Saturday, May 2, 2009

Show & Tell: Happy birthday, Grandpa & Grandma

I've been thinking a lot about my maternal grandparents lately. Both of them had birthdays in early May -- Grandpa on May 3 (he'd be 97) & Grandma on May 11 (she's be 95). Theoretically, they could both still be here.

But although I was lucky to have them for many, many years, I'm not lucky enough to still have them here. Grandpa died in October 1998, at age 86 -- three months after we lost our Katie -- and Grandma died almost a year to the day later in October 1999, at age 85.

Christmas 1998 was doubly hard, not only because of the loss of the baby we had hoped to bring home to my family, but also because, for the first time ever, my Grandpa wasn't there.

I was the oldest of four grandchildren and, being first, I suppose, I had a special relationship with them (or at least, I like to think so!). We lived only 20 miles away from them for the first two years of my life, so I saw them often, and lived with them for awhile, when my father was transferred to a small town in northern Saskatchewan.

When I was 14, we moved closer -- about two hours away from the small town where they lived in northwestern Min.neso.ta-- & the visits became more frequent again. My sister & I spent a good chunk of our childhood summers with our grandparents, and many holidays. Especially Christmas.

Some Christmases, we would make the long car trip back to Min.neso.ta to be with my grandparents. For Christmas 1976, the year my great-uncle passed away, we all spent Christmas with my uncle & his family. Once my sister & I were in university, Grandma & Grandpa always came to spend Christmas with us.

There were a few Christmases, when we lived in northern Saskatchewan, when Grandma stayed at home with my great-uncle (who lived with them), or travelled to be with my uncle and his family. Sometimes, Grandma & Grandpa would make the trip together to be with us. (After my sister & I started university, they always spent Christmas with us and, in later years, as they became increasingly frail, we would drive down to pick them up.)

But Grandpa always, always was there -- every single Christmas of my life. I can remember the year when I was 3 or 4 and my father drove to a nearby town to pick him up from the train station. I pulled my little chair up to the window & sat there for what seemed like hours, watching & waiting. It was dark & cold, with frost on the windows (houses not being quite so energy efficient back in the early 1960s), and I think I fell asleep, or at any rate was half-asleep by the time the car pulled up in the house & my Grandpa finally came in, giving me a big, cold hug and bearing suitcases full of presents, like Santa Claus.

Grandma & Grandpa met when they were barely teenagers -- Grandma was in Grade 8, I think -- &, aside from a few months when they had a spat & my grandfather went down to Iowa, where several of his siblings had found work, they were rarely apart from that time on. (This adorable photo was taken in 1929, when Grandpa was 17 & Grandma was 15.)

Since this was during the Depression, they didn't have much money, and didn't get married until June 30, 1937, when Grandma was 23 & Grandpa 25. A new grandstand had been built at the county fairgrounds, & the fair board came up with a "gimmick" to draw people to the fair: they advertised for a local couple to get married as the closing act of the grandstand show on the final night of the fair. My grandparents applied & got the gig, figuring it was the only way they would ever be able to afford to get married. They had to keep it a secret from all but a few close family members.

Sadly, no wedding photos were taken (that I have ever seen, anyway)... but there was a priceless item published in local newspaper. A family member went to the local museum, found this article in the archives, & read the following item aloud at my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary party:
"The closing and probably one of the most interesting events of the fair was the public wedding solemnized on the evening of the last day of the fair... "I Love You Truly" with orchestral accompaniment was sung as the bridal party entered. The bride was attended by eight young ladies of [the revue]. They were appropriately attired for the occasion and each carried a bouquet of roses which was afterward showered upon the bride while the groom was almost smothered with kisses and hugs from the group."

I've always thought this was the coolest thing… but I think my grandmother was embarrassed. Whenever I asked her for details about that day, she would claim she didn't really remember much. Her youngest sister, my great-aunt, who passed away last year, was not quite 14 at the time. She once told us she remembered walking around the fairgrounds after the wedding, crying, because now that her sister was married, who was going to do all the housework?? (lol) (But then she met her older brother, who gave her some money for a treat, and that cheered her up, lol.)

(In the mid-1990s, that beautiful old wooden grandstand was destroyed by a tornado, which skirted the edges of town. A monstrous tin structure arose to take its place, just in time for my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary in 1997, which we celebrated by serving cake & coffee at the seniors' home where they now lived. Everyone teased that there was a crowd out at the grandstand, waiting for them to come and renew their vows.)

They took the train to Winnipeg for a honeymoon, and briefly set up house on their own (although many of the promised gifts from local merchants, as part of their fairground wedding, never did materialize), but soon moved in with Grandma's family in a little house across the street from the railroad tracks in the north end of town. As my sister once said, it's kind of a miracle we're all here today, because there can't have been much privacy in that tiny old house, with at least four other people living there, including my great-grandparents as well as at least two of my grandmother's siblings. They stayed in that house until the early 1980s, when a weak foundation & escalating upkeep issues persuaded them to move into an apartment in a fourplex in town. They spent the last few years of their lives sharing a room at the seniors' home in town.

My grandparents were salt-of-the-earth people. Grandma worked in her younger years, but became a homemaker after she started her family. When I think of Grandma, I see her in the kitchen at the old house, wearing an Edith Bunker-style bib apron. There was always a pot of coffee percolating on the gas stove, cookies in the cookie jar (which now sits on the countertop in my kitchen), and there were always people dropping by to share a cup & some conversation -- and laughs, lots of laughs -- around the kitchen table, or on the little screened-in porch off the kitchen on the side of the house, covered in Virginia creeper.

Grandpa worked at the farm implement shop when I was little, then at an auto body shop as a partsman, and retired after several years as a custodian at the high school. He also drove a school bus for several years. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. He loved kids, & kids loved him. The class of 1972 dedicated their yearbook to him, much to his immense pride.

When my sister & I were little, he would tell -- tell, not read -- us fairy tales at bedtime, taking on different voices for the different characters. After dinner, he would often take us and our cousins out for a drive in the country to look for deer & wildflowers by the side of the road, winding up with a treat at the local Dairy Whirl drive-in.

When we were planning Grandpa's memorial service, the regular organist at the little Episcopal church he faithfully attended was not in town. Someone suggested a local woman who might be able to fill in. "Did you know my dad?" my mother asked her. "Oh sure -- he drove the school bus," she responded, then added, "I would be honoured."

A few years ago, we held a family reunion in my mother's hometown. Several of her cousins attended from Iowa & Michigan, and wanted to see the farm where my great-aunt, one of my grandfather's sisters, had lived. A whole procession of cars drove out to the farm & parked in the yard, much to the bemusement of the current owner, a farmer who was just coming in from the fields on his tractor. My mother got out of the car & went over to introduce herself. Through the window, I could hear her say, "I'm (Grandpa's)'s daughter." A grin broke out on his face; he nodded and said, "Oh, sure." I turned to my sister with a broad grin. "She said the magic words!" I giggled.

A woman who worked at the nursing home took this photo of my grandparents in December 1997 -- the last Christmas we had both of them with us. They were dancing to an orchestra that was visiting the home. 60 years married, still always together and devoted to each other.

My grandmother, already suffering from mild dementia, was a lost soul after my grandfather died. In bewilderment, she would ask where he had gone & when he was coming back.

That first Christmas without both Katie & Grandpa, I told my mother that I could not go with her to Christmas Eve church services. Normally, I love the Christmas Eve service, but singing "Silent Night" chokes me up at the best of times, and I knew that "Away in a Manger" would send me into hysterical sobs. While my parents & dh went to church and my sister & her boyfriend (not churchgoers) smoked in the garage, I sat on the floor beside my grandmother's chair in the living room. She asked me where Grandpa was, of course, and I remember telling her that he was in Heaven -- adding that I liked to think he was with my baby girl. "Oh, I forgot, you were going to have a baby," she said, & I put my head in her lap & sobbed while she stroked my hair, like I was a little girl again.

The photo at the very top of this post was taken by a cousin in the summer of 1984. She brought an enlargement to their 60th wedding anniversary party, & we put it in a plexiglass frame & displayed it at both their funerals. After Grandma's funeral, we brought it back to my grandparents' apartment (which my mother had mantained while they lived in the seniors home) & propped it up on the low brick-&-board bookshelf, behind a couple of stacks of small photo albums. Grandma loved to sit in the easy chair beside the shelf & flip through the albums looking at photos.

The next morning when we got up, the framed photo was lying face up on the floor in front of the easy chair. A few of the small albums were scattered around its edges, but they did not cover my grandparents' faces. We figured it must have slipped off the shelf during the night, & picked everything up & put it back.

Then we started thinking... how did the photo fall off the shelf, flip over, land face up, & take some but not all of the little photo albums off the shelf with it? It couldn't have slid off the shelf, because it would have taken all the little photo albums with it, & there were still some sitting on the shelf.

My sister had been sleeping on the couch & said she hadn't heard anything. (Of course, a freight train could be running through the living room & my sister would sleep right through it.)

(As we puzzled how this might have happened, I recreated the scene we had found & took this photo of it.)

My mother firmly believes this was a sign from my grandmother -- that she had found Grandpa, & they were together again and everything was OK.

I had them for 37 & 38 years of my life, which I know makes me incredibly fortunate. They've been gone 10-11 years now. I still think about them every day.

I miss you, Grandma & Grandpa.

Here's a link to the main Show & Tell thread -- drop by & see what others are showing & telling this week.


  1. That's a really, really lovely story. What precious memories.

    Besides, you've mentioned some of my old stomping grounds. :)

  2. What a beautiful series of memories. It's so wonderful that you were able to know them so well.

    They were pioneers! A real-life precursor to a reality show wedding! But even better, as if instead of Trista having her actual friends as bridesmaids, she had all of the Deal or No Deal girls.

  3. A beautiful tribute to your grandparents. I love that her sister cried on her wedding night over the thought of having to do housework! Too cute.

  4. I'm totally crying with you! What a wonderful set of grandparents you had!!! I nearly posted a similar post about my own grandparents for this week's Show & Tell. And it was because, my grandparents (exactly like yours) eloped during the depression and have no wedding pics. For their 60th wedding anniversary, I painted them a 'wedding' picture using their high school graduation headshots.

    My grandma died at age 93 last year, 8 year after my grandpa. I know they are happy to be together again, but I also miss them.

    Extended family is so very important. So glad you've had the chance to enjoy it as well.

  5. Loribeth....I know this is so very hard....wishing that your grandparents are in great peace. The story you told was amazing, and the photographs were beautiful...thanks so much for sharing. Have a nice day.

  6. What a wonderful story. And pictures, as well! Thank you so much for sharing. It reminds me a lot of my own great-grandparents. I have always wished there were a wedding picture of them somewhere. I know how you much cherish their newspaper clipping of their wedding.

  7. This reminds me of my grandparents. It is so wonderful that you had such a close relationship with them. I too would spend many of my summers with my grandparents who lived far away. I really miss those days. They were some of the best parts of my childhood. I love your photos.

  8. You are a wonderful family historian, Loribeth! This post made me smile and cry. Thank you for sharing it.

  9. What a totally beautiful love story and thank you so much for sharing it.

    Jen in MD

  10. What an amazing story. You gave a true tribute to your grandparents. I'm sorry for your loss, but I'm so glad that you had them in your life for so long.

  11. You write such touching and beautiful posts!!!

  12. What a story. I'm so moved by it as all four of my grandparents died before I was born. I never had any and it felt like a missing piece.

    Beautiful memories.

  13. Wow. Just wow. What a fantastic story of your grandparents. And "the message" they left to let you all know they were now together is remarkable. What a fantastic Show and Tell!

  14. What a wonderful tribute to your Grandparents. I loved the picture of them when they were teenagers, so proud and full of life, a future still to be made by them.
    I know the ache of missing that link, that generation forever silenced. I miss mine too. I am glad you have so many remarkable memories of them to keep you company now.

  15. This is the sweetest post I've read all week.

    I am glad they've reunited and that they let you know they have!

  16. I agree--it's a beautiful story and I'm honoured to celebrate what would have been their birthday with you by hearing them.

  17. Oh Loribeth...what an incredible, beautiful story. You has me in tears by the end.

  18. What an amazing set of lives, and what interesting people. Salt of the earth, indeed.

    Thanks for sharing, Loribeth. I love your family and personal stories.

  19. That was amazing! Getting married at a fair - what a story. And to think people actually fuss about not getting to spend a bundle at their weddings.

  20. What a beautiful, heart warming story! Thank you for sharing it! I believe your grandmother was sending you a message. I know my mom did that to me after she passed. Sending you peace and hugs.

  21. just catching up with you. what a wonderful show and tell, and what marvelous people to have had in your life. precious memories and photos!

  22. Loved the photos! It was really nice. My grandpa and grandmother also have same birthday but they have never had any grand party ever. They told me all this recently so for their upcoming birthday, I want to make them feel special. It would be a grand party at one of the vintage Chicago event venues.