99 years. Mere months from 100. 1915 – 2015.
Think of the changes that transpired in her lifetime. She was around when Spanish Influenza ravaged the population. World War I raged. A revolution rocked Russia. The automobile was still uncommon, only possessed by a wealthy few. Most families in her neck of the woods didn’t have a telephone.
Born 67 years after Wisconsin became a state, Grandma Eunice grew up among the Big Woods that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of. Crandon, the seat of Forest County, was not far removed from the frontier days. Corduroy roads were still in use. The Civil War was a vivid memory among the aged. Her grandfather boasted of shaking the hand of Abraham Lincoln after the Battle of Gettysburg.
She was a twin, like my kids. She delighted in announcing this commonality with my children. Sometimes the realization came to her every five minutes after her short-term memory slipped away. “Oh, they’re twins? I was a twin. They get that from me!” Her brother, my name sake, was killed in action during World War II. Their seemingly unbreakable bond was shattered at the age of 28. It was a devastating blow.
4:46 a.m. She breathed her last. My dad arrived two minutes late. He must have been stunned to get the call, which we all knew would come eventually, but surprised nonetheless. Not even three days earlier he had enjoyed a visit with her.
Grandma has always been there for us. Even when her mind changed with old age, it was a comfort knowing she was still alive and kicking. For most of my life she always looked and acted the same.
In 1976, shortly before I was born, she married a carpenter named Alloys. Some years earlier my actual grandfather had died of a sudden heart attack. I’m grateful she married Alloys. From the time of their wedding until about the year 2000, they barely seemed to change. They were kind, wise, steady, and constant. The pair could be counted on like bedrock. They were the most stable force in my life.
Whenever I visited my grandparents I luxuriated in an inexhaustible supply of healthy food. I never took for granted Grandmother’s hard work preparing large serving bowls of potatoes, broccoli, peas, and a scrumptious roast or stew. Over the coarse of nearly seven decades, beginning in the early part of the War, she labored in that kitchen on Metonga Avenue. From the standpoint of my childish eyes she never changed. She was always there, white-haired and all, fulfilling her role as grandmother.
One glorious week at the height of summer was spent in their care each year for about three years until the experience was torn from me for reasons I don’t understand, having to do with my parent’s divorce. Most kids would probably bemoan staying with Grandma and Grandpa as unbelievably boring. Indeed, they had nothing going on. Most days were pretty much the same, revolving around their garden. It was the largest I’ve ever seen. Nearly all produce on their table came fresh from this amazing garden. I spent most of each day with them in that amazing wellspring of abundance. They possessed a mysterious wizardry that allowed them to coax and charm fruit and a stunning variety of vegetables from the soil. It was labor done with love.
I adored the entire experience. Those times of eating and talking around the dinner table are among my most cherished childhood memories. These visits were relatively few and far between, because they lived five hours away from home. Ironically, though I now live clear across an entire diagonal crossing of Wisconsin—which I enjoy seeing in the distance from my window in Duluth just across the border in Minnesota—Grandma’s old house still requires a five-hour journey by automobile. That great bastard of the modern era—mobility—cut deeply into the quantity of our time spent together. I am grateful that the quality of our visits were generally outstanding. She was one of the few tethers in my life, anchoring me in love and a more solid reality.
These experiences—regrettably fewer in number than I would have liked—shaped my concept of the ideal dinner with family, involving healthily and lovingly prepared food mingled with relaxed table talk where nobody is distracted by busy schedules or the TV. To this day I insist on a real plate eaten at the table, with ample time to linger and enjoy the company of those gathered together. Today we call it the Slow Food Movement, but this was everyday life for my grandparents. I never tired of conversations at their kitchen table. Sometimes we’d linger for an hour or more after the meal was over, occasionally sipping on tea. Conversation continued as the Rummikub game was brought down from above the refrigerator, or a deck of cards was shuffled and dealt.
As Grandma made sure everyone was comfortable and adequately fed, Grandfather shared war stories. During World War II he served in North Africa, and was among Patton’s forces that slowly drove out the Axis Powers as they pushed up the boot of Italy. In Rome he saw catacombs that were exposed from all the bombing. A devout Catholic, he was one of a handful selected to meet the Pope. I was enthralled. On my last visit (I was 25) before Grandpa Alloys died, I recorded a tape of our dynamic after-dinner conversation. It is among my most cherished possessions. The next day, silently sitting out on the porch beside Grandpa, I tried in vain to hold back tears. I knew it would be the last time I’d see him alive. I was heading out to graduate school on the East Coast, and his body was being eaten away by cancer. The moment was so very special. Barely a word was spoken. At one point he turned to look me straight in the eyes—the image is burned into my head—and I stifled a cry as best I could. My eyes still well up when thinking of it. He knew it was our last meeting as well. It was such a tender stare into my soul. Oh how I loved him.
That experience is emblematic of my relationship with them. Sure, we talked, but beautiful music was created in the silence between the notes. I don’t recall many wise words spoken into my life. It was their steady presence—unconditional love—that held me transfixed.
And now they are both gone. Oh what I would give to have ten more visits with them both in their home, sitting out on that back porch overlooking the garden in a symphony of silence punctuated with the ambient sounds of pollinating insects. I will never again have a grandparent. They are all gone.
We remain. It’s up to us to carry on their memory, and more importantly, to follow their example in calmly guiding the next generation that rises under our shade. With or without words.