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Posts Tagged ‘children’

Why did Grandma die, doesn’t she love us anymore?”

When my mother was dying several years ago, we gathered for a week at her bedside, all eleven of us, her children, coming in from all parts of the country, also numerous grandchildren.

My mother’s body was shot, after living with cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a host of other maladies, including my father who now had Alzheimer’s. She’d had enough; it was her time to go.

When I was growing up, we went on weekly picnics in the nice weather.  My mother loved to sing; she had a beautiful voice. She and my father, whose voice was not as exceptional, would lead us in the old songs that they grew up with. We would all sing around the fire at night and on all those drives to and from.

So, around my mother’s bed, we sang these same songs. When we got the words wrong she would jump in and help us. Then she died.

I missed when she passed out of her body and briefly burst into tears when one of my sisters said she was gone.

The next day I was hanging out with my nieces. Jana, a very vivacious eight year old, was very sad and angry.

“Why did Grandma die?” she asked. “Doesn’t she love us anymore?”

She could not understand why her grandma, who had held on until everyone had come in from Illinois, California, Connecticut, and Colorado, would abandon her. Jana sorely missed her.

I explained that Grandma’s body was all worn out, that it was very hard for her to stay alive when she was so old and so sick.

I said it was time for her to leave her body and go on to something else like a caterpillar in a chrysalis becomes a butterfly. “Would you want Grandma to stay the way she is, all sick and broken down, just because you don’t want her to go away?”

Jana’s face changed. Still serious, but now a little lighter, she asked, “Is Grandma a butterfly?”

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My grandfather on my mother’s side (I never knew my other grandfather) was a grumpy, stern man. I can’t ever remember him smiling. Even his wedding picture looked grim. This manner, I always attributed to that famous Germanic humorlessness. As Robin Williams once said, “They killed off all the funny people.”

However, I came to realize that perhaps this brusque, unfriendly manner had its source in something else.

He grew up on a farm in Austria, about 25 miles outside of Vienna. Not far, as it turned out, from my grandmother, whom he met only after coming to this country. My grandparents spoke both German and Hungarian since their territory switched hands so many times in their youth. They acquired English later, here. They both came over on the boat after World War I. My grandfather had been conscripted and fought on the Eastern front on the German side. He was probably 18 at the time. He was captured by the Russians, who, not known for their hospitality towards their enemies, imprisoned him in Siberia for several years. He didn’t like to talk about it. I always pictured an interminable train ride across a bare, forbidding landscape, followed by a long internment in a snowy place far, far from home. I think all he ever said about it was that they cut down trees, and it was cold.

When my giant family (there were eventually 13 in all, including my parents) would visit, we would sleep on a pullout couch, a bed, and cots spread all over the dining/living room of their tiny one-story home.

During the day, my brothers and I would occupy ourselves with riding my parents old balloon-tired bikes, playing wiffleball in the yard, and our all-time favorite, pushing each other in my grandfather’s green wagon with the ball bearing wheels. It was amazingly fast, and steered easily, and we would careen around the tiny sidewalks that skirted his gardens of flowers and vegetables and wended the passageways through his perfectly manicured hedges. It was a blast and we would howl with delight. Grandpa, on the other hand, would yell at us to slow down and watch out for his borders and hedges that we were always crashing into. One time he caught me by the hair, and then shook me by the shoulders after we bashed into and made a serious dent in the front hedge.

In the evening, we would watch TV. My father, who always took over wherever we went, commandeered the recliner. The rest of us would be on the floor, dining room chairs or pullout couch.

One time we were watching a war movie about World War II. My father loved to watch these. He was a signalman in the Navy in the South Pacific during the latter part of the war. However, he was fortunate never to have seen any action.

“Grandpa, why don’t you sit down and watch TV with us?” My father said, with that magnanimous ‘your house is my house’ tone of his.

My grandfather refused, turned around, and headed back to the kitchen. As he left, he spoke in a typically grumpy tone, this time tinged with pain, “I’ve seen enough war.”

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When I was young I hated peas. There are stories and vague memories of me, around two, sitting for an hour on a little chair with my cheeks puffed out with peas, refusing to swallow. In my defense, the peas were mushy canned peas, and my mother always overcooked them. I can still remember how unpalatable they were. I refused to swallow them because I was afraid I’d throw up.

One Thanksgiving several years later, still bearing the same affliction, I was at the dinner table, mouth, full of peas, when an alarm came from my stomach to send them forth in an outward direction.

My father, perhaps aware of a disturbance in The Force, pointed a menacing finger at me and growled, “Don’t you dare!”

In fright, I reversed the flow and swallowed, possibly saving my life. Thankfully, my mother eventually changed over to canned corn, and it became a non-issue.

Later still, my father reopened an old diner called the Dinner Bell. On the menu was split pea soup. Since I could have almost anything I wanted to eat, I had no intention of trying it.

One day I was washing dishes in the back (as part of my father’s slave labor campaign) and I smelled a wonderful aroma emanating from a pressure cooker on the stove. I asked the cook, a very large and kind woman, what it was.

“Split pea and ham soup.”

I must’ve made a face, so she said, “It’s good; you should try it.”

At lunch, I took a thimbleful out back and very carefully and very slowly tried the smallest taste of it—it was delicious. I had a large  bowl and have loved it ever since. It didn’t taste like peas to me at all.

Epilogue

My wife and I would make split pea soup sometimes. I especially liked making it with lots of shredded carrots.

When Brian, my youngest was five or six, Helen had it on the stove cooking when he got off the bus from school.  As soon as he walked in the kitchen he said,”What’s that awful smell,” started to make involuntary heaving sounds and ran to the bathroom.

When he emerged, he stood in the middle of the kitchen and sternly declared to his mother,”Don’t you ever make that again!”

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When I was a young boy, we had an extremely fastidious and irascible neighbor, Mr. Pavlak. He kept his house, yards, garage, and garden in perfect condition.

One morning during the summer, I came across two of my sisters playing with his daughter on our front stoop. They were engrossed stringing a couple pails of what looked like green beads. 

“What ya doin?” I asked.

My older sister looked at me with contempt and said, “We’re making necklaces.” As if I was the dumbest person in the world for asking the obvious.

 “Where did you get all those beads?” I foolishly ventured.

 She slowly turned her head and looked at me like I was rudely interrupting the President and her advisors, “From Maryanne’s garden.” she said impatiently.

 “Oh.” I figured they must be peas. What a good idea I thought.

 Later that day Mr. Pavlak stormed over to see my mother. “Did you see what your kids did?” He was beside himself.

 “Something happen, Ray?”

 “Your children picked all my tomatoes!”

 “They did? I didn’t think they were even ripe yet,” said my mother calmly.

 “They weren’t. You better….” He went on for a while in regards to the complete loss of his crop. The girls had at least 30 tiny green tomatoes out of which they’d crafted their pretty necklaces.

 Another time when I was around six, his son, who was one of my best friends, helped me irrigate the garden. It was after a big rain. The alley that ran between our houses was filled with giant puddles. I think I had the makings of a Civil Engineer, because when I saw that large puddle above his garden, I got an idea. I went home, dragged a shovel over, and with Billy’s help, dug a small drainage ditch through the bank of the puddle and down the slope to the garden. When we cleared the last clod of mud the water ran like a miniature waterfall. I had no idea there could be so much water, that puddle wasn’t that deep—you could walk through it without the water going over the top of your boots.

 Mr. Pavlak had another talk with my mother about the six inches of water in his garden.

 The other interface that I remember my mother having was over the efforts Billy and I made to paint his garage. One day, Billy showed me some of his father’s paints. He showed how you open the cans with a screwdriver. They were very small cans and I had a good idea—why don’t we paint the garage?

 There were no brushes so we used sticks. It was clear to me, despite my young age that this was not the most efficacious method of covering the outside walls of a beige colored garage. The paint was very dark, browns and blacks, and the sticks would only apply marks that amounted to hen scratches. It was too daunting a task to do the job, maybe impossible, so we closed up the cans and put the paint away.

 I remember my mother saying, after her next conversation with our disgruntled neighbor, “He didn’t have to repaint the whole garage!”

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