Have you ever returned to the favorite camping spot of your childhood in your mid twenties, and for the first time in a long time since you moved across the country from your hometown noticed the innumerable stars in the night sky? Then you leaned over to your now adult sister and said, “Something deep and meaningful.” To which she looked over at you and said, “What?”
Then you realize the frogs in the pond and the crickets in the woods are so loud that you might as well be sitting in that trendy new bar at the crappy table by the speakers on live music night. So you tried again, louder this time, “SOMETHING DEEP AND MEANINGFUL.” And those are your actual words because you’ve had a few too many glasses of cheap wine, and honestly, you think you’re being funny.
Well, I found myself in that exact position after three long days in dress slacks and close company with family. Actually, all 16 grandchildren that I was now sitting with in a circle around the campfire were in a similar position to myself. We had buried our grandmother that morning, in the plot next to the grandfather and uncle none of us had ever met.
You see all 16 of us, now ranging from 17 to 35 years old, had many memories at this camping spot. It was located at the edge of our grandma’s large property, almost 100 acres of overgrown fields and woods and lovingly referred to as the sand pit. Of course most of us hadn’t been back here in years, only the grandchildren that had stayed local frequently hunted out here during deer season. But death has a strange way of bringing people together. So here we sat, drinking beer and Barefoot wine in honor of Grandma.
“Do you remember how Grandma would mix wines?” my cousin Ona asked from the log next to me.
“Ugh, yes! I don’t think you’re supposed to do that,” I replied.
“I don’t think Grandma gave a rat’s ass about stuff like that,” my brother said, “The woman microwaved raw meat.”
My cousin Marie piped up, “Oh, and she froze eggs in ice cube trays! Jessie, do you remember when we found that book on her porch How to Freeze Almost Everything?”
I held out my Solo cup to my sister for a refill of the Barefoot Sweet Red Blend as I laughed out my answer, “Oh my gosh, yes!”
Now something I must tell you, the reader, to completely understand the things we said and will say about our own grandmother. She was a strange old lady, with habits that everyone simply accepted because she was in fact not all there. She had a mental breakdown after her husband died from a farming accident (he was crushed by a combine) in the early 70s; which left her to raise seven kids and run a farm alone. The men in white coats literally came out to her home and took her away for shock therapy after she had spent three days in the front yard speaking to the Blessed Virgin. Of course, our parents always said she wasn’t truly normal even before that. She was also diagnosed with schizophrenia, and had shown symptoms since her late 20s.
My mother had told me one of her earlier memories had been of her dad taking them to the hospital, but they never went inside. Instead he would just point at a certain window and say, “That is your mother’s room.” This was of course after the death of her three year old son, who had knocked his head on the swing set and later that night died from the concussion.
But by the time the first grandchild was born in the mid 1980s, my cousin Leo, grandma’s past was just that, the past. We only knew what happened through stories. Our experiences with grandma were of a very docile, gray haired woman, who loved to shove her grandchildren full of ice cream, old Easter and Halloween candy, and dollar store cookies (all of which was kept in the freezer, and some of which was probably still in her freezer).
“Grandma had the best stories...I know that sounds kind of wrong,” my sister said looking up from the campfire and around the circle. Her cell phone was held with both hands between her legs with the screen off. There was very little cell reception out here.
There was a mumbled agreement from everyone.
“Well, hey, do we all just want to go around the circle?” I asked the group.
“I wish I had known the real grandma, you know?” my sister said at the same time, leaving my question unheard by many.
My cousin Dey had heard me though, and she had never had a problem making her voice heard. She spoke loud and clear, to be heard above the crackle of the fire, the frogs, the crickets, and anyone else who might speak, “Say one thing about Grandma!”
“Her candy was good!” Renee, the youngest cousin, shouted.
Her sister, Elizabeth, sat on a cinder block next to her. She looked around the circle and then at her drink.
“Liz, do you have anything to say about your granny?” I asked to get her going.
“Say just one thing about Grandma,” Dey said again.
Elizabeth looked up from the fire. Her face looked greasy from bug spray and her hair was frizzy from the four wheeler ride back to the sand pit. Honestly, we all looked about the same. “She was strong, at the end there. I mean...she tried a lot.”
Dey stood next to Elizabeth, drink in hand. She kept whiskey in her cup, not the wine or beer most of us had. “To gra-” she raised her cup but stopped. “You know what?” she paused again, but only for a split second, “Her candy, and her ice cream, and her damn sense of humor.”
“Grandma had a sense of humor?” I asked. There were chuckles from around the group.
Dey gave me a daring glare. “She had a damn sense of humor. She brought bottles of wine everywhere!”
Murmurs of truth and a laugh from someone mingled with the campfire smoke. And back three spaces in the circle my sister spoke, “You guys convinced her that it was legal for us to drink!” Then she nodded at Marie who was next in the circle after Dey. “Marie?”
Marie folded her perfectly manicured pink nails into her lap, just like Grandma used to do before she would tell one of us a nightmare fueled story from her head and spoke, “All I have to say is oh boy!” Oh boy was Grandma’s go to phrase whenever someone was upset with her, did her wrong, or even something silly happened to her. She probably said it at least twice a day. Marie’s impression was spot on, and laughter danced around the circle.
To the left of Marie, Elaine said, “Grandma was a good woman,” very matter of fact. Then the turn fell to Jean.
“Well, okay, I got my name from her. My first name is her middle name,” a high pitched Woo came from Marie at this comment. Jean opened her arms wide in mock acceptance of the praise as though being named after your grandmother was truly a feat to behold. “And she passed down the schizophrenia to me.” An awkward chuckle ensued from everyone; half because they knew her to be telling the truth, and the other half because they were only pretty sure she wasn’t.
“Okay, movin’ on,” I said because I was in the group that knew her words to be true.
Leo took a big swig from his beer, “Grandma told me this story one time. About how she was, uh, about, she was a crossing guard at school,” another gulp of beer. “Jesus, or God, or somebody came down and turned her into a kid to teach her a lesson about what it’s like to be a crossing guard. Scared the shit out of me. I ran to my mom and told her, and my mom said, ‘Oh, she’s just crazy.’”
And, I know it’s wrong, but we laughed a little too hard. Leo continued, “But you know, I took everything she said with a grain of salt. She was great; she was a strong lady!”
“Mmhmm,” someone said. “She had good lessons for most of her stories.”
“Amen!” Renee said.
Richard was next, “There were plenty of times I would go over to her house, and she would immediately call me Michael.”
“Yes!” my brother shouted in agreement.
We had all experienced this at some point with grandma. You see, in addition to schizophrenia, Grandma was beginning to show signs of dementia the last few years. That and she had cataracts in both eyes. She would have to look at you by turning her head to see you in her peripheral vision, and even then her guess was usually wrong. And when someone would comment and say, “Oh no, Grandma. I’m so and so,” she would begin talking about how the doctor had put shades in her eyes and refused to take them out. On the rare occasion she did recognize you, she would usually group you because sixteen grandchildren’s names were just too many to recall. “You’re Johnny’s kid,” she would say. I was one of Alan’s kids on the days she recognized me, and one of Rita’s kids on the days she didn’t.
James was Richard’s older brother and sat next to him. He began, “Got a lot of free candy out of her.”
Cups were raised in acknowledgement and agreement.
“Don’t forget the $12.00!” Dey added.
Ah, yes. The $12.00, or sometimes on a good year, the $14.00 everyone got for Christmas from Grandma. On a bad year everyone got what was available in bulk at the Dollar Tree: a bag of Bic pens, bobby pins that matched our hair color, fine decorative soap. That and a card that said she was going to have a Mass said in your name. The Mass came every Christmas, and on your birthday if she remembered. We laughed about it every year, but when it’s all added up: 7 kids, 5 of them with spouses, and 16 grandchildren times $12.00 per person that’s $336.00. Plus, when she remembered your birthday, you got a card with $7.00 in it (on a good year, on a bad year it was just the honor of having your name said during a Mass you would never attend).
“To Grandma dollars!” James raised his beer.
“To Grandma dollars!” was the reply.
Rick jumped right in, “There was one time she told me that because I was Christian, but not Catholic, that I was going to go to a not-as-good version of Heaven. Apparently, there are walls in Heaven, so the Catholics don’t have to associate with everyone else.”
I nodded my head in agreement with his feelings. If anything could be said about Grandma consistently it was that she was religious to a fault.
“Nate?” Rick said.
Nate began, “The best thing about grandma-”
“She painted your nails green!” Marie (his sister) shouted from across the fire.
He pointed at her, “There’s that!” He had to wait a moment while the giggles from everyone who didn’t know about this incident faded. “And she made the best damn canned pears ever!” He looked to his left to signal the next grandchild, Michael.
“I learned a lot about our background from Grandma. She said we were from all over the place. Apparently, I’m Asian.”
This is in fact false. We are white as white can be on this side of the family. But our grandmother told so many stories with such conviction that for a time in my youth I began to think maybe she was right. For example, I can’t tell you how many times she told me to not be surprised if I had “a dark skinned child” to use grandma’s term. Apparently, being Black skips a generation or three. I was also convinced for a time that my straight hair (which is blonde as blonde can be) was due to my Native American ancestry.
When 23 and Me came on the scene I almost half expected to see some of grandma’s claims in my report. In case you are wondering I am 48% British and Irish, 17.3% French and German, 0.4% Scandinavian, 11.4% Broadly Northwestern European, 14.5% Eastern European, 1.4% Spanish and Portuguese, 0.8% Greek and Balkan, 0.3% Ashkenazi Jewish, 5.6% Broadly European, .2% is unassigned, and a whopping .1% Broadly Sub-Saharan African.
Michael continued after the laughter subsided, “Yeah, my mom got mad at her, but I told her to apologize because you know, she was just confused.”
Ray was next, and he sucked in a deep breath, “She was a wonderful woman, honestly. One of the greatest grandmothers ever. The greatest, like there could be more but probably not. I do have a ton of great memories from her, but one of the best lessons I learned was what not to do as an old person. You should not wash your hands before you make your grandkid an ice cream cone because that’s gross. I freakin’ hate soggy ice cream cones.”
Chuckles erupted from everyone at this memory that each one of us had.
“Her ice cream was good. She always bought Superman!” shouted James.
Ray countered, “Don’t get me wrong. I loved the ice cream cones, but they were so soggy!” He squished his fingers together in the air as if pinching off the bottom of a wet cone. “She washed her hands immediately before she made them and never used a towel; it’s like...DON’T DO THAT!”
Then it was my turn, “I loved Grandma. I’m not gonna lie, she made my life entertaining. I used to ask her, ‘Grandma what’s the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to you?’ Then my mom would yell at me and say, ‘Don’t do that to your grandmother!’” But to be truthful I was only half being a little shit. The other half of me really did like hearing her off the wall stories.
Back to the left of me. “Dude, she killed a possum! Remember that story where she stabbed a damn possum with a steak knife?” Ray exclaimed.
But it was Ona’s turn now. She took a second to think, squishing up her face in thought. “I’m glad that she remembered I was Ellen’s daughter more than half the time. Kind of proud of that. She gave me lots of bobby pins, too, and that was nice,” she trailed off.
Later that night, after everyone had mingled and reminisced to their heart’s content, I found myself alone by the embers of the fire. Some people had driven back up the lane hours ago, to go home and sleep in their own beds. Many of us had pitched tents earlier in the evening, and I could hear the faint snores of someone in the dark.
I tilted my cup back to finish the last of my wine. Now that it was empty I could see little specks of gray ash in the cup. How many of those had I drank that night? I looked up at the stars again. It was quiet now. Either the frogs and the crickets had gone to sleep, or Grandma’s favorite brand of wine was doing the trick.