It was only after I lost my grandparents that I appreciated what disappeared with them. They lived at the foothills of the Ouchita Mountains, rocky knobs of earth that demarcated the western grass plains of Oklahoma and the shallow ridge of hills and forests that stretch east into Arkansas. Likewise, my childhood was spent in an in-between place; on one side were the poverty and scrappy hardiness of people like my grandparents and on the other, the upward mobility and middle class dreams of my parents' and my own generation. The house my partner and I recently bought has central heat and air. I don't think my grandparents ever even had air conditioning. I remember an attic fan that would kick on, pulling hot air upward and pushing cool air back down. In the winter, they used a wood burning stove in the corner of the room.
My grandma was a quiet woman with large bright eyes; dark, wrinkled skin; and long, black hair that defied gray, which she usually wear in a bun on the back of her head. Her wardrobe veered toward opposite ends of the spectrum: she wore either grandmotherly, print dresses or brightly colored slacks and shirts that were the epitome of fashion in the 1970's. My memories of her are wrapped up in the food she cooked. She preferred a wood cook stove and baked in cast iron skillets. Every night she cooked pinto beans and fried potatoes for my grandfather, and for the holidays, she baked home-made pies with golden meringue whipped from egg whites. She was quiet; she left the talking to my grandfather. Unassuming, modest, soft-spoken--my mother says that my grandmother was truly a lady in every sense of the word. She didn't have fancy clothes, servants, or any of the other markers of the elite, but she was a lady nonetheless.
My grandfather was the storyteller in the family. His throne was a green and yellow woven armchair, which sat in the far corner of the room, next to a love seat where my grandmother sat catty-corner to him. I wish I could remember the stories he would tell. But I can't. I do remember his voice though, the look in his eyes as he retraced the stories of the places he'd been, the people he'd known. It was mesmerizing, truly so, in a way that I've not encountered since. A person could sit and listen to him for hours, like a favorite song on the radio. For me, listening to my grandpa was an experience resonant with comfort. Outside, the weather was hot, the locusts were buzzing to kill a chainsaw, and inside, my grandpa wrapped us in the safety and familiarity of his storytelling.
My grandfather loves sweets; my grandmother abhorred them. His favorites were lemon cake and ice cream. I remember we would bring him cartons of ice cream for his birthday. Although far more talkative than my grandma, he was not a loud man, nor arrogant. He liked to laugh, found amusement in his children and grandchildren. He laughed with his mouth closed, and his laughter shook his whole body and twinkled in his eyes. Being the person who made him laugh was a special prize, like an unexpected gift on your birthday.
I could say my grandparents were simple people with simple lives, but I don't think anyone's life is actually "simple." If they aspired to touch stars or see unicorns, I never knew it. They worked hard all their lives and seemed satisfied with the bit of comfort they had accumulated at the end of their lives.
I have a lot of regrets when it comes to my grandparents. I regret their early deaths. My grandma was 59 when she died; she had struggled with diabetes and asthma for a long time. She died about a month, I think, before I graduated high school. I remember she kept an oxygen tank in the living room. My grandpa died several years later, lost and lonely without my grandmother by his side. I regret not listening closer to my grandpa's stories, not writing them down and asking him questions. I regret not telling my grandparents how much they meant to me, the way they shaped every aspect of my life. I regret an incident that occurred when I was a kid, maybe ten or eleven years old; the guilt has plagued my entire life.
It was Christmas. My grandparents never got us presents. They couldn't afford it. They lived on beans, potatoes, and government commodities. But that Christmas, my grandma had bought me a pair of earrings. And when I opened them up, I gave a snort of some sort, and my "thank you" was ripe with sarcasm. I thought I was cool; I'd heard the same sort of contempt come from some character on a Disney sitcom. But of course, I was just being a fool. My older cousin pulled me aside and told me not to act that way, and I told her my ears weren't pierced. I had no need for earrings. Funny that I felt no remorse at that point, but I've suffered from it every day since then.
I guess an adult can excuse such childish behavior as the folly of an immature mind. I guess I can chalk up all my regret that way. But I just can't balance the lasting impression my grandparents' had on my life with my indifference toward them when they were alive. Like most young people, I took my grandparents for granted. I can only hope that the residue of their lives that I carry in my DNA and in my memories pays them the respect that I owe them so dearly.
Word and Book Lover.