Grandma Harriet

My sister-in-law’s family owns a campground in Wisconsin that we’ve been returning to frequently for nearly 18 years now. The entire surrounding area owns a huge chunk of real estate in our hearts, because of so many shared memories and funny stories.

Grandma Harriet lived in a modest house right on the shores of the lake, and we always had full permission to walk down from the campground and use the beachfront that came along with the house.    I only knew “Grandma Harriet” as a tall, lively, red-haired, former music teacher, who had been married three times (the first two husbands had died) and who would sometimes bring her accordion up to the campground and lead the sing-a-longs they used to have there on weekends.  We always got a kick out of how incredibly spunky she was…she used to get up and dance along with the song, and her current husband (who obviously adored her) was, as far we saw, almost totally silent when they were in public and just sat watching her smiling.  And then one year we heard that her husband had died, and not long afterward Grandma Harriet went too.  The family kept the house and often one of the adult children were living there, so we just kept using the beach and telling stories of Grandma Harriet to our kids.

 

And then came my accident.  At age 52,  I was naturally struggling with depression and feeling that my life was over.  I had recently come to grips with the realization that I would most likely never teach high school chorus again, or play piano at all well or so easily again.  I had most of my identity and self worth wrapped up in that.  I was determined not to be whiney or negative.  I wanted to be someone people wanted to be around, but it was just so HARD!  I kept praying about it and reading only positive things and trying to think only positive thoughts, but I was starting to lose the battle.

And then we were invited to visit the lake and stay in the house for a week with our daughter and her husband. We hadn’t dreamed of having a vacation with our financial circumstances, and with my problems, but this seemed perfect!  We quickly said “yes” and agreed on a week.

 

It was the most magical week ever.  Ever.  The bedroom we slept in had a giant picture window that opened right on the lake, and we went to sleep every night to the sound of loons, and woke up every morning to sunshine sparkling on the lake.  It must have rained sometime, but it didn’t seem like it ever mattered.  And then there were Grandma Harriet’s scrapbooks.

 

Beside the fireplace in the living room were built-in shelves holding a number of photo albums and scrapbooks.  One lazy afternoon, early in the week of our vacation, we were lying around in the living room talking about what might be in those old books.  My husband started pulling them out and looking through them.  Quite a few of them had been compiled by Harriet, and told the story of her life.  In a paraphrase of her words, ” by the time your children and grandchildren become old enough to be interested in your life, you’re not around to tell them stories.”  These books were her way of leaving a story behind so that by the time her descendants were interested enough to want to know more, the whole story would be here for them.

Turns out she was quite a girl with quite a story.  The last line in every one of the books, save one, was “This has been the best year of my life!”

 

When she and her first husband had been married over 30 years and had 2 adult children, he was fixing a gravel truck right in front of their house when it fell on him and crushed him.  She saw the whole thing happen.  That was the only year she left that line out of the book.  She wrote that she took to her bed several weeks with grief, and then one morning she heard her son and daughter in the kitchen discussing who would drive her down to Florida (she and her husband had spent winters in Florida for years).   She lay there thinking “I’m not a baby!  I can drive myself!”  and hopped out of bed and ran into the kitchen and explained that to her children.  They eventually agreed to let her try it, and so started a whole new chapter in her life.  We started seeing many more references to a group down in Florida named the “Sojourners” that was made up of snowbirds, who would have weekly meetings, socials, dinners, eat at restaurants, card games, and in every newspaper clipping and picture about the group there would be Harriet smiling somewhere.  Husband #2 she had met through this group.  He had been a widower, whose wife had been dead several years.  That marriage was a happy one and lasted quite a few years before his death.  More years went by, and then she reconnected with Clark.  He and his wife had been friends of Harriet’s and her husband years before, and the two men had hunted together.  They had lost touch through the years, but reconnected through the Sojourners Group and fell in love.  This was the husband we saw, the quiet man that just sat watching her, quietly adoring. And again, after several years, he died first.  They were all good marriages.  Because her first marriage had been so fortunate, she wasn’t at all afraid to run wholeheartedly toward the next opportunity with no hesitation, no worries about “this time it might not…”.  And so it always worked out.  Who could resist being loved by such a woman?

Harriet had a daughter with polio, she had seen her husband of over 35 years die in front of her eyes:  she had had the courage to remarry, and that had been a strong marriage, but he had died too.  She had still had the heart to risk another time and that had been another win, but he too had predeceased her:  yet at the end of her book she wrote these words which I’ll never forget:  “Life has treated me kindly.”  What a gift to another woman who feared that her life was over.  Harriet started over and over and over, and at the end wrote those words.  I’m certain that it was a God-thing that placed us in Harriet’s house with those scrapbooks and led us to them.

Our last morning, I woke up very early and walked out in the dim early light of morning.  “Harriet?”  I whispered.  “Are you here? If you are, I want to thank you so much.  I think you saved my life.”  But there was no answer, no sense of her presence.  Not that I expected there to be.  Harriet had moved on to better things.  She wasn’t the type to stick around when things were over.

 

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Wind in Her Hair

There’s a picture I’ve always loved of my second daughter running, when she was just a toddler, in our side yard.  Her hair is just like white dandelion fluff, blowing back in the wind of her joyous, headlong rush,  which has always made me think that a good American Indian name for her would have been “Wind In Her Hair.”  Something about the picture just speaks to the heart of her spirit, her true identity.  She has always held a unique position in our family, and we would all be lost without her.  In so many ways, she anchors us all together.  Like me, she has always needed routine (something hard to come by in our family!), and like me, she loves reading and books.  We’re both deeply domestic, love animals (not that that particular trait is unique to us!),  but unlike me, she excels at teaching young children.  They give me the heebie-jeebies.  I love them when they’re my own, but in large groups I seem to cause them to freak out and start jumping up and down and screaming.  Before you can calmly whisper “hush up,”, she will already have them sitting quietly on the floor with their legs crossed waiting for instructions, which she will then issue in a calm. yet authoritative, voice.  It must be magic.  I definitely don’t have it.  Maybe you could have given me a room full of middle or high school age “singers” and sooner or later  I would have worked them kind of like a lion tamer, but that’s not at all the same sort of magic.  I admire that in her.

She’s not perfect – who is?  But she’s really good.  And she tries very, very hard.  Always has.  And I still see that little girl in the picture when I look into her eyes.  She’s still looking out at me.

Imperfect Parenting

76 birthday parties.  If you add together all 4 of my children’s birthdays, that’s how many total birthdays I’ve been responsible for.  I could tell you about ….. oh, maybe 4 or 5 of them that were pretty good.  We rented a coffee shop for a surprise 16th.  We had a luau themed 13th, a Scooby-Doo 5th (complete with scooby snacks), 4 little girls decorating a huge sheet cake with multi frostings and sprinkles, laser tag and pizza for 12-year-old boys.  We made a sea serpent cake, a castle cake, a carousel, dinosaur, horse ranch, heart, and a few others that were respectable.

We also have quite a few of “oh my gosh–it’s TOMORROW!” birthdays with a gift card, a purchased cheesecake, a friend invited on the fly to go…..to go….what the heck would be open tomorrow!!  We have a lot of “let’s have grandpa and grandma over and grill out” birthdays.  We have several “both mom and dad have concerts on your birthday–could we have a friend or two over in a week or so?”.

My daughters, and many of my students, are Pinterest-obsessed.  They find, and actually make, incredibly clever and decorative things.  They show me plans for Halloween costumes, birthday parties, decorations/treats/accessories that are insanely wonderful.

I’ve got to wonder, though, how much guilt can we heap on mothers these days?  How can these women have time to raise children (which is laughably demanding), earn income (which most of us do these days), and also create these Martha Stewart-worthy events for their children?

I kind of think (I’m sure this is rationalization for my shortcomings, but bear with me) that having a mom who isn’t always looking online for new ideas, who isn’t rushing you in and out of your car seat to buy hobby supplies, who doesn’t spend late nights staying up to craft some darling table favors in your party theme colors, who just possibly has time to play a game with you, who is smiling the morning of your birthday, who doesn’t care about the smears on the front door from the dog’s nose, who is just happy to be with you on this special day—maybe THAT would be something exciting for a kid!  I’m pretty sure that the parties I think were the best are not necessarily the ones the kids would pick.  Those parties were a whole lot about me–my success–my planning–my cleverness–my ability to do this well.  Not always a lot about my daughters and my sons.  They DID have some wicked fun, but usually it was during the silly things.  Laser tag was great, mostly because we all played and Mom and Dad got shot about 3x per minute during the whole game.  Grandpa and Grandma were great because they took them out to fly kites for as long as it took to get it up in the air–no hurries, no worries.

So just sit down for a minute already.  Keep it simple.  If you really dig doing all the cool decor stuff, and you have the time, then plan away.  But if you’re a schmuck like me, don’t sweat it.  Just remember to smile at them a lot.  Be happy.  Be fun.