Grandma and Me in Charlotte, NC
You might be surprised to know that my grandma Ogie was quite the volley balloon player. This was a made up game that my sister and I used to play with her when we’d visit her house on Highway 14 across from the Tippecanoe River in Winamac, Indiana. Grandma would take two wooden chairs from the kitchen table, spread them out the width of the kitchen, and place a broomstick across the chairs so that we could swat a balloon back and forth over the wooden “net.” It was always my sister Anne and Ogie against myself. Other activities included a board game called Aggravation, regular walks across the back pasture to what was then Ben Franklin for a toy, and each fall we went to Russell’s Old Trading Post for school shoes. There was a conveyor belt that went from the back room down to the basement and we used to ride it up and down. The setting for my short story “Ye Olde Trading Post” in my novel Horseshoe was based on a drawing of the store as it used to be. My grandma and grandpa were fun. As kids we weren’t afraid to break anything or make a big mess. Their house, and their lives for that matter, were for living.
sketch by John Sterling Lucas
(photo from artwork at Grandma’s house)
My grandma wrote me a lot of letters, and I’d like to use the content of those letters to write about the person she was. The letters have been coming my whole life, and I even received one as recently as this year. I suppose at the peak of Grandma’s writing, she averaged about one every other month. Later than I would have hoped, I started saving thes letters. One of her latest is on my desk here in Connecticut where I live, and I have a file full of them in my office in New York. When I lay the letters from the past few years out in front of me, I can see the change in grandma’s handwriting, see how it became more painful and exhausting for her to write them for me. I’d always intended to read from the letters at her funeral, but I was in a hurry to go see her in the last week of her life and I forgot them. It’s probably just as well because one of the lines near the end of most of the letters contained the phrase, “I don’t read them over.” The idea was that the letters had mistakes and if she read it over then she wouldn’t send them. I don’t remember any mistakes. I think the line is more of an indication of Ogie’s humble way. Her life was a life of service. Service to those at the store, service to the people in her community, and service to her daughter Judy and her husband Bill in the time that preceded their deaths.
Grandchild Aspen and Our Grandma
Whether I was nineteen or forty, Ogie’s letters contained a twenty dollar bill and the instructions to “Go eat!” That twenty dollar bill indicates how determined Ogie was to share her blessings. Whether it was money, something in her house, or love, Ogie was determined to give it away. Let’s say my cousin Aspen’s air conditioning broke. Ogie would often chip in to help fix it, and then without my sister Anne or I even knowing what had happened, we would receive a check in the mail for the exact amount that Ogie had given Aspen. I remember being in middle school when I was walking through the mall with my grandma. We stopped at one of those talking parrots where you say something to the parrott, it records your voice, and says what you said back. I probably laughed and made a passing comment about the toy, and then I received the bird the following Christmas. You had to be careful what you said to my grandma. The first time my wife Megan met Ogie, I warned Megan as we sat in the car outside in Grandma’s driveway, “Don’t tell her you like anything in the house.” Well, we got inside and later Megan complimented Ogie’s paperweight collection. “Which one do you want?” Ogie asked. There was no way my grandma was going to let Megan out of the house without taking the paperweight. Thank goodness Megan didn’t compliment Ogie on the concrete deer that stood in her shrubbery.
Ogie and her Great Grandchildren
Ogie always drew a smiley face somewhere in her letter and sometimes there was a big yellow sticker affixed to the back of the envelope. It was an ordinary “Have a Nice Day” smiley face, except for that Ogie’s smiley faces had tight curly hair. I took the image to be Ogie’s self portrait, and it’s no accident that it’s a cheerful one. Ogie taught me a very important lesson: she showed me how to be sad about those we love who are gone but at the same time fill the life we have left with joy. Just about every time I saw my grandma, she talked about how much she missed her daughter Judy and then later her husband Bill. Ogie showed me it was possible in one moment to be full of sadness remembering a loved one who was no longer with her, and then in the next minute say something to me that caused her shoulders to rock with laughter. She taught me a lesson I’ve tried to learn myself and now pass on to my daughters: it’s often up to us whether or not we are going to go through life cranky and complaining, or whether we’re going to choose to be positive and try to help those around us. Ogie was incredibly positive, even in the last week of life.
a letter from Grandma 3/7/2010
As with my grandfather’s funeral, my mom asked the family to brainstorm adjectives to describe my grandma. (as mom joked, “…apparently this is what English teachers do.”) Somebody suggested the word “stubborn,” and I know there was some doubt on my mom’s part whether or not such a word should be included at someone’s funeral. I can tell you there is a thread of stubborn that runs at least from my grandma Ogie through her daughters, to their children, and then to Ogie’s great grandchildren. When Ogie’s daughter Judy was a little girl, she said something that hurt my mom’s feelings. Grandpa and my mom were set to head off to work at the store, and Judy was told to sit on a step until she apologized to my mother. Judy sat on the steps and refused to apologize. My mom and grandpa went to work. When they came home for lunch, Judy was still on the steps and still refusing to apologize. My grandma liked to tell that story. As for her own stubbornness, when Ogie moved into my parents’ spare bedroom, I was told that as she came in with mom, my dad said something to the effect of, “Welcome to our home.” My grandmother’s response? “Thank you, but I don’t want to be here.” It wasn’t that my grandmother didn’t like my dad or my parents’ house. Right up until the end, Ogie was worried about everyone else, and she hated the idea that she was being a burden. She wasn’t. We were all so thankful to get to spend time visiting with her.
Without fail, Ogie’s letters always had a sentence that told me she was proud of me and that she loved me. When loved ones pass away, I often hear phrases that begin something like this: “If only I’d have known…Or, I wish I could have told her…” This wasn’t the case with Ogie. My whole life, whether it was in person or through letters, both of my grandparents told me that they were proud of me and that they loved me. They didn’t say this in passing. They told me in a shoulder grabbing, make full eye-contact, tell-me-twice kind of way, and that’s just one of the many ways that the lives of my Grandpa Bill and my Grandmother Olga will live on. My daughters will know that I am proud of them and that I love them. They have already played volley balloon ball across a broomstick and hunted plastic Easter eggs with treasures inside just like I did when I was a kid.
My Grandparents: Bill and Olga Russell
My grandma and grandpa didn’t want anything in return for what they gave us. They wanted us to do the same for the family members who would come after us. They were able to help us financially, spiritually, and emotionally, and they hoped that someday we might be in position to do the same for somebody else. I told grandma during the last week of her life that she and grandpa will always be a part of why I do what I do. I will try to stay focused on taking actions which would make them proud. On the day my grandma died, she told me that my girls would grow up fast. She also said about dying, “It’s not hard. It doesn’t hurt.” Grandma did hurt some even thought she wouldn’t admit it, but we were very thankful that she was mostly comfortable. I didn’t see a bit of fear or doubt on Ogie’s part when it came to what was going to happen to her after death. That she passed away with miminal pain after having spent the week with her family, was exactly what she wanted. It was an answer her prayers and ours. My grandmother’s faith was strong and she was anxious to get to Heaven. Thank the Lord for that.