with him and my grandma in Grantsburg, Wisconsin when I was a girl. They lived in a mobile home on acreage—half woods, half open field. And with a workshop for my grandpa.

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