Archive for the ‘Family Stories’ Category

Grandpa Cotton

On Christmas day, I sat with my family in a hospital waiting room.

Earlier that day, as I was coming downstairs to watch the boys open presents, my phone rang.  A picture of my mother laughing with her two sisters appeared on the screen, indicating the caller was my mother’s cell phone.

I laughed to myself, thinking how she was calling to see if the boys liked their presents from Santa, and how disappointed she would be to learn we had all just woken up.

But it was my father’s voice on the line when I picked up.  And I immediately knew something was wrong.

My grandfather – my mom’s beloved father – had been rushed to the hospital that morning.  He’d had a heart attack and had stopped breathing.  My cousin Danny, who lives just down the street, performed CPR on my grandfather until the ambulance arrived.  He was now in the ICU.  But he was gone for about 30 minutes before they were able to bring him back.  So I knew – unless a miracle happened – that we had lost him.

“We’re on our way up there now,” my father said. “But there is no need for you to come.  Just try to enjoy your Christmas.”

I tried to keep it together as the boys opened their gifts from Santa.  I tried to get the image of Danny giving my grandfather CPR out of my head.  I ached for my cousin and the emotion that must have surged within him at that moment – and surely must still be coursing through his veins.

I sat in a fog as the boys tore open the wrapping paper and clung to their gifts.  The joy I couldn’t wait to see on their faces was numbing at the moment.  I managed to smile as my oldest son opened his new video game, clutched the game to his chest and closed his eyes, blissfully happy at that moment.

After presents were opened, and wrapping paper was splayed across the living room floor, I jumped up to call my brother.  He was already on his way to my house.

My brother and I talked and laughed and cried together on our three hour drive to the hospital.  My husband stayed home with the kids.  It was hard to leave them on Christmas day, but I didn’t think I could stay home.  I knew there was nothing I could do.  But I wanted to say goodbye to my grandfather.  Give him one more kiss. Tell him one more time how amazing he was.  And hold my mother when she cried.

I’m pretty familiar with the hospitals in and around Waco, Texas.  I’ve sat in the waiting room as various family members – two aunts, an uncle, my grandmother and grandfather (this wasn’t his first brush with death) – fought for their lives in the ICU.

The family all meets – driving from Dallas or Austin, or just around the Waco area.  We sit.  We talk.  We tell jokes.  We avoid talking about the person we are all worried about in the hospital bed behind the doors we aren’t allowed to go in except two at a time for two hours twice a day.

When it was my turn to see him, I didn’t actually say the word “goodbye.”  My grandfather’s girlfriend went in with me, and she was still holding out hope that he would wake up and drink a cup of coffee with her.  And I didn’t want to dim that outlook.

So I told him it was me. I patted his white hair – the hair that earned him his nickname as a child.  “That boy’s hair is light as cotton,” the man had said.  And he would forever be known as Cotton.  I also had that hair as a child – so blonde it was almost white.  One of the many things I would get from him.  I touched his hair, now matted to his head, and I told him I loved him.  And I told him my three-year-old still talks about seeing his chickens last time we were at his house. And then I said something lame like, “see you later”.

And I hope he knew that by saying all that, I meant goodbye.

thanksgiving conversations

Thanksgiving 2011 – Probably discussing chickens.

And I hope he’d be proud of how I reacted when the doctor came out to tell us he was gone.  We were all standing in the hallway just outside the ICU doors.  We chatted and joked lightly, our eyes darting to each other’s as we heard the bustling noises start on the other side of the door, the ominous beeping noises that weren’t there a moment before.  We watched as the nurse with the crash cart came out of the ICU doors.  Our eyes trailed her as she walked through us, her head down.  We continued our meaningless conversation, pretending nothing was wrong.

The doctor came out then, a short man wearing sweatpants under his white coat.  I tried to convince myself that was okay, given it was so cold outside.  But it bothered me anyway.  I don’t know why.

The doctor asked if we were all assembled.  He asked where “the eldest sister” was.  Then he asked where “the girlfriend” was.  Whatever he was about to tell us, I surmised, it couldn’t be good.

I cut through some relatives so I could stand behind my mother.  I thought it possible she might fall when the little sweatpants man said what he had to say, and I wanted to be there if that happened. He said some big words like “cardio-malefactory-something-or-other” and then he said, very quickly, “and he’s gone now”.

Screams rang out, echoing off the white walls and florescent lights.  My aunt – my mom’s younger sister – collapsed.  My mother grabbed her.  I grabbed my mother.  My grandfather’s girlfriend leaned into her cane and her son held onto her to keep her from falling.  There was a numb throbbing in my ears.

He’s gone.

I’d known it all day.  But to hear the words in that final way from this little man who was wholly under-dressed for the occasion – it sent little spikes of ache through my body.  In my head, I scolded the little man – who stood in the middle of the commotion with a worried look on his face – for not telling us to all sit down before he gave us this information.  He pulled a chair from the waiting room out to the hallway so my aunt could sit down.  I could hear my cousin yelling at his mother as she mumbled in a trance-like state, “my daddy, my daddy,” over and over.

“Mom,” my cousin Jeremy said.  “Don’t do this to us.”

My father took my mother and, in the safety of his arms, she allowed herself to cry.  I stood there, looking at everyone as they held each other, and I searched for my brother.

Then I saw him coming down the hallway.  He had gone to take a nap in an empty waiting room down the hall.  He had worked all night before driving the hour to my house that morning.  And our father – at our mother’s urging – had insisted my brother find someplace to lie down and sleep.

But he’d just laid his head down when he heard the screaming.

I met him halfway down the hallway.  We were both crying before we embraced.

We met up with our mother and held her each in turn.  I pulled a chair out to the hallway so she could sit next to her sister.  Then I made the excuse of getting them some water and fled down the hallway toward the empty cafeteria so I could mourn in peace.

I really loved that man, I thought, as I poured cups of water from the fountain machine.

Such a good man.  Strong and animated and caring.  Such a good storyteller.  He really loved people; really saw them.  And now the world is robbed of him.

“Did you call Johnny?” my brother said when I got back. Another ache shot through me. My cousin, earlier that day, had given me his cell phone number.

“Call me if anything changes,” he’d said.  Then he took his wife and son home.  I had agreed but – like an idiot – it never occurred to me that I would have to call and tell him Grandpa was gone.

I heard Johnny’s voice break as he said, “we’re on our way.”

We all sat in the waiting room for another hour or so, holding each other.  I don’t think any of us really wanted to leave.  If we left, we’d have to move on.  It would have to be over.  Funeral plans would have to begin.  Estate matters would have to be dealt with.

Life would have to move on without him.

And I haven’t been able to write anything since.

I’ve tried working on my novel.  I’ve tried polishing a blog post about characterization I started before Christmas day.  This very post I began initially to tell you about a great gift my cousin Jeremy and his wife Lara gave me that day in the hospital – a gift any writer would appreciate.

But this post went in another direction entirely.  I guess I couldn’t say anything else until this story was written.

At my Grandpa’s funeral, I talked about his love for storytelling – a love that touched so many people, as obvious by the postings on the Facebook page my cousin Michelle created in his honor.  I talked about the lessons he’d taught me throughout the years.

But today, it seems he’s taught me yet another valuable lesson.  Today’s teaching:  the story you WANT to tell isn’t always the story that flows out onto the page.

Okay, Grandpa, I get it.  Thanks for that.


Read Full Post »

Grandma Helen

My Grandma Helen was always in control.  Not overtly, but subtly.  She ruled from a silent corner, watching as everyone did just as she wanted, even if they didn’t know it.

I often remember her saying “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but …”  And then she would proceed to tell you the right way to do whatever it is you were doing.

She was clever.  And she was mindlessly obeyed.  Even if we knew what was happening, we all submitted.  Because she was our matriarch.  And we thought she deserved it.

My grandmother has been gone for several years now.  And my mother has had some trouble dealing with her absence.

My family threw my grandfather an 80th birthday party last year, in a small town in East Texas, in an old church event hall.  The building had seen years of wear, and I was charmed by the old wood floors and whitewashed walls.  In the bathroom, behind an old squeaky door with a glass knob, was a white medicine chest.

My mother fell in love with this chest, a white metal and glass pharmacist’s cabinet form the 19th Century.  She thought it would be the perfect place to stash my grandmother’s antique bottle collection.

Like many things that are uncovered after someone’s death, I didn’t know about this collection until just recently.  In a storage shed behind my grandparent’s home is a large cardboard box filled to the top with antique bottles – medicine bottles, Dr. Pepper bottles, tonic bottles – there’s a variety of treasures in there.  My grandpa says my uncle would search for these (instead of toys) when they would tour garage sales, because my grandma used to pay him a nickel for each bottle he could find.

While I agreed that a cabinet like that would be the perfect place to display my grandmother’s antique bottle collection, I also knew how expensive it would be.  So I made a note to look for something at my favorite second-hand shop that would be a good alternative and would make my mother happy.

But my father wasn’t having that.  And neither, apparently, was my grandmother.

My father felt it was his duty (which really meant it was mine and my brother’s duty) to find this exact cabinet for my mother for Christmas.  I told my father I would look, knowing that anything I found would exceed his budget.  My brother searched online for weeks, only to find this hunch correct – the cheapest replica he found was $5,000.  And had to be shipped from New Jersey.

Once again, I tried to convince my father to purchase a china hutch that would be just as beautiful, but much less expensive than the pharmacist’s cabinet he had in mind.  He was not convinced.  In fact, he decided he was going to have to pay the $5,000 and ship the cabinet from Jersey.

My father is a man who refuses to pay more than 50 cents for a Coke, and hasn’t been to the movies since it was called the “picture show,” simply because the prices are too high.  The fact that he was willing to pay so much for this cabinet just to have a special present for my mother was beautiful – a rare gesture from a typically hard man.

One weekend, dangerously close to Christmas, my brother was spending the day at my parent’s house when he was suddenly called back into work for a meeting.  He grumbled at not being informed sooner and dutifully left for the meeting.  Afterward, he sat at home in San Antonio and suddenly had the idea to look in the phone book for an antique store.  He opened the phone book to the exact page and a large illustration caught his eye.

The antique store was downtown, which gave him pause.  That’s a long drive, he thought, and then there’s the trouble with parking … but there was this voice inside his head, urging him.

“Go,” the voice said.

And so he went.

Standing on the curb, he looked up at a huge three-story building.  He’d never really enjoyed shopping, and this task looked daunting.  Three floors of antique crap, he thought.  He hadn’t found one online, what made him think he could find one here?

“Go,” the voice said again.

My brother had the hunch that it was Grandma Helen telling him to go inside.  But he’s not prone to ghost stories, so he shook it off.

But still, he went in.

He searched the first two floors, to no avail.  Once again, he was about to give up, when the sales lady from downstairs appeared behind him.

“You should try the ghost room,” she said.

My brother turned and stared at her.

“The what?”

“The ghost room,” the woman said.  “On the third floor.”

My brother sighed.  “Okay, Grandma,” he said in his head.  “I’m going.”

The cabinet was there, shoved into a back corner, trinkets and books stacked into it.

And it was well within budget.

It needed some care, of course.  My father sanded it down and painted it a gleaming white.  It was missing the glass shelves, which he had cut for it and he added a shiny white knob to the front.  It was an exact match.

He then found a refrigerator box sitting on someone’s curb.  He cut a hole out of the bottom and slipped it over the top of the cabinet.  Then he wrapped it in Christmas paper and put a tag on it that said “Special Delivery, North Pole.”

I revisited the shed behind my grandpa’s house and dug out enough bottles to fill the cabinet.  And when my father removed the wrapping on Christmas day, my mother cried.  And the rest of us cried with her.  (All except my two boys, who were threatened within an inch of their lives, should any balls be kicked or thrown in the general direction of the cabinet.)

I fully believe my grandmother, in her subtle controlling ways, directed my brother to that antique store in downtown San Antonio.  And he believes it too, though he’d be hesitant to admit it.

“I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but …”

Sure, Grandma.  Sure.

Read Full Post »

My grandma Helen at age 17 (left) with her friend (and later sister-in-law) my great aunt Amy Ruth (who made an excellent chocolate gravy).

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately.  This week, my family will be having Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house.  Except, my grandmother won’t be there.   Instead, my grandpa’s new girlfriend will be hosting.

This should be okay – my grandma died a few years ago, and my grandpa (the playa) has dated several women since then.  And I like his newest girlfriend a lot.  She is sweet and friendly and really seems to care for him.

But.  It’s my grandmother’s house (selfish, bratty response, I know).  And some other woman is serving some other food.  And it’s Thanksgiving.  Hmph.  (K, I’ll uncross my arms and remove my pouty face now.)

So, I’m sure it will be fine, but I’ve been telling myself I can NOT get upset when my grandmother’s stove is used for other people’s pies and I will not whine when they try to serve sweet potatoes with stupid little marshmallows on them and what if they don’t make cornbread dressing?

Really, these are petty problems.  And not the reason for this blog post.

A dear friend of mine has a rare form of cancer.  She was undertaking her 6th round of chemotherapy last week and the pain was so intense she had been unable to sleep in three days.  Another migraine hit (a reaction to the poison churning through her) and she grabbed hold of the bathroom sink, hoping and praying for the pain to subside.  In her lack of sleep and the force of the throbbing, she was consumed by a hopelessness that she had not yet allowed herself to feel.  (Incredibly strong woman, my friend, in body and in mind.)

Suddenly, she heard her grandmother’s voice, calling to her from the other room.  “I know that is crazy,” my friend said in a text (because her grandmother has been gone for years), “but I swear her voice was as loud and clear as my own.”  The voice was so present that my friend went to look for her grandmother in the other room – and half expected her to be there.  The migraine (and despair) that had just flooded my friend’s mind subsided.  And that night, she slept soundly and deeply – for the first time in months.

I am touched by this story, not just because of the situation, but because of the characters involved.  My friend has always been sensible, level-headed and smart.  She’s not prone to ghost stories.  And neither is my brother, who seemed to experience a ghost story of his own today – a calling from our own grandmother (who, by the way, seems wholly unconcerned about my need for her cornbread dressing).

I can’t tell you his story just yet – it involves a present for someone who reads this blog.  So you’ll have to wait a few months.  But it’s a good one.  Stay tuned!

Read Full Post »