Simply G-ma

“Do you want to know what G-ma left us?” Heather said with a smile. “A bookcase.”

My smile matched hers.

“Of course she did.”

It fit, and not just because our home has a minor over-abundance of volumes. (In the same way that Taylor Swift has a minor bit of popularity right now.) Like that bookcase, Heather’s Grandma Marilyn was the starting point for a lot of stories … the kind you write together.

About a week ago, those stories turned a final page.  

G-ma was gone.

We’d known it was coming for a long time. Nothing fell out of a clear blue sky. We had time and beyond to prepare, to show love yet again, to leave no regrets or what-if’s behind. In a way, it didn’t matter. When a life of love gets removed, it feels like someone took scissors to a yearbook photo – you can tell by the hole that someone should be there.

And G-ma was quite a someone.

There’s an old joke that in Reporter Language, the word “feisty” means “short, female.” Marilyn fit both the joking description and the real one, a small lady with a strong backbone and an open heart. She could be stubborn in the best possible way, ready to stand for and with the people she cared about … but also to be knowingly silly in a way that only the truly fearless can be.

We always got along. In fact, we hit it off so well that she wanted to make sure Heather never lost me. “Make sure you make him pot roast,” she told her early in our marriage, a bit of 1950s love language that still sets us both laughing at the memory of it.

I don’t even like pot roast. But I love the heart that offered it.

She played piano well but always wanted to hear me instead when we visited. A frozen pizza served as the centerpiece for many a conversation, often while a pet bird sang out in the background. Helping put up the G-ma’s Christmas tree was an unbreakable tradition, no matter what else might be happening in the world.

Simple things.

But the simplest of all was that Marilyn listened. Fiercely.

She didn’t always agree. (I did mention the stubbornness, right?) But she always listened, not just waiting her turn in the conversation but actively considering what you said. She wanted to understand, to know, to hear.

Heather carries that same trait. It’s not always an easy one. It lowers your shields and leaves you open to the hurt of others, a hurt you sometimes can’t do much to heal. But it also opens you up to their passions, their wonder, their delight in life. When you listen, the world becomes more than a vague outline – it becomes real people in all their pain and glory.

When we listen, we truly become a “we.”

It’s a gift often absent these days. But it can be recovered at any moment, any time when we’re willing to move the focus off our own self. That, too, is not easy. But it’s essential.

By taking those moments, we bring a bit of someone else inside us. When we do, it means that no one’s ever truly gone. We keep them alive and pass them on, touching lives as we were touched.

So maybe the story of G-ma isn’t really over. It’s just up to us to write the sequel.

 Thank you, Marilyn. For the bookcase. For the moments. For the life well-spent.

And don’t worry. We may just make that pot roast yet.

Bits and Pieces

Indiana Jones had the Ark of the Covenant. Darth Vader blew up a world in search of the Death Star plans. But all of it quailed in the face of the latest discovery.

Heather and her siblings, at long last, had uncovered G-ma’s Cow Pitcher.

“And now the fight begins,” her sister Jaimee joked, to the laughter of the room.

For the uninitiated, the Cow Pitcher is not a fastball-hurling Guernsey. Had we found that, we would have had an immediate obligation to send it to the Colorado Rockies. (Hey, their rotation can use all the help it can get.) This rather, was the unforgettable cow-shaped milk pitcher of Heather’s Grandma Marilyn – known eternally as “G-ma” – that she frequently wielded over the cereal bowl of each grandchild with a flourish and a call of “MooOOOooo!”

As the playful banter began, Marilyn herself chuckled and smiled. Another memory was about to find a home.

Only 3,207 more to go.

Marilyn, you see, is moving. That’s always a fun exercise to begin with. (As Mark Twain may not have said, “Two moves equal one fire.”) And it gets even more interesting when you’re moving into a smaller, simpler place and need to clear out a lot of stuff – not to an attic, a basement, or a garage, but to a new keeper, if it’s worth keeping at all.

And so, it slowly passed before us all. An endless stream of photo albums and teddy bears. A mysterious case – “is this a sewing machine?” – that turned out to be an old slide projector. Books upon books upon books, from longtime classics to movie novelizations.

It looked like we were in the middle of the world’s most chaotic flea market. But it felt like we were in the midst of gold and diamonds, decades of stories and memories that had taken on a physical form.

Better yet, we still had the best treasure of all.

I’ve written before in this space about the power of stories, how they inspire us, comfort us, bind the universe togeth … no wait, that’s Obi-Wan Kenobi talking about the Force. But you get the idea: stories are an essential part of what makes us human, one of the most precious things we possess.

But there is something more precious than any story.

Namely, the storyteller.

Memories are made of people. Stories begin with them. We walk past libraries every day, live with anthologies, work alongside chapters that we never knew existed. And most of the time, we barely open the cover.

We only realize how little we’ve read until the storyteller is gone. And there’s always so much more to find.

I lost a grandmother at 93 and a cousin at 21. I talked to both of them frequently. And yet, after they were gone, there were still questions I wished I’d asked, stories I wished I’d heard, thoughts I wished we’d exchanged.

That’s one reason we value the “stuff,” I suppose. It evokes the memories long after the memory maker is gone.

But getting to evoke them in her presence – that’s beyond price.

Heather and I wound up with the photo albums, to scan and share. Her brother Brad got to keep the Cow Pitcher – and miraculously, no concussions were involved. All of us wound up with a few books. OK, a lot of books.

And all of us got to keep Marilyn.  That’s as cool as a Cow Pitcher jumping over the moon. Or is that “over the mooOOOoon?”

After all, you’ve got to milk these things.

Al In The Family

“Is everything OK?” I asked Heather as she talked on the phone.

She shook her head hard. Reaching for a pad of stickies, she scribbled a quick note.

It said simply AL DIED.

I felt like I had been punched in the gut.

Regular readers may remember Al, the man who married our Grandma Marilyn early this year. He was in his 80s, she her 70s; living proof that love can happen at any age.

Now he was gone.

I tried driving on an errand. On the way home, I made at least four wrong turns.

They never even got an anniversary, I kept thinking. They never even got a Christmas together.

It seemed monstrously unfair.

Two people couldn’t have been better suited for each other than Al and Marilyn. She had the energy, he the quiet strength.  She could draw him out; he could calm her down. It had been one of the great pairings, a perfect fit.

I’d gotten to know him some, while they were dating and after they married. Kind smile, easy laugh, a South Dakota gentleman of the old school. We’d lifted furniture together as they moved from her house to his and gave us some of the excess. I’d listened to some of his family stories; he’d listened to an original song of mine on the piano.

I had played at their wedding and thrilled to the joy on both their faces. A love ready to last a lifetime, however long the lifetime might last.

“I’ve been happier this last year than I was for the entire lifetime before it,” Marilyn told me as we talked.

Thinking back on that, in the midst of a painful, confusing day, I realized I’d been wrong.

They had had their Christmas. Every day, they gave themselves to each other, then woke up to find the gift anew.

They had had their anniversary. Every day had been a celebration, a fresh commitment, a resolve to take that first day and make it even stronger.

The calendar on the wall wouldn’t agree. But the calendar in the heart knew it all along.

Less than a year? Yes.

A small piece of eternity? Yes.

Time enough? Never. It never could be on this earth, not if it were half a century.

Timeless enough? From the first hour of the first day.

It’s easy to get drowned in the “nevers.” We never did this. He’ll never hear that. I’ll never get a chance to say this. On and on, in a downward spiral of depression, each turn causing a little more pain than the last.

Or you can reach to that calendar. Remember the warmth. Recall the love. Not “getting over it,” as the crude phrase would have it, but moving with it, refusing to let the pain of now take away the joy of then.

There’s an Al-shaped hole in all our hearts. There probably always will be. But the hole doesn’t have to stay empty. Not if we don’t let it.

Thank you, Al. For everything. And especially for the light you brought to Marilyn’s life.

A November-December marriage may face its winter all too soon.

But it also means that from its start, the holidays have already begun.