My maternal grandmother, were she still alive, would have turned 141 years old today.
The date is firm in my memory not because of my grandmother but because it was the day they told us in the autumn that school would end come spring. School never actually got over on May 19. It would get extended due to the days we missed because of snow. A snow day, at that time, meant that it was physically impossible for anyone to get to school. The definition has been, um, broadened since then.
When you’re a kid, you overlook a lot of things you later wish you hadn’t. Among them is listening to the old stories. In my case, the older relatives on both my mother’s and father’s sides had tales worth hearing and remembering.
My grandmother’s first name was Emilie, German spelling, but I never heard anyone call her that. To the large family she was “Grammy” or “Gram.” To her two sisters (whom we seldom saw; they were far away in Nebraska) she was “Mela,” her childhood nickname. I don’t remember what my grandfather called her, but it wasn’t Emilie. They never fought nor, best I can remember, even voiced disagreement, though she was a Democrat and he wasn’t.
Her parents were born in Germany but she came into the world in Columbus, Nebraska on May 19, 1880. My grandmother was 17 months old when the gunfight near the O.K. Corral took place; she was nearly two years old when Jesse James was shot and killed by the alleged dirty little coward Bob Ford.
She was just over two years old when my grandfather was born in Humphrey, Nebraska, a village that was to Columbus as Amesville is to Athens. His was a hardscrabble farming family. When they arrived from upstate New York they lived for a number of years in a “soddie,” a house made literally of sod. He would have been content to grow up a farmer, but his father sent him and his older brother off to dental school.
Both Grammy and Grampa spoke fondly of their childhood. On the Nebraska flatland there were fears of tornadoes, of course, but also of prairie fires, the tall, burning dry grass driven by wind to spread quicker than you could run. Winters were cold and life-threatening; my grandfather told of people lost in blizzards who had to kill their ox and gut it, to make a warm place to live through the storm. (It was a common enough event that West Virginia native and Western enthusiast Lawrence Kasdan heard of such things and included something similar in his screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back.) There were American Indians around, but nobody felt especially threatened by anybody else.
How my grandparents met and courted is, best I can tell, lost to time, which is too bad. It would have been something sweet (and probably hilarious, knowing my grandfather) to know about. He was now a dentist; her family owned the Coca Cola plant in Columbus and she was a schoolteacher before she was married (and a natural at it, which is why the older of my two sisters and I were reading, writing, and doing arithmetic before we started school). The story is passed down through the family that her father either owned the rights to Coca Cola west of the Missouri River and sold them for $800 or that he was offered those rights for $800 and turned them down. I do not know which, if either, is true.
I did not, of course, know her when she was young, but she was a delight — and I can say this because she was a delight when she was old and had no reason to be. I remember, and my sister not long ago wrote down and sent the words to me, an elaborate song she wrote in 1908 or so for and about her first-born son, a kind of whimsical lullaby called “‘Graceful Schtrubble-die.” In it, the family went out for Sunday dinner and everyone remarked how cute the baby was. But it was warm in the restaurant. She removed “his small pink hoodie” and was horrified, along with everyone else, to see that his hair was uncombed. The chorus describes the other outraged diners picking up their trays and marching around, singing about the horror of it all. I suppose the song made my uncle laugh; it certainly made us laugh and makes us laugh still.
They married September 18, 1906 and would have two sons and a daughter, my mother, who was the youngest and, apparently, a surprise. My grandmother was nearly 41 when my mom was born.
Decades later, beginning before I was born, they lived next door to us in what was for a time almost a family compound. The eldest son — he of once-unkempt hair — and his family lived next to my grandparents, on the other side. It was like having two sets of parents, the strict ones at home and the warm and kind (though in the case of my grandfather, a little nutty) ones next door. In the summer, they would listen to Paul Harvey, then the Cardinals game while sitting in the breezeway enjoying sliced homegrown cucumbers and big slabs of pink beefsteak tomatoes, the former doused in vinegar and the latter sprinkled with sugar.
The incident that in all my life I most regret involved my grandmother. It was late summer and she asked me if I would sit and talk with her awhile. But I was busy with something so terribly important that I’ve long forgotten it, so I said I couldn’t and left. Not for lack of opportunity, she became for the first time I can remember angry with me.
A week later she was dead. She and my grandfather had enjoyed lunch and retired to the bedroom for a nap. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, said, “Oh!” and fell back, the victim of a heart attack. She was buried on what would have been their 63^rd^ wedding anniversary.
I wish now — I wished it almost immediately after it happened — that I’d stuck around for that visit with her. I also wish I had possessed the interest to go through all the old pictures of family members and family homes and learn the story behind each one. Now I have the pictures but not the stories (and in many cases, I have no idea who is depicted). I have bits and pieces, but it could have been so much more. There were so many fascinating details to be learned and laughs to be enjoyed together. But when you’re a kid there’s nothing as fascinating as right now.
Which story I tell both in honor of Grammy and as a cautionary tale to those who think there will always be opportunity later to learn the old stories from our families. There will come a time, sooner than we think, when that’s not true anymore.