My great grandparents could’ve made soap out of a dog.
Not that they would’ve wanted to, but they could do it in a pinch. They were earthy midwesterners who had those kinds of self-sufficient skills, who could glance at your backyard garden and tell you how you’d gotten it all wrong.
Grandma was a round woman who wore green muumuus covered in fluorescent pink flowers. But if you asked him to, Grandpa would ferret out a faded black-and-white photo of her from his wallet.
In it, she smiled with rounded cheeks, wearing a 1920’s drop-waisted dress that showed off the garter belt on her plump left thigh. He kept that faded picture of her in his wallet until the day he died.
He grew up on a farm in Missouri, where the men ate first at supper.
The women ate next, and then the children.
Sometimes there wasn’t much left, and memories of this hunger never left him. Anytime you ate meals with my great grandparents, my grandfather was sure to ask every child present if they had gotten enough to eat.
He loved children.
Grandma grew up on a Kansas farm, but got a job making stationary at a time when few women were working. She glued lace and ribbons onto paper, making enough to buy a car and drive around town. One day, her car got stuck in the mud.
My Grandfather was from Missouri and Grandma was from Kansas, but they were only separated by a small wooden bridge running between the two states.
And Grandpa came to Grandma’s rescue when her car got stuck in the mud. That’s how they met.
After they got married, they attended a burlesque show, where Grandma was so embarrassed by the threatened nudity that she ran out of the building blushing. They spent their wedding night in a tent.
And had two children in the early 1930’s, in the middle of the Great Depression. At the Dustbowl climax, they made their way West in search of better jobs, like Tom Joad in his jalopy.
They lived for a while in a trailer in the desert, where Grandma would sieve out little treasures from the sand.
Then they moved to Roseville, near Sacramento, where Grandpa got a job climbing up dangerous wooden poles to string electrical wires. We have black-and-white photos of him hanging in the sky.
They never trusted banks. They hid thousands of dollars in backroom mattresses and in secret places all over the house.
They never forgot extreme poverty. I remember whenever ballpoint pens ran out, Grandma would soak them in hot water to squeeze out a little more use. She would keep McDonald’s cardboard drink trays in stacks in the back rooms of her house. Being able to take her family out for dinner was a blessing she never took for granted.
She loved elephants. She collected them.
Nor did she forget being in the Lord’s good graces. Obviously she was, since her children and grandchildren were fed. My grandparents would say grace every time they sat down to supper, remaining soundless for the rest of the meal.
This soundlessness used to confuse me as a child. Were they angry? I was used to lively conversation.
But I knew it couldn’t be true. My grandparents loved children and grandchildren above anything else. Our family produces girls at an alarming rate… I think there have only been a couple boys in several generations.
My Grandfather thought his baby girls were wonderful, but wanted to be sure we could hold our own. I remember him teaching us how to box, holding his palms in front of us and instructing us to punch them. Smiling when we punched them hard.
He didn’t want to go to the hospital when he was dying. He stayed at home with three generations keeping watch.
He couldn’t speak. We heard his labored breathing and Cheyne-stoking for days.
I was the stoic member of the family, conserving emotions as though they might run out. But at one point during the family’s watch, I sat on his bed, took his hand, and burst into tears. He began sobbing and squeezed my hand.
He could hear us.
After he was gone, my grandmother cried every day until she died.
When she died, we found a plaque in their house commemorating the thousands of dollars my grandma had donated to orphanages throughout her lifetime.
She never told anyone.
My family divided up her possessions after she died and I asked for her blue ceramic elephant.
The fading elephant sits in my kitchen, where it reminds me of her every day.
I wish they could’ve met my two daughters.
They would have loved them.