Thursday, April 26, 2012

Helen? I thought her name was Granny.

When my mom told me on Monday that Granny had died, I cried. I cried, because it's hard to lose anyone you love. Even if it's expected, and inevitable, and your granny was 93, and her health had been deteriorating for the last few years. I cried because I already missed her. I missed her smile with the crooked tooth that she was always too self conscious of, and seeing her on any given day in one of the many pastel colored wind-breaker jackets she owned. I missed that she would tuck kleenex in the sleeves of those jackets, and fill the pockets with hard candy. And I missed that she always offered up hot tea at her house, and that when I was young, I could always count on her not only buying me the most beautiful Easter dress, but also sewing a bell in the skirt. Because that made it special, and encouraged twirling.

There was a BIG party going on in Heaven Monday night. I can almost see it. Granny was probably wearing teal pants, a sleeveless blouse, and her ruby earrings- because those could be dressed up or dressed down. I bet when she met Jesus she made a drawn out exclamation of, "ohhhh!", and gave him one of those hugs where she shook Him a little bit. Because those were the best kind of hugs Granny gave. The ones where she was filled with so much love for the recipient, she just had to shake it all out. And then when Jesus stepped aside, I bet she cried. I bet she cried tears of joy over seeing the faces of those she outlived, and hadn't seen in years. Her parents, her siblings, Nagyneni and Bacsi, her old neighbor from Longwood, Sheila, and best of all, her healthy husband who had been waiting to see her for almost 20 years. You see, I never really knew my grandpa when he was well, but that is not at all the case when it comes to my granny.

There were a lot of things that Granny was good at. She was a good gardener, a good crocheter, a good pinochle player, a mighty good cook, and a good Tiger's fan. But when it came to being great, the role of Granny was where the thrived.

It's hard to decide where to start with her. Probably with a little clarification that Granny didn't really go by "Granny" until I was a preteen. She was simply Grandma before that, until one day the family showed up at her house, and she declared that from that point on, she wouldn't respond to anything but "Granny". And the woman stuck to it. Ignoring requests for grandma until the transition had become official. and it worked. Even this past weekend as I was updating friends on Granny's health, I referred to her by name, "Helen Major", and as I continued on, Audry says Katie leaned over to her and whispered, "Helen? I thought her name was Granny". I smiled when she told me that story, because though joking, it was so true. Granny was far more than just a granny to our family. In fact, I remember one time, hearing her say to one of my friends parents, "I might only have 5 grandchildren, but I'm a lot of people's Granny".
New Years Eve 2002

high school friends in Granny's hat collection

My college roomies all wearing hats that granny made :) Go Green!
I'm proud to have had the Granny that people wanted in on. A Granny where kids at school knew she cooked every Wednesday, and wanted an invite over. "Is it spaghetti tonight?" some would ask. seeing as that was a crowd favorite. Even though my answer was always, "I don't know". You see, Granny kept the answer a secret, claiming "horses hooves" were on the menu if you tried to call ahead for details. I think she thought people wouldn't show up if she was serving something they didn't like. But that would have never happened. We just played her game, and week after week, people showed up. Because when you walked in the door, the smell of chicken and rice, or stuffed cabbage, or roast beef would clear up any false claims from before. And what my granny started those Wednesday nights was embraced by family and friends alike. and Biblical. In the book of Hebrews, it says, "and let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another- and all the more as you see the day approaching."  It might be out of context, but the roots of the message hold strong. Granny had established years ago that her contribution to our family would be providing a place to meet and a satisfying dinner. Every Wednesday. And with it, instilled in our family, the importance and benefit of meeting together. We know about each others lives. The joys, the pain, the hurdles, celebrations and about upcoming vacations. And it's a priority. I love telling people of our weekly tradition. That there's an open door policy, that these days rotates between my parents, my uncle, and my cousins place. That we squeeze around kitchen tables, drink wine, and eat full course meals. every week. A lot of people stare back slack jawed. Because like that scripture says, far too many people today are in the habit of not gathering together with their families. But not mine. And we can give thanks to Granny for that.

Speaking of the scriptures, my Granny is the first person I ever remember telling me about the Lord. I remember her telling me about Jesus, and prepping me with instructions on what to do when we got to Mass on Christmas day. Years later, as an adult, and a believer myself, I admire the confidence she walked with in the Lord. She got dealt some tough cards in her day, but always always always held strong to the steadfast love of Christ, and the goodness of His promises. And it came naturally to her. When my family would gather on Christmas and Easter to join her for Mass, she would show her loves off to each other. Her family and her church.

 I remember hearing of her travels to far away places. Trying hard to imagine what it was like for a younger version of her, and a healthy version of my grandpa to explore places like Hungary or Mount Rushmore, and collecting matchboxes from each place to prove their stay. A smile would stretch across her face, her mouth would open a little, her eyes would brighten as she pulled the memories out of storage with a long "yeaaaaah", and the stories would flow. She loved telling the one about how everyone got a lei when they stepped off the plane in Hawaii. As she motioned the way they put it on everyone, she would squeezed her eyes shut for a moment with a smile, and tell her listeners of how beautiful they were. And I remember thinking that if that's what being old is about, I don't know why so many people complain.

My granny had all sorts of stories that would draw me in. And even after hearing lots of them time and time again, I always listened. It was part way about respect, but I think a lot of me loved the way she would recall. Stories about when she was a little girl and how my grandpa, a boy from the town over, would fix her dolls. Stories about growing up in a time where going to and from school was uphill both ways, but she was lucky to have had a brother that would give her piggy back rides. And that for fun, her and her 6 (yes, 6!) siblings would go sledding on her mothers bread pans. I just couldn't fathom as I tried to envision myself squeezing into one of my moms 9x13 cake pans. It was just a different world. One of my favorites though was when she would talk about the picnics on the farm. Friends and family would show up with food in tow, and the seats of picnic table benches and folding chairs would be filled. And with the crack of a few beers and a potluck spread in front of the company, it turned out Granny had always had the gift of giving people a reason to be together. And I remember deciding a long time ago, that someday I was going to be like that.

She was a woman who took care of people. Every grandkid she had experienced that first hand. Whether it was my cousins Nic and Cory living with her for a while, or me and my sisters spending summer days there while our parents worked full time; we all were well versed in time with granny. We spent many days watching cable (our house didn't have it), sprawled out on rose colored carpet propped up on crocheted flower pillows. we all felt loved, and safe, and cared for under that roof. We had fun there too. There was a slight incline in her front yard that made it ideal training ground for mastering the front walk over. 7-11 was right down the street, and granny would often give us permission to go in her wallet for dollars to get slurpees. And a basement filled with all sorts of stuff that served just as well as a playground. Where we always found the stationary bike way funnier than it should have been, would roll out her absurd amount of rugs, and made up games like "wheelchair race" and "who can find the funniest looking person in Uncle Franks class photo" that hung by the telephone. In the summer, I survived on a steady diet of salami and mustard sandwiches, Pepsi, and mustard pretzels. Often granny would slice up green pepper, sprinkle them with salt, and we'd sit around the kitchen table and play cards. We were never that good, but we had fun.

Granny was a good teacher too. Not only did she teach us the rules of Rummy, but more times than I can count, she showed us the art of her crocheting. "see" she would say. And with a "one, two, three, four, five" under her breath, her crooked fingers would go to work on the most beautiful of baby hats.

She taught me how to make dumplings, and kieflies, and noodles for soup. I only wish now that I tried harder to retain those instructions. She taught me how to play the lotto, showed me how to dance the chadash in her living room, how to tell if a tomato was right for picking, and showed by example what it means to really live out wedding vows.

 Even though I was young, my appreciation for the commitment my granny had to her husband was real. I always just accepted my grandpa as "sick". He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's before I was born. So naturally, I never had to the opportunity to know him any other way. But what I did know was that for years she slept in a twin bed beside his hospital bed in their house. And when his food bag would be empty, she was quick to refill it. and she would always do whatever she could to make him most comfortable. It comes as no surprise that with being a Nicolas Sparks fan, my favorite book of his is The Notebook. I love telling the embarrassing story of sobbing the whole night after I first saw the movie. The commitment of that couple reminds me time and time again of my Granny and her love and commitment to my Grandpa. I know their marriage was filled with "for better" parts, but a lot of what I knew growing up were the "for worse"-- and the "in sickness" parts-- But she kept her word on every one of those vows, and it wasn't til death did they part- 15 years after his diagnosis.  It was all there. Love in action, and I had a first hand look at to what that meant in real life.

 One of my favorite ways to pass the time at granny's house was to play dress up. She had a closet full of unique and beautiful dresses, a couple hat boxes, and a pair of pale pink heels covered in lace - so tacky, yet so loved. It's because of her that I believe it's okay to dress up a little extra if you feel like it. I remember picking out my favorite dress - it was either the salmon colored one that was flowy or the sleek silver one- pinning it into place and walking down the hallway to show her. And at the end of that hallway, there was always a compliment waiting-- and it never got old.

Granny was so good at supporting her grandkids. Whether it was reminding us we were beautiful, coming to support our dance recitals, or really any event at school, it was pretty much a given, Granny was always there.

Audry, officially pictured out.
She always had ice cream and Domino's pizza in her freezer, Pepsi in her fridge, sour cream and onion chips in her cupboard, and a rotating assortment of candy displayed on crystal in her living room. Her house was a dream. It was a place where childhood was encouraged to stay a while. Maybe it's because most of my memories there took place during long summer days, but it worked. I had a childhood I love thinking back on, and I do so fondly. In that house we sang and danced along with old VHS tapes of Singing in the Rain and 42nd Street. We were encouraged to stretch out on beach towels in her driveway and catch some summer sun, and rode our bikes up and down that same driveway as granny sat outside and watched, mastering her role as granny.

I don't do mornings well, and there were a few years where granny would come over to wake my sisters and me up for school. Those years I couldn't get enough of red flannel (I've thankfully since outgrown that), and almost daily I'd be awakened by the shaky voice of my granny singing about the lady in red, and how the fella's were crazy about her. If it were anyone else in the world, chances are I would have thrown something at them. But since it was Granny, and from what I remember, I mustered a smile, and got out of bed without much fight. It was like she was magic.

 My Granny was always cool in my book too. My youngest memories include her always having a stash of Juicy Fruit gum in her purse. She was like Mary Poppins. The supply was seemingly endless. Even when I would be over her house sick, she still managed to earn cool points. Letting me drink 7-up,  control what we watched on TV, and even one time buying me the worlds biggest candy cane, because she knew it held big pull in making me feel better. She was right. And I can't even begin to tell you about how cool it was when I first realized my granny was born in 1919, the same year as Edy's Ice cream. And do I even need to bring up the gumball machine she had in her bedroom. Who else can say their granny had that?!

I have this button jar that sits in my hallway closet that tells a story of time. It's behind a door a lot like the one that same jar used to live behind at her house.  The door pulls open with a flat brassy knob, but unlike hers, doesn't resist much against the carpet. That closet was full of towels, and sheets, and on one of the lower shelves was the button jar. I remember spilling them out on occasion, thumbing through them, and thinking of how long it must have taken to gather such a full jar. Was this button from a dress or a shirt? which button was first in the jar? and thinking about the time it must have taken to collect them one by one. In reality, it's just a glass jar and buttons. But to me, it was one of the many things about granny and her house that was a constant and familiar. and I love that I get to have that piece of hers as my own.

There's a saying I just heard for the the first time recently. It says, "do not regret growing older, it's a privilege denied to many." -- and I realize that by making it to 93, this doesn't exactly apply to Granny. But it has made me think about how growing old really is a privilege. Because of the years that she had, granny got to spend 40+ of them doing in my opinion, what she did best. Loving her grandchildren. And although this week we are giving her a proper farewell, she won't ever really be that far away. Because whenever the family sees Nic's meticulous attention to the skills of his trade, or when Cory brings up a family favorite story, when Sara shows us her dedication to work, or when Audry bakes, and when I someday give people a reason to gather, she will be there.  A living legacy in the lives of the grandchildren she loved so well.

 Always on our minds and forever in our hearts.