birth and war – a day to remember

(I posted this last year. It’s still true.)

It would have been his birthday today, my grandfather. For three years, I lived just one small town away, and I suspect – based on all I know of him – that for those three years, I spent much of my life draped comfortably over his arm (where babies were most content), held gently on his lap (where toddlers were most relaxed), or settled happily alongside him at ‘work’ (where children were most eager to be).

When my family plucked itself up from the Nebraska soil and migrated east to the suburban cement, the distance between me and my grandfather might as well have been from here to the moon. Holiday and summer visits, whether 10 hours in a stuffy car or 14 hours on the click-clacking Zephyr, were much too far apart. A child can’t possibly wait a whole year to see again that tall figure, measured gait, broad grin, and leathery hands, all carefully sheltered from the glaring sun by a hat that set my grandfather apart from all other grandfathers in my suburban desert. Cowboy. Farmer. Man of the land. That he was. I was proud he was mine.

Photo: CKIrgiss – ‘Working’ with Grandpa

In the 1940s, while my grandfather was working the land (to feed the people), his brother – a United States Lieutenant Colonel – was stationed in Europe (to free the people). I knew this brother, my great-uncle, but not well. He looked like my grandfather. Smiled like him. Spoke like him. Strangers could have pegged them for brothers with nothing more than a passing glance.

A long while ago, I was back at the farm for my grandfather’s funeral … the man I’d always lived too far away from and missed too much. In search of a quiet, alone, crying place, I climbed the creaking stairs of a battered shed into the upper storage rafters that were empty but for some stacks of crumbling newspapers, piles of rotting rags, and a neatly bundled, carefully saved packet of handwritten letters. Real letters. From my great-uncle to his parents during World War II … people he was too far away from and missed too much.

For the next two hours, while I cried for the grandfather I’d lost, I read those letters. All of them. Every word. And then I cried for this other man, who I’d never known well enough, who’d lived through hell on earth, and who’d been much too far away from the place he loved and the people he adored. I was sad for all he’d lost, all he’d seen, all he’d experienced, all he’d known. Sad that I’d never thought to thank him for what he’d done. Sad that I’d never realized my great-uncle was set apart from so many other great-uncles across the land. Soldier. Veteran. Defender of freedom. That he was. I am proud he was mine.

Photo: CKirgiss

Summer kisses

Besides being a saver, a sewer, a survivor, and a farm woman of the Nebraska prairie, my grandmother was a hider.

An expert hider. What she hid was unlikely to be found. Sometimes even by her.

She hid presents. She hid treasures. She hid tidbits. She hid this-n-that.

She hid it so well that, come Christmas or birthday or tax day or cleaning day, there was a chance that the hidden thing Рno matter how essential to the celebration, task, or event Р sometimes never did unhide itself, no matter how much searching or looking or seeking.

The end result was that sometimes when my grandma was looking for an important hidden bank statement, she found instead the previous year’s Christmas present for a distant relative. Or when she was looking for an important Christmas present, she found instead next year’s birthday present (already wrapped but without a recipient’s name indicated anywhere). Or when she was looking for a new box of baking soda she might find an important letter that she’d needed last year.

I learned a lot of things from my grandmother. One of them was to not be a hider, mostly because I know I would be even less successful at finding hidden treasures than she was. (I struggle to find even the unhidden treasures.)

Still, her blood runs thick in my veins.

So on this hot, humid, miserably damp July day, it was quite a treat to reach back into the cupboard in search of honey and find this instead:

Photo: CKirgiss
Photo: CKirgiss

In all their miniature glory, these two lost-and-founds are my grandmother (who hid things), my grandfather (who loved sweet things), and the incarnated babe (whose birth was the beginning of finding all lost things).

These two lovelies have been patiently waiting alongside the Pyrex bowls for eight months, ready since last December to unexpectedly brighten someone’s day.

Mission accomplished.

Knowing and Known

Photo: CKirgiss (Otto and Alice Jacobsen)

Eighty years ago yesterday, my Norwegian immigrant grandparents were wed in Orange, New Jersey – separated from their parents by both an ocean’s roaring expanse and a generation’s widening gap.

My bestefar died when I was only seven, my bestemor when I was eight. That was a long time ago. So long that I don’t remember much about them. Hardly anything at all, in fact. What I do remember certainly doesn’t look anything like the picture above.

Grandparents have a certain something that identifies them from a distance. A look. A gait. A tip of the head. A style. An air. It has little to do with age in some cases, and much to do with wisdom in most cases.

The people in this picture are not my grandparents. They are strangers to me. I don’t recognize their youth. Their style. Their poise. Their intimacy that is so mysteriously visible it makes my heart ache. With joy. With sadness.

Who are these people?

I want to meet them. To hear their story. To ask them questions. To know who they were before they became my grandparents, before they were the quiet man who carefully peeled his boiled potatoes and the kindly woman who gently cared for the quiet man.

The years make little sense. Youth. Age. Past. Future. Then. Now. Was. Is. Here. Gone.

It all starts to jumble together after awhile. We wake up one day and realize that we are no longer grandchildren (but will always feel like we are), that our own children have grown (how did this happen?), and that with each breath, we move ever-so-slightly closer to becoming someone’s memory, whether in fact or photograph. (Yes – the seasons of the year often mirror the seasons of my soul.)

This would all be desperately heartbreaking if not for the promise of new life and new breath that waits for us not just on the other side of this world but in the here-and-now. The sadness of my grandparents’ deaths does not define my soul. The weight of my own mortality does not measure my existence. The reality of all life’s fragility does not color my faith.

Rather, it fills me with wonder. With awe. With expectant pause. Because though I will never really know the people in this picture (and oh, I would so very much like to know them), the Almighty Creator knows me.

I. Am. Known.

And that is enough.

Of muddy boots, cricket calls, and grandma’s love

In case you haven’t heard, it’s too hot to breathe across much of the US. That, plus the fact that my grocery store is no longer stocking one of my favorite snack foods, has pretty much killed today for me.

Except for this: the heavy heat, plus the sound of evening crickets, plus the faintly pinkish tinge of the sunset, plus the dried mud that I had to dig/smack out of my work-boot soles (it’s been there since May so was especially stubborn, with all of its stray grass clippings impishly poking out from the edges as though daring me to try and remove them), plus the smell of an old book I recently picked up at a junk shop, plus the smell of outside (cut grass and dryness and weeds and the field across the way), plus post-travel refrigerator reality (a lot of stuff but nothing to eat) all converged – collided, really – into a tangled mass of stuff that reminded me of my grandmother, which has pretty much resurrected today for me.

Technically, I’m old enough to be a grandmother myself (which is too weird to even contemplate). Certainly, I’m old enough to be past the granddaughter season of life.

But the fact remains that I will always be Viola’s granddaughter, and certain things will always remind me of her. Certain smells. Certain sounds. Certain words. Certain people.

Except for the first three years of my life, I lived several states away from her and saw her only several times a year. Still, she taught me lots of things, like how to braid, how to knit, how to manually beat egg whites into frenzied peaks, how to polish Grandpa’s Sunday boots, how to wash and dry dishes by hand, how to sift flour, how to skim fat off the milk, how to hang clothes to dry, how to save things (ALL things), and how to use an embroidery hoop.

I rarely utilize any of these skills in my daily life.

She also taught me how to pry dry mud out of boot soles using a combination of hard smacks on the cement and the rigid, rounded tip of a dinner knife. This is a useful skill indeed.

So tonight, when I headed outside with my month’s-old muddy-soled boots (and a dinner knife), I thought of her. And when I breathed in the hot, grassy, dusky, pinkish, crickety air – air that smells and sounds and feels almost Nebraskan – I could almost hear her voice and her laugh though they’ve been silent for many years now. What an unexpected, surprising, and sweet gift.

And I caught my breath with both sadness and joy, for I miss her dearly because I loved her much.

Such is the mystery of memory. Such is the power of a grandmother. Such is the grace of God.

Grandma love