Author’s Note: I’m breaking away from profiling literature for the second time in a row as I’m dedicating this work to my grandmother, who would have turned 100 years old at the time of this posting. I had a lot of memories with her, one of which I’ve decided to write one about her.
Fall 2005- Sometimes there are last times. This was one I will never forget. My grandma was turning 90, and at her request, my wife and I decided to break from our routine in Germany and spend some time in the United States. We both had hectic lives: one was working at a company, the other was a teacher who was pursuing his Master’s degree at the same time. But after being outside my home country since being married, five years were enough. It was time to pay her homage, to rekindle the memories of what I had with my grandma while growing up, to be reacquainted with relatives and friends we hadn’t seen in years and get reused to the American environment that I sorely missed.
It was one of those typical trips that I had gotten used to as a child: Going over the river on a rickety old bridge made of steel, driving past small houses- all abandoned since the last flood but filled with memories, before taking a sharp right at an auto repair shop. Then it was a right-hand turn into a driveway shaped as a rain drop, flanked with a pasture, and old corale, two garages and a grey two-story house. We entered the house from the side and were immediately greeted with open arms by a short, little lady with grey curly hair and glasses, the same characteristics that I had gotten used to while growing up. From there, we had retreated from reality to a time that stood still. A time where I grew up with her homemade chili con carne with cheddar cheese and peppers, baked potatoes, ham, cheese and pepper sandwiches, a good glass of ginger ale, and lots of stories of her storied career as a homemaker caring for five children and several grandchildren, a hair dresser, a dedicated birdwatcher, a worker who toiled in several factories, especially while grandpa was off to war, and an avid and strict church-going Catholic.
She was a sweet lady but with a witty tongue. She said what needed to be said and stood by her comments to the very end. And despite being a great host and opening her doors to guests, family and friends a like, she was known for giving people the raccoon look, standing from a stool for insubordination. Her husband got that after coming home highly intoxicated in the wee hours of the morning after he and his brothers bar-hopped in a new tractor bought in Minneapolis. 🙂 Even her favorite grandson (yours truly, who frequently stayed at her place while growing up), got that treatment for using the Lord’s name in vain- by accident, while ranting about high school life in the car! 😉
But aside her character, hospitality and food, we took the time to share some memories of my time growing up: from having my own Christmas tree in her office, having a model city made of boards, cardboard boxes, plastic pins and coils used for curling hair and many toys she had collected over time, and stacks of drawings and stories I had about mysteries, science fiction and Jesus Christ winning the world wrestling championship by chasing the sinners from the ring (don’t ask me how I got away with that 😉 ), to the trips to the library for the summer reading programs, Hardee’s restaurant for a bacon cheeseburger, fries and strawberry milkshake after that, and swimming with my cousins either at the indoor pool or at my great-aunt’s cottage on the shores of Big Spirit Lake in Iowa. Then there were the mischiefs which she put up with, such as the Sweedt saw jumping at her after I dropped it from a tree, wandering off with a friend for hours only to be greeted by a search party at the rickety old bridge, and my favorite: hiding Easter eggs in the pipes leading to the gas furnace (one of those made it in and the founder avenged me years later 😉 ).
But of all the stories we told, there was one that stood out the most (and was mentioned during her 90th birthday celebration), which was entitled “The Drive.” Many people associate the title with John Elway and the Denver Broncos’ comeback win over Bernie Kosar and the Cleveland Browns in 1987, punching the ticket for the Super Bowl…….
…however, this version of The Drive was different. It dealt with my days singing in choir in high school and how my grandma saved my career through ice and snow:
January 1996- My senior year in high school. I had been racking up awards and participation in many events on the state level in choir as a tenor 1, even while in the shadows of those who had graduated the year before. But after singing with the barbershop quartet and losing our key singer to graduation, it was time for me to make my mark and walk out of the halls of high school the way I wanted to do that: with the microphone, parting in peace with a song I had practiced for many months prior to the event I was supposed to sing in- Winterfest! Every January at my high school, we would crown the Winterfest king and queen and have festivities all week, even during the basketball games and wrestling matches. The crowning was on a Monday night and it featured a program with pep-talks, cheerleading, singing, and lastly the big event covered with confetti-
and ice and snow!
An hour prior to the event, I detected something was wrong, even as I was at my grandma’s house dressing up and eating her homemade chicken noodle soup with a large glass of orange juice mixed with ginger ale (a perfect combination for the voice when singing as high as possible). As I was eating my food, I looked for my music piece, which was supposed to be on the desk. It was not there. I checked my backpack with my homework to be done for the next day. It was not there. I checked every room of the house. It was not there! Twenty minutes had passed and I was in deep trouble.
My grandma had just turned 80 and was blind in one eye. From her place to my parents, one needed 20 minutes one way. It was already finster. The roads were covered in ice and much of the region in southwestern Minnesota was like the picture below:
Yet with 30 minutes left before the start of the festival, my grandma, knowing that this was going to be my last bow before heading to college next fall, decided to take the risk. In her white 1987 Dodge Aries, she and I skidded along the ice-covered roads to my parents’ place, going at 65 miles per hour (120 kph)! Upon arriving there, I had only 15 minutes left, and despite plowing through drifts as high as my waste, I retrieved the music piece within a minute, and we were on the road right away! 13 minutes later, with one minute left to go, I was at the high school gymnasium. My pianist, who like me had perfect pitch, but loved to terrorize the church congregation with her organ music, greeted me with the words: “Where the hell have you been?!” My response: “Don’t ask!” After a few cheerleading rah-rahs and a soloist’s performance of Ave Maria, it was my turn to pull it off. With no time to practice and after all the rushing, my performance turned out to be the best that evening! 😀
When we talked about that story at her 90th birthday party, I had tears in my eyes because my grandma’s actions reflected on her character- her bravery despite the steep odds that were against her. It was a trait that I inherited, and one that, when looking back at the incident, was the best one a person could ask for. The Drive turned out to not only be the crown of my career as a singer, and this after many years staying at her place because of singing events taking place in town. Like at the Winterfest celebrations, she also took an opportunity to watch me sing in college before I left for Germany in 1999, leaving my career behind. But she kept this incident in mind, because it was one that she knew that had to be done- and one that saved my day, despite the odds we faced.
October 2015- My grandma has long passed. Exactly 27 after he left early (and unexpectedly), grandpa came by to pick her up after living a very active 91 years on this planet. That was almost 9 years ago. Our visit was known to be our last, and our last telephone conversation in January 2007 happened to be not only the longest but the most fruitful one. As she complained about people wanting too much stuff (which is still true in our consumer-driven society today), she left a comment worth remembering: “If I remember all my grandkids who have come a long ways to becoming successful, you have come the longest and become the most successful.” True, going from a society touted with the Halo-effect because of being poor, to a successful teacher, writer and singer living in a foreign country, one can look back at the successes and take pride. However, looking at it on what would have been her 100th birthday had she lived today, I have to say that one cannot pride credit solely on one’s aspirations or will. I learned that a while back. Some people say that it was the Lord’s work. True. But someone has to be given the task of pushing the younger generation in the direction that they want to go. For me, it was my grandma who was a big influence in my life, who left the door open for me and my friends to visit, who took the steps necessary to ensure that I was successful, even if it meant driving on ice to get there. She gave me the strength to aspire for greatness and take pride in the work, even if the tasks were great and there were setbacks to encounter. And she taught me to have faith in what I’m doing for success comes when it is ready, when all is achieved and there is nothing more left to do.
And this for the small town Catholic girl who, together with grandpa, is probably reading this right now. This one’s for you with many thanks! 🙂