As my husband and I contemplate having children of our own, I reflect back on my childhood and what and whom had influence on the woman I am today. As anyone would expect, there are numerous people, events, setbacks, etc. that helped mold me, but I find myself focusing on my grandparents. My grandfather, whom my brother and I affectionately refer to as “Pop-Bob,” recently had heart surgery, and with his failing lungs to exacerbate his medical problems, no one knew how he’d recover from surgery or even if he could make it through the surgery. Pop-Bob lost my grandmother Sue-Sue over ten years ago, and this woman, as I’ve expressed before, helped mold me into an avid reader and writer. She was the other side of my coin. However, all of my grandparents have had an effect on me throughout the years, and Pop-Bob’s recent surgery has made me appreciate my grandparents even more.
I was blessed as a child to have both sets of grandparents alive and active. My maternal grandparents—Grandma and Pop—lived in southern, rural Georgia in a ranch-style home with acres and acres surrounding them. My brother Sam and I would visit them frequently, as my dad was usually stationed in Georgia or Alabama, and would sometimes spend a full week with them in the summer to give my parents a vacation and to bond even more with Grandma and Pop. My mom, Sam, and I even lived with them for a year when my father was stationed overseas at a location where family was not permitted. My summers were full of four-wheeler rides, exploring the woods, swimming at the river, and getting Reese’s and Coca-Cola from my great-uncles’ convenience store. Before any adventure, Pop would take us to Uncle Harold’s and Uncle Garnold’s store. Sam and I would pick out a treat or two and have a Coca-Cola from the glass as Pop shot the breeze with whoever was at the store, usually a flock of retired men. Sam and I would patiently sit on milk crates snacking on our candy and bottled caffeine, knowing the day was soon to begin. Pop would then take us on grand outdoor adventures.
We’d ride in the back of the truck down the bumpy dirt road that lead to the river and go swimming. Pop is the one who taught my brother to swim in that dirt-brown, Georgia water. Sam wouldn’t trust anyone in the water, including numerous swim instructors, but Pop was a river warrior and knew all there was to swimming. We were never afraid of moccasins or alligators as long as Pop was with us. After I grew up, I did see a few gators and snakes in that river if I was ever without Pop, convincing me more of Pop’s river magic. Instead of the river on some days, we’d go explore the forest either on beaten paths or just making our own way. Pop would show us different tracks in the forest—deer, raccoon, snakes—and point out the different sounds we heard. He was teaching us how to read the forest in its way, and as he cooed like an owl, he was replying to the music of the woods. On other days, we’d swim at the creek under the bridge, which is where I saw my first crawdad, or we’d wade around in the creek that cut through the forest. And if the heat was too sweltering, even for glass-bottle Coca-Cola, we’d race through fields on four-wheelers so the air would cool us down. Pop taught us kindness to people and to nature. He grew our appreciation to the world around us and helped us see the beauty in the everyday.
Grandma was usually left out of these grand adventures. It was sweltering after all, and she had permed hair. She usually had her hands full preparing whatever magic she’d serve us for lunch or dinner. To this day at twenty-nine, I still have not eaten any Southern food as good as Grandma’s. I can follow her recipes exactly, even her little notes about using buttermilk instead of water in cake batter to make it moist, but none of my recipes turn out quite as delectable. She conjured up her magic in the kitchen, and if we were lucky, we could help make some of that magic as well. At Christmas time, it was always necessary to get to our grandparents’ home a few days early. That way we could help with the Christmas sweets. We could help stamp cookies out of the cookie gun and frost and decorate the 1,000 cookies that Grandma would make. We could help dunk the Ritz cracker, peanut-butter sandwiches in milk chocolate and watch Grandma assemble a seven-layer cake. We could then gorge ourselves on Christmas cookies, chocolate cake, coconut cake, and caramel cake. Grandma always spread kindness through cooking. She’d send a famous casserole when a loved one died or one was sick in bed. She’d send Christmas cookies to all her neighbors and family. She’d even celebrate big events with a nice meal out at Cap’n Joe’s. People still ask for her Christmas cookies, though now she isn’t able to cook even half as much as she did. My mother, my aunts, and I have taken the torch of cooking and preparing food for most occasions, and although this is a heavy torch to carry, we could not be prouder of this responsibility. Grandma taught me and continues to teach me that the way to anyone’s heart is through their stomach. She teaches generosity to people and love for family above all else.
In addition to their separate molding, Grandma and Pop together helped mold me into the woman I am today. When Pop died in October 2012, he had been married to Grandma for sixty-one years. On their fiftieth anniversary, the whole family flew out to Seattle for a big celebration. We celebrated in many ways but the moment that sticks out the most is this fancy restaurant overlooking the water. We all ordered crab because us Georgians like our seafood. Pop then started a contest with the table over who could get the biggest piece of crab out without breaking the sweet, white meat. We got loud in the restaurant, and all Grandma could say through her smiles was, “Oh, Gene,” as she’d periodically roll her eyes. This was the public version of the ritual they had after any big meal that Grandma prepared. Pop would rub his belly, say the meal was more than adequate, and then tell Grandma that he’d renew her contract for another year. In response, Grandma would roll her eyes and act like she didn’t hear him, using her hearing aids as an excuse. Pop would restate his sentiment and say how he chose a good woman all those years back at Orange Julius, and Grandma would smile and say, “Oh, Gene.” Through all their interactions, there was no hiding how much Grandma and Pop loved one another even after all the years. To a young woman who didn’t believe in lasting love because there was an ongoing war between her own parents, Grandma and Pop showed her that lasting love did exist and was something to strive for.
My paternal grandparents Sue-Sue and Pop-Bob lived in Omaha, Nebraska, and for this Georgia girl going to visit them was like stepping through the wardrobe. They had a split-level two-story house with basement, and my brother and I always slept in the blue room with two twin beds. Mom always had a problem getting us to go to sleep because Sam and I would giggle and talk throughout the night. We weren’t used to sleeping in the same room, but we couldn’t resist this sibling opportunity. My grandmother Sue-Sue would just laugh at any of Sam and my antics and urge my mother to just let us be kids. Omaha was where Sam and I were no longer well-behaved military brats that said yes ma’am and no sir and sat primly in our chairs. We ran wild, and it was glorious. Sue-Sue would take me for special visits to the library so I could stock up on books for our stay, and on our weekly phone calls, she’d always ask what I was reading and what I had written lately. She was a lot like Pop in that she enjoyed nature, and she would sit for what seemed like hours at the breakfast table, watching the hummingbirds or the squirrels or the deer at the salt lick or the occasional raccoon. I’d sit with her and observe God’s creations, as she called them. She talked about nature with a reverent tone and had a soothing spirit either in person or on the phone. She’d usually take us to the Omaha Zoo because she knew animals were something all kids enjoyed. To this day, I usually would rather go to an aquarium or a zoo than most anything else. Sue-Sue grew my love of reading and writing, but she also taught me the pleasure in being observant. She taught me how to love the small things and that family is everything.
In my youth, Pop-Bob was the video game bad-ass and winter-world explorer. In the basement, Pop-Bob had both Ms. Pac-Man and Spiderman Pinball. Sam and I could play for hours in that cold, drafty basement, but there was nothing like watching the master at work. Pop-Bob could conquer level after level in Ms. Pac-Man, showing us levels we never would have seen on our own. He had the magic to keep the pinball from ever going down the chute and could make it dance up and down the board, lighting up different contraptions and making the machine sing. He’d make us suit up in our snow boots and overalls, stocking hats and gloves and then explore the great, white outdoors. He taught us how to make snow angels, how to build a snowman, and compact the perfect snowball. He could get at least one of us cousins to lick the salt lick just so we knew why the deer loved it so much. On days when there was no snow, he would push us on the swings by their house and watch us see-saw. He has this great big voice and booming laugh that cannot escape any ears within his vicinity, and making Pop-Bob laugh fills us with such satisfaction. He taught us and still teaches us to love the art of playing, to do things just for fun, and to laugh with your whole being. He also taught me about lasting love because the way he’d look at Sue-Sue was a look that I have trouble describing. She was his world, his rock, his home, and I could see it in his eyes whenever he looked at her, appreciating every curve and every action.
After this reflection, I can barely wait to see what our own kids learn from their grandparents. They’ll be lucky to have three sets, and each set unique in their own way. My mom and other dad Brian, my dad and step-mom Jan, and my husband’s parents will help mold our future children into the adults they’ll one day become. And I can’t wait.