I remember the smell of my grandma’s house. It always smelled like biscuits and bacon, a regular meal that my grandfather enjoyed nearly every morning with his coffee. Grandma would put the leftovers in the middle of the stove—there they sat all day until one of us would muster up the courage to ask for a biscuit. Sometimes grandma would make us chocolate gravy to enjoy with her biscuits, a memory I hold dear. I would watch her pour cocoa, sugar, milk and a few other ingredients into a pan. She always gave me the spoon, told me to stir v-e-r-y slowly, and then would shake a finger at me (and wink) if I dared to steal a taste. We loved her chocolate gravy and biscuits. I don’t think it would be the same if I had the meal today. It’s just magic to a kid.
Spending the night with grandma was an even greater event. I always brought my white suitcase filled to the brim of anything I could carry. After all, we never knew how long we’d be at Grandma’s and I wanted to have plenty to keep me busy. I’d come bumbling through the door and Grandma would always shake her head, laugh, and call it my “box ‘o belon’gns.” As a young girl, I never knew what humored her so much about that suitcase. To look at it now, however, makes me laugh too. For a suitcase it was rather small, white with vertical blue stripes and a hideous dent in one side where my sister sat on it. I’m amazed I ever fit anything into it much less half my “belon’gns.”
Grandma had a huge dining room with a wonderful table that stood as a gathering place of joy and hospitality. I loved it when she had guests over because she always made it a special time. We would clear off the old plastic cloth and add the four leaves. Then grandma had me get the big tablecloth, the white one with the pretty brocade, and we’d cover the table together. Guests meant fine china and that meant pulling things out of the china cabinet, a sacred and usually off-limits place in her home. I tried to be very careful as I helped her set her table. Grandma loved guests and wanted to treat them like royalty. I so loved that about her, and to this day I love setting a table and inviting guests over. And while I didn’t have the good fortune to inherit her gift of cooking, I do my best and no one ever leaves my home hungry.
My grandfather was usually a quiet man, but had a quick temper. We always kept our careful distance around him and immediately jumped to any task he requested. One particular day, however, Grandpa spoke lively about their recent vacation to Florida. Vacations were rare for them, and I honestly don’t think they’d been anywhere outside Kentucky until their trip to Florida. He was like a little boy as he talked about the water, sand and the shopping. Then he showed us his souvenirs. I’m not a “trinket” person, but I made a big deal about his souvenirs just because he did. It was one of the few times I remember connecting with him, and I didn’t want it to end. At last, he rose from his chair and went to the china cabinet where he pulled out two beautiful blue drinking glasses. To this day I can’t remember what made them so special, but I sensed they were his favorite of all his souvenirs. He quickly replaced them, sat back down in his creaky chair, and finished telling us about his adventures. I was so happy he gave me so much of his attention that night.
An hour later grandma and I were getting the table ready for guests when she asked me to get the souvenir glasses out of the china cabinet. Carefully I unlatched the door with the key, and pulled out one glass, then the other. But the door bounced back into my right hand causing me to nearly drop one of the glasses. As I was brining it back up to a place of safety, I accidentally hit the end of the cabinet door and the glass shattered into a million pieces. Grandma ran from the kitchen and froze at the doorway. Everyone in the room fell silent and all our eyes were on Grandpa. For a brief moment I knew that was the end of our new relationship. In my heart I was preparing for the worst: a good yelling and then a command to go to bed without dinner. Not only would I miss dinner with guests but I would also never enjoy another happy conversation with my grandfather again. I stood motionless, still not believing what had just happened.
“Go get a boom!” Grandpa bellowed to Grandma. We all jumped but remained still. He came and surveyed my hand to be sure it wasn’t cut and then walked back to his creaky chair.
“It was just a glass,” he said quietly as he deliberately sat down and lit a cigarette.
That was all he said.
We slowly returned to our tasks but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just disappointed the most powerful man in the world. And that feeling was mixed with something I couldn’t quite put my finger on … something unexpected and out-of-place, but something big.
Our guests arrived and the whole room suddenly filled with energy and laughter. I kept to my duties and quietly helped serve the meal, trying to busy myself so that I didn’t have to make eye contact with my grandfather. I knew if I did I would just burst out in tears and I didn’t want to cause either of us that embarrassment. I noticed, however, that he didn’t really join in on the conversation. No one thought that too unusual since that was sometimes his way, but somehow I couldn’t help but feel it was because of me. We never reconciled that moment. I was nine.
Twelve years later when Grandpa was at the pinnacle of Alzheimer’s disease, I showed up at the house on Easter morning dressed in an Easter Bunny costume to surprise my younger cousins. Elderly and timeworn, Grandpa was sitting at the table, unengaged and in a faraway place. He gradually turned his head at all the commotion and fixed his eyes on me. I watched his eyes slowly focus on what was before him and then his mouth turned into a huge smile. His left hand slowly reached for me and landed on my fuzzy, pink arm. My dad took a picture. Grandma laughed out loud and led me outside with all the children. I looked back and Grandpa was still smiling. He waved his hand to say goodbye and joy danced in his eyes.
Grandpa died shortly thereafter, but I will forever cherish the sunrise of his happy smile that followed me out the door and has stayed in my heart since. As an adult I look back on the broken glass incident and realize that Grandpa did a remarkable thing when he didn’t grow angry at me for breaking his glass. Although I was guilty of destroying something that belonged to him, he swallowed his pride, his tendency to respond in anger, and instead chose grace. I realize now that he not only left me with the gift of a smile and joy when he didn’t know who I was under that fuzzy, pink costume, but he also left me with the gift of grace when he did know me as I was: transparent and vulnerable.
I miss my grandparents very much, but am thankful for these happy memories and lessons they leave behind. Who they were has shaped who I am today. In their honor I re-gift the laughter, the joy, the hospitality and the grace to my daughter, Sidra, on her 18th birthday.
Happy Birthday, Love.
July 29, 2009