Monday, March 31, 2008

to grandma's house i went

Yes, I know it's a dumb title for a post. But I'm feeling particularly Monday-ish in that I'm disoriented, a little sleepy, hungry (always so hungry on Mondays... why is this?) and less than creative.

However, despite all of these obstacles I still feel it necessary to capture the quaint country-ness that was my weekend. In one weekend I have learned more about aging, The War (aka WWII), "damn Meskins" (see: "racism and the elderly"), and tomato preserves than I ever thought I would in an entire lifetime.

My grandmother turns 85 this week and I flew down to South Texas to surprise her. She answered the door to her farmhouse at 7:30 p.m. in her green silk pajamas, peering through the diamond-shaped window as I pulled into the carport. I had to yell "Grandma, it's Not Lisa! Don't shoot!" as there's a shotgun permanently hanging above the front door, often used to discourage unwelcome visitors.

Have I ever mentioned that the women in my family are eccentric?

Here's an establishing shot that will give you an idea of where my grandmother lives: picture a farmhouse in 1961, as that's when it was built and nothing has changed since then. Picture incredibly dry farmland where it's always humid but it never rains. Picture a town that has 1,287 people and 11 miles down the road another town that has 483 residents - then picture an even smaller town between the two that barely shows up on Google Maps. That's where my grandmother lives.

As I was driving my borrowed car (borrowed from my aunt, not stolen from a stranger) from Corpus Christi to the farmhouse, I realized that I had never been alone with my grandmother. I would go visit her when I was younger, as my parents finally learned to take adult vacations and leave their only child with her grandparents, but my Papa was always with us. He and I were much closer than my grandmother and I ever were, as he was the big gruff teddy bear that I could convince to play dress-up with me. My grandmother was always so stoic, so German, so stubborn. She would discipline my smart mouth in my parents' absence while my grandfather made faces behind her back. My grandfather would take his pig-tailed granddaughter into town to "pick up the paper", but it was really just his daily excuse to sneak in some pancakes. My grandfather would joke around with the man at the gas station in the city, convincing him through his dark skin and perfect Spanish that he was from Mexico and had kidnapped a young gringo child for ransom. We would laugh the whole way home and I was never allowed to tell the rest of the family about our shenanigans. He taught me Spanish, he taught me how to handle a horse, he taught me how to watch out for snakes and he taught me how to find eggs in a hen-house. We swam in horse tanks, we rode bikes together and he showed me where the old embarrassing pictures of my mother were kept.

All the while, my grandmother watched through the window of the house, making sure that I was safe and sound but never put down the dirty dishes long enough to join in on our fun. They had to be washed thoroughly with soap and water before being run through the dishwasher and that was that.

As I grew older I began to better understand through off-hand comments from my mother that my grandmother was not entirely to blame for her attitude and approach to our visits. When I was swimming in the horse tank with my Papa I was too young to know that he had walked out on my Grandma many times in their 30 years of marriage, leaving her and their four children for weeks at a time. When I was placed on top of the family dog as if he were a horse I was too young to know that my Papa had a violent and physical temper. When I was helping pick tomatoes in the garden I was too young to know that my mother had a brother that I had never met because my Papa kicked him out of the house when he was 17 and hadn't spoken to him since. Even when I was 20 years old and my Papa passed away I was too young to know that he had planned for many years to leave his son $1.00 in the will so he couldn't contest his lack of inheritance with "I was left out accidentally."

It's funny what you learn as you get older. When I was a young child in red Mickey Mouse suspenders I thought my Papa could do no wrong and that my Grandma was a feared disciplinarian. As I grew through adolescence I saw the less-than-pretty side of my Papa and watched my Grandma maintain her emotionless demeanor through Papa's bout with Alzheimer's and then also through his funeral. After college I made the occasional visit to the farmhouse, but always accompanying my parents and conversing more with them than my Grandma.

However, this time we were alone. During our time alone I think I learned the most.

I learned that my Grandma is funny. That she can laugh to the point of tears at a seemingly randomly recalled memory, and then she feels it completely necessary to tell you in detail all about how her mother caught her at 14, kissing a boy on the front porch until midnight. That she remembers in detail that she had to do both Boy and Girl Chores while growing up on a farm in Nebraska, while her sister somehow managed to avoid the outdoor Boy Chores and the indoor Girl Chores because she was brainy and claimed to always be studying. That the very same sister didn't study or take tests for three months in protest to not being allowed to go on a date. She got her way, started studying again and still graduated as valedictorian.

I learned that my Grandma is a romantic. That she and my grandfather were married in secret for six months before they ever told any friends or family. Married women weren't allowed to finish high school in her day, but she and my Papa just couldn't wait so they eloped first and asked questions later. "We were just stupid kids..." she laments, but the mischief and romance glittering behind her glasses was hard to miss.

I learned that my Grandma is the strongest woman I know. That she raised two babies by herself for two years while my Papa went off to fight in the war. That she didn't even lay eyes on her husband in the entire two years that he was gone. That she and her two children subsisted on $100 a month from the government, making it from month to month on food rations. That she gave her coffee and sugar ration stamps to her in-laws because she knew they would enjoy it more than she would. That even during this time she was still able to pack up her two kids and move three states away to take care of her ailing grandparents while she waited every day for a letter with news of her husband.

I learned that my Grandma is an individual. That she was married for over 50 years but still doesn't understand why modern women feel as though they have to get married. That all you need to be happy is yourself and the company of others is just added blessing. That if you want to see a movie that no one else wants to see, you go by yourself - even if it is on a weekend. That she and my Papa fought "like cats and dogs", but she doesn't regret a single opinion that she's ever offered up.

I learned that I can still learn a lot from my Grandma.

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