Celebrating Gramcracker’s 104th

Gramcracker with my Dad c1935.
Gramcracker with my Dad c1935.

As everyone notices I often write about my Grandmother, who I lovingly called “Gramcracker.” She has been missing from my life for several years now. If she was still living, today would be her 104th birthday.

Recently, I was the recipient of the most fabulous gift...this photo of her my cousin found in an old box. I shared it with my dad a couple of days ago. In his 81 years, he had never seen it. Everyone recognizes it though; clearly it is the full-size version of my dad’s baby photo.

I‘m guessing, just like many young mothers today, Gramcracker had herself cropped out of the prints she shared with family. I’m afraid that says something a little bit sad about women and body image and our inner-drives for perfection. Ah, but that is another story!

Today is a day for my own quiet celebration of her life and the gift that both she and this long-lost photo were to me. Every year on July 2nd, I try to sit quietly for a while and recall the most mundane actions of our times together. 

Sometimes I think about the epic, summer-long yard sales we ran together–that’s where I learned math and negotiation skills. As a result, my husband sends ME to the car dealer to make the family purchases. No one can rough up a sales manager like Mom. For all the extra nice cars I’ve driven through the years, I can thank Gramcracker for teaching me to wheel and deal before I started Kindergarten.

Of course, I spend a lot of time thinking about food too.

Her house was Kid-Land-Deluxe where non-enforced nutrition was concerned. There was an enormous chest freezer out on the enclosed back porch filled with boxes of Fudgies (I believe the common and trademarked name is Fudge-sicles) and Popsicles. At Gramcracker’s house it was totally acceptable (and expected) that the red and purple ice pops were for eating…the orange and green ones were only fit for the trash or to share with our beagles on hot summer afternoons.

Other “foods” at Gramcracker’s included bowls of Lucky Charms. And by that I mean literal bowls full of Lucky Charms without the pesky bits of tasteless, vitamin enriched “cereal.” At Gram’s it was fine and dandy to eat only the good part and dispose of the rest without being forced to “at least taste it.” I ate many dinners consisting of only sliced cucumber salad without meat or other icky stuff forced onto my plate.

There were stacks of wooden soda-pop boxes filled with assorted bottles of fizzy stuff too. Flavors like Orange, Grape, and my coveted personal favorite–Strawberry–were always abundant. Oh she wasn’t all sugar and empty calories…there was always milk in the fridge…chocolate milk.

Did I mention the “cornies?” That was the house-name for cheese puffs. Chester Cheetah and I were orange-finger-tipped friends all summer, year after year. My mom used to grumble it was a wonder that I didn’t die of Rickets by the end of each extended visit.

Good Times

As age and time took her mind, my grandmother slipped into a non-specified form of dementia. I was her some-time care giver during those last few years. My uncle lived with her full time and cared for her around the clock. Fortunately, she was never given to bouts of “Sundowning” like many folks with memory issues. So there was no out of character, combative fits, or terrifying times when she was scared to death because everyone was a “stranger.”

Her form of dementia had a good dose of across-the-board memory loss–with short-term and long-term lapses being about equal. And there were certainly confusion issues. Most nurturing acts such as bathing her and hair brushing she thought were being performed by her mother, no matter who was holding the brush or wiping her face.

When Gramcracker first started having issues, it was as a combo of her eyesight (may have been an early cognitive impairment marker) and her arthritis. She had worked a “man’s job” inspecting rubber tubes at Uniroyal for years. Here entire body had suffered the effects of the long shifts standing on her feet, bent at the shoulders, doing her job. As a newly divorced mother of three, she had been lucky enough to be hired during the War years. When peace was declared, she was again fortunate to retain her position because she had proven herself as a hard worker and excellent inspector.

Perhaps one of the earliest indicators of her decline was that she could no longer hold (her hands hurt) or see (her eyes were bad she said) her beloved romance novels. Over the years she must have read every single “Harley Quinn” Romance ever available at the grocer’s check out lane.

When the corner market lacked a fresh paperback for her to take home she was an avid reader of the National Enquirer–which I was also allowed to read…hmmm. That might explain some stuff 🙂

So, she began watching Soap Operas in place of her Romance novels. She called them her “Programs.” Inadvertently interrupting a “Program” by telephoning or stopping by to visit with Gramcracker without checking the time and TV Guide first could get you hurt!

After a few months, she began speaking as if she were a narrator for a real-life soap opera. It was funny, trippy, and only a wee bit worrisome.

As her body fell into a quick downward spiral, her mind followed along for the ride. Soon she dropped all social filters and spilled several very juicy family “secrets” with no cushioning or delicate prancing around the cold facts. She became brutally honest and very straight forward. A few of those tales are what I would refer to as “hair curlers” and I cannot be sure which ones were leftovers from her Soap Opera Narrative stage.

Over recent years, I have chased down the many of the stories she told me from that period and have found evidence of truth in each one–so far.

In my eyes, those few months of odd lucidity concerning the recollection of painful events was short lived. Suddenly she moved on to the last stage of her mental affliction; the “continuous loop.”

And that brings us to the day that I think I killed Gramcracker.

I know that sounds weird, nefarious, confessive…but I kind of worry that is what happened.

Let me explain

One day while my Uncle went out to a doctor’s appointment and to run a few errands, I came over to hang out with Gramcracker. Her state of “crazy” never really bothered me. I always thought of it as life in reverse. When I was little and living with her, I know that I did, said, and caused more than my share of absurdity. Like the afternoon my mom called the police because she thought I’d been snatched. I was hiding among the coats at the rack beside the telephone desk. When I heard her making the report I began to giggle. She hung up the phone and I got a heck of a whooping–Gramcracker wasn’t there to save me, she was sleeping after a night shift. I also know that I loved to sleep with her on her big feather bed. And she always let me, never complained, not a wink…even though I was a notorious bed-wetter.

The woman was a Saint in my eyes.

Her need to ask a question, re-ask, and then ask again– or to repeat the same sentence over and over didn’t annoy me in the least. Plus, among all the people she would see and not recognize–she always–always–knew me. She often couldn’t remember my given name, but she did remember that I was Goldie. Remembering me by the pet name she had given me, that was a gift for me to hang my heart on. All else aside, recognizing me as Goldie let me know she recalled our special bond.

On this particular day there were two questions that Gramcracker could not, would not let go of. Although they were nothing along the lines of what was shared between Bernadette and Our Lady of Fatima–the two things she kept asking me will never be revealed. And in reality, in the bigger scheme of things in the world, they were very small little matters, but they clearly were nagging her.

She asked me the same questions over and over in a carousel fashion.

I felt dizzy as she would ask, I would answer, she would ask the other question and before I could get the “brush it off answer #2” past my lips, she would hit me again with query #1. 

And then I snapped. Even though I had been told–don’t tell your Grandmother about blahblahblah#1–I did. 

She didn’t flinch. She moved on to question #2–I had been “sternly told” to not upset Grandmother with that situation either.

Well, she knew she had me cornered–I buckled–gave her the answer and then I watched as her entire demeanor changed. She relaxed, became quiet and a veil of serenity dropped over her. She was not upset. Gramcracker was a very intuitive woman and she knew she had been lied to about these two small issues for a long time. That hurt her, obviously pressing her with a great deal of unease. She was not shocked or upset. Relief is what happened. The two people and their “situtations” she had asked me about like a “ring around the rosy” were things she needed to know about. Without the truth, she could feel no peace.

When that understanding crossed the room from her adled mind to mine I audibly gasped.

Oh crap! I just killed Gramcracker! 

Seeing the great weight lift off of her I sensed that these were two very important answers that she needed to have. She was always a mother to many more than her own children. She worried about and protected and fiercely loved us all. She had to know that we were all safe–that was the end game for her life–to be sure that those she loved were capable without her. I felt like I had just given her the permission that she had been seeking to leave.

Several weeks later she “took a turn” and within days was gone forever. I knew it was okay with her, because she knew the truth about two nagging questions her heart couldn’t let her relent on. 

Living without her still hurts though.

But she taught me some important stuff and so I am strong. She taught me to fend for myself, only keep a man around if he was good to me and my kids, and to take good care of my hair–because it’s “a woman’s crown and glory.”

So Happy Birthday Gramcracker, I’m pretty sure you can see me–but just in case, I want you to know– I can buy my own car, I have a good husband–and my hair looks really good!  

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If you or someone close to you is a caregiver or love someone who is experiencing a dementia spectrum disease, do yourself a favor and check out the excellent blog “Going Gentle Into that Good Night” the information and stories there are worth a read! See it by clicking on the name. I highly recommend it.

In Other Words…When Writer’s Block Comes Knockin’

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Where do these whispers come from?  You know, the ones that scamper and gnaw around in our heads.  Something someone said, or implied, or an unsettled way they made us feel. That’s what I call the ‘other words’ of a life.  The stuff that we haven’t thought up ourselves, but somehow  we’re pretty sure that others around us have thought about us.

………..Clear as mud?  It’s rather serendipitous that blogger “The Daily Post” asked a question like this 7 days after this post.  He called them “Head Turners” I call them “Whispers”  (see it at http://wp.me/p23sd-neE)

Think about this one…I recently interviewed author Dan Conway about his interesting book written as an anecdotal/ semi-memoir / love letter to his departed family members. How’s that for genre bending?  The premise of the book was fictional~ he awakes in a hospital bed unable to move or speak after hitting a deer on the highway.  What happens from there is a series of out of body semi-lucid “visitations” from deceased loved ones as he lies helplessly drifting. These visitors are real people from the author’s life who have passed away. Each encounter has its own filmy purpose as readers experience the message along with Dan, the poor guy in the hospital bed.  And each time we all think that maybe we “get it” the apparition fades and we are left to work the rest out on our own.  Just like life.  Annoying, and yet we can never quite get enough.

I am myself a skilled car buying negotiator.  My husband stands back and turns me loose on the unfortunate targeted salesmen.  I get this “gift” I am told from my Grandpa George Farmer.  One of his many nick names was Wheeler Dealer.  So then, the whisper that dusts through my head is this…I’m just like George.  Does that mean then, that I am also brash, loud, bossy and generally insufferable and overbearing? Will I live well into my 90’s too? I catch myself wondering those things when I’m around certain cousins and old neighbors.  Am I laughing too loud, monopolizing the conversation, appearing restless when others speak?  Are they whispering about me and my George-ness?

Another quality of mine that has been attributed to the family gene-pool is my overall coloring.  I describe it as a stick of Doublemint chewing gum.  My eyes are the mixed shades of green like the wrapper, and my hair color basically matches the gumstick itself.  Being a uniquely indescribable non-color,it tends to be much darker when wet than when it’s dry.  I get this unusual coloring (and the freckles that come with it) from Kate the Wildcat Whipper’s mom Maggie.  Everyone says so.  Since Maggie died about 55 years before I came along, I have to assume that I am being told the truth.  Apparently I also have her hands and toes.  Unfortunately I know very little about her manner and disposition so I am left to assume that if Maggie were living today we would probably be pretty chummy like twins. But since Maggie went to her reward at the age of 37, at least I know that we are differently engineered in at least the longevity way.   Who knows?  By now, all of the “everyones” who said we were so alike, have all passed on too.  Only the whispers remain to speak about my minty fresh eyes.

I enjoyed the perspective of Dan’s book because it is written from just an unusual and different view-point.  He is describing himself and his life as if he weren’t exactly on the pages or in the room.  He speaks to and about himself as if his whispers we all have romping and knocking around too were suddenly let out to play one day.  It’s a fascinating spin and well worth considering especially if you find yourself at an impasse.

Impasse, that dirty, nasty word writers use when they don’t want to admit they’ve hit a wall and are in the early stages of “Writer’s Block”–every author’s most base and crippling  fear

We have all had a moment where what we felt about an ancestor stood in the way of what story needed to be conveyed.  I wondered if using the “Dan method” would help to free up some of those deadlocked situations? I tried this “what they say when they think I can’t hear them” premise recently and it worked really well.  I had tried to write about a certain cousin many times, but just couldn’t find the right words to tell her story.  Her mother and my Great Uncle Ed were “involved.”  It was one of those scandals that sticks to a few generations.

People and families can be really complicated.  We can feel so many different ways about the same person depending on the context.  There is the opinion / gut reaction to memories of Uncle Ed when the picture in my head is from my childhood. Then there is the startled surprise of emotion when I found the letter to his mother and learned what the “family secret” was all about.  Same man, two very different characters in my head and in my life.

 There is the “part of the family” Ed who always ate all of the potato salad.  Then there is the “guy who did that Ed” who made a lot of jaws hit the floor in disbelief. I would guess also with near certainty there are probably another couple of “Eds” somewhere in between or off to the side of both those possibilities.  They are all arguably the “real” Ed.  They are all undeniably my Uncle Ed, who had a fling with his brother’s wife…but still came to Sunday dinners to eat all the potato salad for years afterward.

No one is ever living in only one dimension; having no other “side.” That’s probably my biggest fascination with all this family history stuff.  I have always known that I am a different person when I am among my family than I am “in public.” But I think most of us don’t readily accept that others also have this sort of dual set of behavioral standards.

So Uncle Ed’s story makes writing about Nellie a bit tough.  She always had a great and generalized dislike of Uncle Ed.  I always thought he was hilarious.  I liked that he would sit with us at the Children’s table with his long neck beer and his table-side antics.  He would mix all of the food on his plate together until we had all sufficiently “ewed” in disgust.  Then he would spoon it into his mouth with a great show of disdain for manners. We’d laugh and slap the table with delight, challenging him to “have some more!”  Everybody except for Nellie.  She would roll her eyes and finish her plate quickly.

 Her mother, she once confided to me, said Ed ate like a pig because he was one!

We kids all thought that Nellie and her parents were just a bit more uppity than the rest of us.  And so, for years I only knew of the the uppity Nellie who didn’t know a good table show when she saw one.  To this day, I don’t believe she ever knew why her mom gave her a dislike of old Ed.  I often wonder if she ever knew that I knew…or whether she ever in fact “knew” at all?

 Tricky stuff…

… Family stuff…

… People stuff.

I would recommend reading Dan’s book if you are facing a similar conundrum in your story telling.  Could the folks involved tell the stories themselves and let you off of the hook?  It may be worth a try!

For me, I started with the letter I had found which detailed the transgressions of the affair and near divorce.  I also added in that I wondered if that had been the cause of the iced curtain that fell between certain factions of the family at Sunday Dinner.  Until my adulthood, I never really noticed that Ed was never in the same end of the house or same general conversation as either Aunt Rita or his brother Uncle James. Finding that letter made it reasonably clear why Uncle Ed sat with the kids and avoided the big people table.  He probably wasn’t exactly welcomed.  He even, as I recall, always made sure his back was to the adults seated at the big table.  We kids assumed that he sat that way to block the view to his plate and the messy but laugh-out-loud funny eating show he put on for us.

I’ll be letting Nellie’s story keep whispering until her parentage will no longer cause pain.

 

Dan Conway’s book A Communion of Saints is available through Amazon