Subject: Visit to grandma's house at 46 Norman St…could be the last time to visit her there
Grandma is seriously considering going into Anne Hathaway retirement residence to live permanently… would be by May 1...she had a wonderful experience there for the month of Feb…you might want to check your calendars and make time to visit her one last time in the house…it would be nice for her to share her memories and show you around…bring the kids along...
Several weeks ago, my mother sent this email to me and my siblings. In many ways, it was the type of point-form-separated-by-ellipses-stream-of-consciousness-and-haven’t-you-said-nearly-everything-in-your-subject-line-anyway? email that we were accustomed to receiving from my mother. The exception here though was that it was too easy to read between the lines. Without saying it, at least not clearly, my mother meant that our 92-year-old grandmother had decided to move out of the house she lived in for 53 years. And more than that, my mother wanted us to know that it was important - to my grandmother, to my mom, and for us - that we have one last visit with Grandma at her house before she moved.
The weekend before my grandmother was scheduled to move, I took my kids to Stratford to see her. We stopped first at my parents’ place for lunch; a lovely chili, served on plate bowls. The chili was made by my sister, my mother told us, though it was unclear if she prepared it specifically for our visit, or even if she was aware we were now eating it. My kids can be picky eaters when presented with anything even slightly different from their usual food, but they devoured the chili and said nothing about the introduction of plate bowls into their lives, not even when the chili ran into the salad that accompanied our meal.
When we finished eating, my mother said, “Your grandmother might ask you if you’d like to take something from her house.” The comment seemed aimed at me, but she looked as much to my daughter as she said it.
My daughter looked at me, hoping I would jump in and tell her what she should take from Great Grandma’s house. I was of no help.
“Maybe you’d like a teacup?” my mother said, now clearly speaking to my daughter.
My daughter’s mind raced. “Maybe?” was all that came out. The matter settled we drove the short distance to my grandmother’s house.
As I drove, I became completely lost in thought. The car seemed to know when and where to turn without any input from me, leaving me to ponder my final visit to see Grandma at her house. The kids sang along to the radio and looked out their windows, lacking any signs that, for them, this visit was also bittersweet.
We reached her house, walked up the grey, painted, wooden porch steps, and pushed open the kitchen door. We never knocked at Grandma’s and the door was never locked.
“Hello!” we called. My grandmother was sitting at her kitchen table, facing the door, reading a hard cover book. Pushing herself away from the table, she reached for her walker and met us a few steps from her chair.
“Hello Lauren, hello Alex, hello Rick,” she said.
“Hi Grandma”, “Hi Great Grandma,” we answered.
The kids hugged her, Alex seeming afraid of squeezing too hard. I put my arms around her and kissed her on the cheek.
“Great to see you, Grandma,” I said. “Were you reading a book?” I didn’t know why I’d asked the question, but she smiled and confirmed the obvious.
In some of my earliest memories of Grandma’s house, I’m younger than my kids are now, and I’m in this kitchen. Every Christmas, Grandma and Grandpa hosted the big family dinner. The adults ate in the dining room, while my siblings, my cousins, and I sat around this kitchen table – the kids’ table – mesmerized by what we heard from the other room.
There was an energy created by the adults - their voices, their jokes, their laughs, the buzz of food being served, cutlery clanking on plates. It filled the room, and drifted into ours, reminding us throughout dinner that theirs was the better party. When we were old enough, we left the kitchen, everyone crowding around the dining room table, sharing in the jokes and the buzz, adding to the energy.
It was here, too, in this kitchen, that one our family’s finest traditions took place – Monday lunches at Grandma’s. The tradition began when my oldest cousin started high school, a few years before me, and he was invited to have lunch at Grandma’s every Monday. As each of the six grandchildren, who lived in Stratford, went to high school (at different times, we all went to the same school, two blocks down the hill from Grandma’s house) we were all invited to have our Monday lunches at Grandma’s.
My grandparents called their noontime meal dinner and dinners were grand affairs. Grandma served us a roast, or a turkey, with potatoes, and gravy, and a vegetable of some sort, sometimes two. There was usually a small plate of sweet pickles on the table, and sometimes a plate of beets. The beets, my grandfather told us, came from our Aunt Ruth’s garden. Aunt Ruth is Grandma’s sister, making her, technically, our great aunt, but if she was going to provide beets, she could go by any name she wished. For reasons I never understood, Grandpa referred to Aunt Ruth’s offering as “beet pickles” and the kids insisted that “pickled beets” made more sense. It was one of the few debates my grandfather allowed us to win, realizing perhaps that life was too short to worry about the proper naming of beets, or pickles.
We had white bread with butter, the white bread tasting so much better than the brown or whole wheat bread we had at home. Sometimes we’d put the leftover gravy on an extra slice of bread and enjoy an open faced, white bread, gravy sandwich. Grandma always had a dessert for us, usually Jell-o or some sort of pie. When we were finished eating we enjoyed a hot cup of tea.
During lunch, my grandfather asked us about school, sports, and any other activities of ours that he was aware of. He was keenly interested in all that we did and liked to give us advice. His lessons usually focused on: the value of hard work, the importance of family and good friends, and standing up for ourselves. His thoughts on conflict resolution always went too far and following his suggestions literally seemed guaranteed to result in school suspensions, or possibly worse. So, we nodded and smiled, but silently disregarded what he suggested we do in these cases.
Grandpa turned on the old radio that sat at the end of the table so we could listen to the news. He commented on every story, sometimes before the announcer finished, easily angered by anything he felt was “what’s wrong with the world today.” On rare occasions, he would fly into a rage over something he heard and it seemed he might throw the radio through the window. He never did, of course, but Grandma had to calm him down, saying, “Oh, Bill,” laughing at his temper. I don’t think anything ever calmed my Grandpa down faster than my Grandma and these two words.
We knew to be quiet when the obituaries were read, my grandparents listening carefully for names they recognized. The radio announcers mispronounced names with great regularity and we had to look down at our plates to keep from laughing, which would have upset Grandpa. Some attempts by the announcers were so hopeless that laughing was simply unavoidable. Even Grandpa laughed at those, shaking his head, and muttering something about “the poor bugger,” possibly referring equally to the announcer and the deceased.
We sipped our tea, and Grandma poured us a second cup. Paul Harvey told us The Rest of the Story like a Sunday sermon. Grandpa smiled and let the surprise sink in, relishing the twist. Sometimes, he’d snap out of his silence and say, “How ‘bout that?” We knew he really enjoyed those ones.
Grandma slipped in and out of the kitchen throughout the lunch hour - and it was a full hour - bringing food to the table, clearing plates, serving dessert, and boiling the water for our tea. No one ever helped Grandma with these meals, it likely never occurred to any of us to do so.
When she wasn’t serving us, Grandma took her place at the table, nearest the kitchen, opposite Grandpa. She asked each of us how we were doing and told us that what we were doing was wonderful, no matter the update.
Grandma made sure our plates were always filled with food. Though we spent our mornings sitting at desks, Grandma fed us like we had been doing hard labour in the fields since sunup. By the end of lunch, our pants were tight and the tea gave us a gentle sweat. We pushed back our chairs and wondered how we might make it those two short blocks to school, even with the benefit of a downhill walk. Our classmates waited for us to return, anxious to ask what “Grandma” had made us for lunch. The answers, though similar week-to-week, brought astonishment just the same.
The memories swam in my head. I was once again standing in this kitchen, now hearing my grandmother say “We can go into the living room?”
We followed her past the refrigerator, on which was featured several years of our wallet-sized school photographs. They looked back at us with fake smiles, from behind fridge magnets made to look like picture frames. We walked past the oven, past the wooden cupboards that held the teacups and the impossibly small drinking glasses, in which we drank our apple or tomato juice each Christmas. We walked single file like a slow moving parade.
We stopped at the dining room table, bare except for some white envelopes - birthday cards for her grandchildren and great grandchildren – and a jigsaw puzzle, one-quarter complete. I never got used to the sight of empty chairs in this room, to the sound of silence. I remembered the energy created in this room that reached me all the way in the kitchen. It was strange to feel no sign of it during the daytime.
“We can go into the living room, she repeated. “I don’t have much to offer you…I could make some tea?” We didn’t need anything, but I wondered if, for Grandma, not being able to serve us a big meal, or even have any food prepared for our visit, might be the toughest part about aging.
We heard the kitchen door open and my parents walk in. “Hello?” my father said. It was part greeting, part, Anybody home?
Grandma eased herself into her chair, pushing away her walker. I took the seat closest to her so she could hear me. We talked about her shows, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. She asked me about my job, and how Lauren and Alex were making out with all of their activities. The kids grew bored and snuck back to the kitchen to raid Grandma’s peppermint jar.
This room had changed so little in my lifetime. There were chairs in all four corners, and a couch in front of the big window. A small wooden table that my grandfather won at a dance, many years ago, sat in front of the couch. On the end wall was a fireplace. Above it, on the mantle, were 40-year-old pictures of my cousins and a wooden carving, done by my aunt’s brother and given as a gift to my grandfather, of an antique car driving down the road. Grandpa loved old cars and he loved this wood carving.
The chair in the corner, closest to the fireplace, had been Grandpa’s. On the table next to his chair he kept stacks of crossword puzzle books, a bag of peanuts and a magnifying glass he used to read fine print. From his chair he could look out the window and see cars going up and down the hills, on both Norman and St. Vincent Streets. He could watch his grandchildren walk up the hill each Monday. Grandma told us how much he used to enjoy doing that. He last looked out that window in 1999, his one regret, he told me, was that he wouldn’t get to see the start of another century. I haven’t been in this room since without looking at the empty chair in the corner and missing him terribly.
Years ago, the TV set was replaced after everyone noticed that the colour was off. Way off. Everyone, that is, except Grandma and Grandpa, who somehow hadn’t noticed that hockey rinks had turned blue, baseball players had turned green, and Lawrence Welk looked like he was part Martian. I have to believe that the change had been subtle.
There were framed family pictures on the wall, taken at my grandparents’ 50th wedding celebration. One in particular, that includes 17-year-old me, is hilarious to my children, who point at me and laugh uproariously each time they see it. According to my mother, at least one of my nieces has an identical reaction to my picture. All of these children will be surprised when their laughter is repaid in some fashion, perhaps years down the road, at their weddings.
My grandmother turned to Lauren and asked her if she’d like something from her house. We had been waiting for this question, but Lauren still didn’t know what to say. “I’ll be back in a minute,” Grandma said, and she walked into her bedroom. She returned with a small, heart-shaped, glass box, with pink trim and flowers painted on the top. She lifted the lid to reveal half a dozen brooches inside. “Here you go, dear,” she said.
Before my grandmother could sit back down, my mother said, “Lauren, are you going to get a teacup?” loud enough for my grandmother to hear and quite likely her neighbours, too.
A teacup was arranged and my grandmother asked Alex what he would like. He said he might like one of Grandma’s stuffed bears and quickly it was given. It felt a bit like the end of a garage sale and Grandma was happy to give away anything left on the table -anything that hadn’t sold.
My mother asked me if I wanted to take something from Grandma’s house. Again, she was yelling. My grandmother looked on, ready to give me the shingles off the roof if that was what I wanted, but I didn’t need anything, certainly not a teacup, or a teddy bear.
What I needed was a chance to sit in Grandma’s kitchen and her living room one last time, to talk to her about the same old things. I needed to know that my grandmother would be okay with her upcoming move. I needed a final glance at the empty corner. I needed my kids to raid the peppermint jar and hope that, when they’re my age, they might remember this day, this house.
I needed an hour or so to let a lifetime of memories completely soak in. I needed my grandmother to know that we all loved her and that everything she had ever done for us, in this house, and elsewhere, meant everything to us. No, there wasn’t anything else that I needed, Grandma. You’ve given me more than enough.