When I was a little girl, I loved my Grandma and Grandpa Zyber’s house. One week during the summer, I got to stay at their house all week. It was such a treat to be have them all to myself, none of my brothers or sisters to compete for their attention. I sometimes wore one outfit under another, just in case Mom asked me if I wanted to stay. They only lived about 10 miles from my house, and Mom traveled in that direction at least once a week, so if I had one extra change of clothes, I was in like Flint.
In the mornings, Grandma put me to work picking raspberries. She had a whole field of raspberry plants; it must have been at least an acre. I could eat all the berries my belly could hold, but I had to keep picking.
Sometimes in the afternoon, I played with my two cousins Gary and Larry, who lived right next door. Gary and Larry had a pet monkey that stayed in a cage in the breezeway. Like most kids, we didn’t play inside in the summer. Perhaps it was forbidden, perhaps we would rather be outside. At any rate, we never even asked; it was an unwritten rule among mothers everywhere. I never saw the inside of my friends’ houses unless I was with one of my parents. Now that I think about it, a lot of shenanigans are avoided with that rule.
Sometimes, in the afternoon, I hung out in the front-room, which overlooked the large, wooded backyard, and I looked at Grandpa’s books. He had all kinds of books: National Geographic, Time-Life series on the Human Body, books about insects, books about rocks, books about woodworking…just about anything you can imagine.
If I was really lucky, Grandpa let me help him with one of his projects. The basement workbench was full of wonderful smells and sights. He fastened baby-food jars to a two-by-four and organized all his small items like screws and nails and tacks and string. He had awls and saws and planes and miter-boxes. Once I helped him put tiny letters on a board to form movie titles. Then he filmed the board and I helped him splice the movie to the title film. Years later, I saw one of Grandpa’s home movie of Mom when she was a teenager; film title: Burt Lake, 1941. I sat a little taller; I made that!
Once Grandpa made a boomerang out of a piece of pine he had lying around. He carved it and sanded it, then slapped it against his hand, then he adjusted it some more until the fit was just right. When he rubbed in the tungs oil, the grain of the wood popped and made the boomerang look beautiful. The smell of the tungs oil mixed with sawdust made the little hairs in my nose shrink so it felt like my nostrils would stick together when I breathed in. We took it out by the raspberry bushes and he flung it so far, I lost sight of it. Then whirrrr… I heard it whistling before I saw it. CRACK, the boomerang slapped right back into Grandpa’s hand. I never saw anything like it before or since.
Always after dinner, we had a big bowl of raspberries with some vanilla ice cream on top. The seeds got under Grandma’s dentures and she poked around under them with her tongue, causing the dentures to push out of her mouth.
“I hate it when seeds get under my teeth.” she’d say to me. “Does that ever happen to you?”
“Yeh. I hate it too.” I said, and I pushed my tongue around my mouth and between my gums and lip. Try as I might, I couldn’t get my teeth to pop out like she did.
Sometimes we would just sit and talk, Grandma would tell me stories. She told me her mother died when she was just a girl. She told me she wet the bed when she was little and the other kids sang a mean song about bed-wetting. She told me what it was like coming from Poland to America. She told me once that she was less than 90 pounds when she got married, and Grandpa used to lay on the floor and balance her on his feet, and she’d stick her arms out like an airplane. Once when he did this, he lost control and she flew out the window. I laughed so hard picturing Grandma flying through the air like that, and imagining the look on Grandpa’s face as he peered out the window at her lying in the bushes. Grandpa laughed so hard, he nearly split a gut.
She didn’t tell me that she had a stepmother that didn’t want someone else’s children, so she, the child-Grandma, and her brothers scrounge for food with the farm animals. She didn’t tell me that her doctor told her poor nutrition in her youth probably shortened her life.
Grandma died from a stroke about a year after my first son was born. We all sat vigil in the hospital, hoping the surgery would save her. Grandpa held her tiny hand in his big rough paw. He kept his eyes on her hand, willing it to respond. “Ya know, Delli, when I first met Stella, we were at her cousin’s wedding reception. Her cousin introduced us. She was real skinny. When I danced with her I told her she was so thin, I thought she would die right there in my arms. She told me “Frank, I intend to die in your arms.” A tear leaked out of his eye and got stuck in one of the deep crevices. He looked over the bed at me. “Looks like she’s right again.” he said.
One day, about a year after Grandma died, Mom and I were canning plums. When she opened the canner, the juice boiled out of the jar, making a mess everywhere. She sat down, rested he head in her hands and cried.
“It’s all right Mom. We can clean it up.” I said.
“I would have called my mother.” Mom said. “She would have known just what to do.” I never saw Mom so adrift and unsure in all my life.
Parents and Grandparents do have a knack of knowing just what to do or say, don’t they? Good ones know that sometimes you need some space, and that work can give you confidence and that play can make you strong. The wise ones know to withhold advice until you need it, and then to preface any suggestions with just the right amount of humor and humility. They know when to share their pain in a way that lets you know they are human. Most of all, they know how to leave just enough space.