My sister, Erin, said it best. We stood on her front porch watching fireworks on New Year’s Eve after learning that Grandma Lois had just died. The great-grandchildren were sober and teary-eyed because their mamas were crying. Arm around her daughter Emily, who perched on the porch rail, Erin said, “She was the best grandma ever.”
It’s true. Grandma personified the phrase, “Grandmas are just antique little girls.” Growing up practically next door to Grandma Lois meant we experienced an enchanted childhood of tea parties, dress-up clothes, Shirley Temple movies, Cupie dolls, and spontaneous sleepovers on Saturday nights. This happened so many weekends, I wonder now why we never kept a stash of clothes at her house. But part of the fun was seeing what Grandma would contrive for us to sleep in and where we would sleep. Sometimes it was the guest bed, sometimes it was a folding cot in the living room. My mom had little patience with nail polish and hated chewing gum. So, we were delighted for Grandma to paint our nails, and frequently hit her up for gum. We didn’t have our own television until I was a teenager, so anything we wanted to watch meant an evening at Grandma’s house where I learned to appreciate Grandma’s nostalgia for Lawrence Welk and Ma and Pa Kettle on Saturday nights, which frequently included popcorn, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot chocolate, pizza, and fudge. Weeknights included special trips to watch Little House on the Prairie following supper. It didn’t matter that we’d just come from our own supper table. We would walk in Grandma’s door and immediately announce that we were hungry, because Grandma was likely to come up with cookies, candy, or something surely better than what we’d just eaten.
As we grew older, Grandma was part of our shopping trips to Mishawaka. She was my “secret shopper” for a library school assignment in which I was required to analyze a reference librarian’s effectiveness. After Grandpa and Grandma bought the first minivan in the family, we logged hundreds of miles together. Apart from a year spent at La Sierra College in Riverside, California, in her youth and trips to visit Grandpa’s family in northern Michigan, Grandma’s world consisted of northern Indiana and a tiny corner of southwestern Michigan. But the expanding worlds of her children and grandchildren encouraged her to travel with them. Her world eventually expanded to Ohio, Tennessee, Wyoming, Georgia, Nebraska, Texas, and the states in between these and Michigan. She might not be comfortable driving, but if someone else was driving, she was game. Our long trips to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and through Laura Ingalls Wilder country enroute to Yellowstone National Park, with many other stops along the way, are epic in our memories. These trips also connected us to extended family who were always part of the destination. Grandma’s sister, Aunt Arlene, in particular.
My love for family history is probably entirely due to Grandmas Lois. Thanks to two households heated by wood-burning stoves, there were many Sunday family gatherings at Grandma’s house, during which the men cut wood and the women cooked and visited, in addition to holiday gatherings. Grandma loved to cook and host everyone. Thus, we grew up connected to a vast network of aunts, uncles, and cousins, nourished by storytelling. Whether it was Grandma G. G. (Great-Grandma Edith) and the aunts reminiscing, or Grandma Lois telling bedtime stories, I “knew” generations of ancestors and cousins I never met and understood the Great Depression in a real way. To the last years of her mobility, Grandma visited the graves of her great-grandparents in Bristol, Indiana, and drove past the old family farm where she had been born and her family lost in the 1930s. Her family may not have owned it anymore, but it was still important to her.
Grandma’s capacity to make us feel loved was nearly without bounds. There was only one time in my life that I remember feeling burdensome to her. I was in fourth grade. My parents took a job some miles north of us where they camped with my sisters in the unfinished house on which they were working, coming home on the weekends. I stayed with Grandma and Grandpa during the week so I could attend school. One day midweek, I came home from school with a fever. They couldn’t send me back to school. They couldn’t call my parents, as this was before cell phones and the unfinished house had no phone. We waited for my parents to call us for updates each week. In the meantime, Grandma and Grandpa both still worked at Marcellus Public Schools. Who was going to care for sick Sabrina when they needed to go to work? I felt so miserable and Grandma was usually the most comforting person in the world. My misery was compounded by causing her a problem. I don’t even remember how they worked it out. My parents eventually called, came home, and the next week they took me to the job site with them.
That wasn’t the last time Grandma cared for me when I was indisposed. When she was 89 years old, she traveled to Nebraska with my sister Andrea, both of them coming to care for me and my children as I recovered from an operation. She read to Asher, entertained Josiah, and cooked tapioca pudding, among other meals, to tempt my appetite.
As I write it is impossible to know where to stop. Playing dress up with Grandma’s collection of old clothes and jewelry she never wore. The collection included a necklace, made of seeds, sent to her from Brazil by a World War II U. S. soldier with whom she corresponded. I don’t think she ever met him in person. Sitting in church with Grandma, her purse always good for entertainment. You never knew what she’d pull out. We all loved back rubs from her, where she’d draw shapes, letters, and numbers with her finger for us to guess. Sabbath (Saturday) afternoon walks (and walks on other days too) down the Race Road behind her house uncovered natural treasures in the woods. The afternoon she “broke” the Sabbath to clean a neighbor’s house for them after they experienced a death in the family, and I learned a lesson about service and loving your neighbor. Grandma’s 80th birthday when she exclaimed, “I can do whatever I want now.” This wasn’t an expression of selfish hedonism, but rather a sense of freedom from the expectations of others.
There was never any doubt that Grandma loved us, that she delighted in her grandchildren and great-grandchildren as much as she did in her contemporaries. She loved us enough to keep living after she lost her parents, her siblings, her husband, most of her cousins, and her high school classmates. She loved us enough to keep her sense of humor, her spunk, and to spite pneumonia and congestive heart failure multiple times. She loved us until her heart couldn’t take it anymore and simply stopped beating.