My father’s mother was named Juanita Kay Simmermon, but everyone I ever met just called her Gran. She won a beauty pageant when she was in high school in Fort Myers, Florida, back before the roads were all paved and the swamps were drained. She knew Thomas Edison, Henry ford and Harvey Firestone – all their winter homes were in Fort Myers and I think she used to play cards with them.
That’s how I prefer to remember it, anyway.
Gran died last week. She was ninety-seven years old. My Dad and I went out to see her in her nursing home in South Bend, Indiana a few weeks ago, and I’m really glad I did. I’m not going to sit here and pretend it was a complete party, seeing my grandmother lying in a hospital bed suffering. But I’m really glad that I was able to visit and lift her spirits, maybe give her her last burst of joy.
I wasn’t able to make it to her memorial service, which was held this morning. I wrote the following words to be read in my absence:
We didn’t go down to Gran’s but once a year, but the time we spent there as a family was really, really special.
Mom and Dad would buy us a couple new books to read in the car and some workbooks and markers to keep us busy during the drive, which would work okay in the daylight. But the real fun started after dark, when we couldn’t read anymore and all we had was each other. That was actually the best part.
We’d play car games like “I’m Thinking of an Animal” or the Geography Game, where you had to name a place that started with the last letter of the last place the person before you named. I thought I was the bee’s knees when I dropped Appomattox on the table, but Dad came after me and he never even blinked. He said “Xochimilcos” every time. Dad is all fun and games most of the time but he always played the Geography Game for REAL.
Then Mom and Dad would tell us stories. And at some point, Dad would always tell us about the family vacations they took when he was little like me and Jess. We’d hear about all the bears in Yellowstone stealing people’s food and behaving badly. And all that talk about animals behaving badly would always turn into Dad telling us about his dog Red back in Cincinnatti, and about all the animals he’d bring home from his trips to the park. He’d tell us about the great big snapping turtle he brought home on the end of a stick, and the snake he brought back in a sack and all the raccoons that lived in the tree behind their house, back in the yard.
We’d always stop for a break somewhere in South Carolina, a place where all the laws about fireworks are looser, more pliable. Sort of like gravity on the moon. Dad would always act like he had to be the responsible adult and hold it together in the fireworks stores, but I could just tell he was just as excited about fireworks as I was. Because man, we would walk out of there with enough gunpowder to take the South BACK. And every time, Dad would lock that up that great big sackful of fun and say “Jeffrey, you know we can’t light those off here — Jesus, there’s a gas pump right over there! — but we’ll have some fun when we get to Gran’s.”
And after about two years’ worth of just CREEPING through some jammed up traffic in Georgia, we’d finally make it to Gran’s. And she’d always come out in the carport and give us a great big hug and say “oh, you know, I’ve got some mince meat cookies around here somewhere if you think you might like one or two as long as it doesn’t spoil your dinner.”
We’d have dinner and the grownups would talk about stuff that was of ZERO interest to a little boy with fireworks on the brain. Who knows what it was, who cares. It was all just a bunch of balloon juice until after dark, or at least until the key lime pie came out.
After dinner, Gran would say “well, I think Bo-Bo (her black poodle) needs to go outside for a little bit. Jeffrey, would you like to come?” I ALWAYS did, because even though Bo didn’t shoot sparks and explode, he always did something almost as great. Something about the way he cocked his leg to use the bathroom made me just weak with laughter. Like, my knees would go out and I’d actually fall down into the grass. I couldn’t get enough of it, it was hilarious, that cute curly black dog standing there like weird tripod or something. I’d always point and whoop and say “GRAN, look at that, can you believe it!”
And every single time, the same thing would happen. Her eyes would go really wide and the corners of her mouth would tremble. And for just a second I’d think she was going to be mad or something. Then she’d start cracking up, too. It was so great, making her laugh like that. I never saw her laugh like that any other time, but shed just SHAKE and her eyes would get all wet in the corners and she’d say, out loud, to nobody in particular “Oh goodness! I don’t know what’s so funny, but that just tickles him to death!”
Then Bo would stop and we’d walk a little bit and calm down and then go around the corner and the whole show would start all over again. She’d act like it was weird, and I guess it was pretty strange, but laughing with Gran like that was pretty much the best thing in the world.
We’d come back home and have a little of her fresh key lime pie — pie made from lemons that me and Jess had picked out of the back yard that morning along with a couple oranges for our breakfast. I pretty much can’t eat key lime pie anymore.
It’s okay, I guess, nothing wrong with the stuff, but it’s just not the same. Whenever I see key lime pie, I think about the loud ticking of an antique clock and the smell of dew settling on an orange tree, this sweet and subtle smell creeping over the yard and through some open jalousies. I think about eating pie and watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy with Gran and calling out the answers. Sometimes Gran would say “gosh, this boy’s a smart one, Fred,” like I wasn’t even in the room, but it still felt pretty good.
Now whenever I see pie on the menu at a restaurant in New York, I just order the blueberry. It’s easier that way — I don’t focus on all the stuff that’s missing.
If it wasn’t dark after pie-time, we’d sit and play a few hands of cards at the table in the living room. Playing cards with Gran was pretty great, too. It felt so grown-up, sitting there doing something kind of boring and figuring out how to outfox someone else and making conversation.
We’d play until it got good and dark, then go outside and light off all the fireworks we’d gotten in South Carolina.
We’d have all kinds of Roman candles and bottle rockets and little tanks that rolled forwards and shot out jumping jacks, these little spheres that could shoot up in the air twirling out a ring of sparks and a whole bunch of buzzbombs — cylinders thick like a wrestler’s finger with cardboard propellors sticking out of the side. You never knew which way those were going to lift off after they went off, and me and Dad would whoop and hit the dirt every time.
Visiting Gran wasn’t just about visiting Gran. It was about spending time together as a family – about having a little fun in a different place for a little while. Once a year there, for a while, I got to see Dad be somebody’s little boy, too. We got to have so much fun together, doing all the stuff that dads and sons have together since forever first got started: eating sweets, telling stories and playing with fire.
When someone dies, it’s normal to wish you spent more time with them, knew them better, normal to feel all those regrets bubble up to the surface. And it’s hard.
But Gran brought us together as family, one way or another. Once a year I got to play cards like a grownup and then turn right around and be a little boy right alongside my Dad and it was really, really great. We made all those memories together, as a family — and those aren’t the kind of memories that go away. We’re close now and we’re going to be close forever. Those trips to Gran’s laid a very, very important part of that groundwork, a foundation that’s never going to erode.