“We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
Eeyore (A.A. Milne)
My family has never pulled off a Norman Rockwell/Martha Stewart/Rachel Ray sort of holiday season. We are a lot more like National Lampoon Family Christmas. A whole lot more: one year we had a water spout from a broken pipe and a dog die. Grandma was our Chevy Chase: she wanted it traditional with all the knick-knacks and whistles that would fit on her window sill.
At this point we are a motley crew of a family. Kluged together from the bits and pieces that are still alive and care enough to tolerate the quirks and imperfections of each other. Who from this elite group actually shows up varies from year to year. The dogs always show up, and sometimes we have as many canines as humans.
Things changed with time
Before my grandparents moved to California we always spent Christmas Eve with my father’s family, Christmas morning at home then went to Grandma’s for Christmas day dinner.
Of course that changed when they moved to California. I mentioned in a previous post that we took a car trip down to spend Christmas with them the first year that they lived in California. Mostly we didn’t do that. I’m not sure we would have all survived to adulthood if we had. One year they came up but, because we lived down a steep trail, they couldn’t stay with us so that wasn’t repeated.
After my parent’s divorce we rarely spent the holidays together with my grandparents. My mother inherited their love of the holidays, but not so much of the spirit of sharing. So our holidays were centered around her home and my grandparents would send a Christmas in a box with everything from oranges and cookies to gifts.
The next major change for me was when my son was born. After a disastrous Christmas trip to Texas where my poor child wound up wearing a soiled diaper for several hours because of weather related travel problems and turbulence, I declared that I was going to stay home for the holidays and people could come to my house or not. My grandparents started coming up for Christmas. We did go down once when James was eight or so.
With no young children in the family Grandma became the focus of our merry making. As grandma got older I was the one who wound up trying to make the merry happen, often to strict orders.
Fortunately, I had a great deal of catering experience from doing events at church, I have organized elaborate events for a hundred people several times, so the food, always critical to having a good time (or at least good memories), doesn’t feel like a burden. Managing the herd of cats that is our family was tougher.
The burden was the expectation that I could both produce the party and, at the same time, sit patiently and be present. Since I made an effort to be calm and pleasant in the face of a long to-do list, even when I had a headache and wanted to crawl into a hole, she seemed to think I wasn’t busy and asked me to arrange knick-knacks, find batteries for her Santa House, procure eggnog, not forget to pick up the type of tissues she liked… At times I felt like I was being punished for being nice.
I know this is wrong. I know that she really just wanted us to be with her, to have reasons to stop by. But it was how I felt at times, especially when she would ask what I had been doing, as if I was, in addition to putting on the party, running errands and being there, supposed be out doing things and having fun so I had stories to tell as well.
Fortunately, I have a sister, who was able to come and help Grandma decorate and arrange her knick-knacks the weekend after Thanksgiving the last couple of years. I generally “celebrate” Black Friday by hiding.
I do it my way.
I’m actually not the Grinch you might have thought from the rant above. I like the holidays, in my own way. I space things out. I finish with Thanksgiving before I think about Advent and Christmas.
I’m not real big on the whole Christmas morning thing. I call that “consumer-fest”, honestly it has always seemed like nothing could be less Christ-like than the “traditional” Christmas morning scrum under the tree. I used to have a St. Nicholas Day tea party for my son and nieces. My nieces father’s family did Christmas big (I never understood why since they are Buddhists and atheists) and I wasn’t going to compete.
I celebrate Advent, lighting a new candle each Sunday, decorating for Christmas a bit more each week and doing one or two seasonal things that I enjoy each week.
COMING SOON: Aunt Kate’s Safe and Sane Guide to the Holidays.
California was a magic place for my grandparents, and the desire to be there, in spite of anything and everything, shaped their lives for many years…it also shaped, to some extent, my relationship with both of them.
They were both from the Albany area in upstate New York and hated the winters there. The move to Seattle happened during the war. My grandmother’s father moved here to work in the Bremerton shipyard. As a young woman with a baby and a husband fighting overseas, she came with them. And so it was here that Grandpa came home after the war. It wasn’t a choice that they made.
California was their chosen home.
The Magic Kingdom was discovered
I do not know when my grandparents first visited California. My first visit was when I was 7 or 8 years old, instigated by my grandparents. It may have also been their first visit to Southern California.
My grandparents had gone down either to visit friends who had worked with grandpa or for grandpa’s work, he worked at Boeing at the time, right before the big layoffs in the early 1970’s. Grandpa discovered Disneyland. After he saw it he was bound and determined that my sister and I had to see it. They paid for plane tickets and sent for us.
That trip was a very, very big deal! We flew down alone, it was our first airplane trip, and stayed in a hotel (my parents never traveled so this was also huge).
Then there was the magic kingdom itself. My grandfather loved the “It’s a Small World” ride and we went on it more than once. He also loved Main Street. I was young enough that the Pirates of the Caribbean was scary. It was a magical trip, and I have always treasured it in my heart…and I have always loved the song “It’s a small, small world.” I never fly without remembering that trip.
Although I am not 100% sure, I think this trip may have been when my grandparents love affair with California started.
We subsequently made many, many trips to Disneyland with my grandparents, I have never been there without them. My last visit was my son’s first: he was seven, about the same age I was on my first visit. It was Grandma and Gramps birthday present to him.
Real life was a little less magical
Since I was young the timing is a bit fuzzy for the next stage of this story. My grandfather after the war got a Bachelor’s in Business. He then worked for US Plywood. As was the standard practice in those days, the company didn’t vest anyone in retirement until they had worked for the company for 15 years. They mostly ditched people at about 14 1/2 years to take on younger, cheaper labor and not have to provide pensions. Grandpa was not an exception.
Again, grandpa wasn’t an exception. He worked in human resources and they needed way fewer of those folks as the number of employees dropped from over 100,000 to less than 40,000. Since he had already spent 14 plus years at US Plywood he didn’t have much seniority.
After Gramps was laid off they lost their house. They found a rental nearby and employment managing the local golf and country club as a team. Grandpa also worked odd jobs as a handyman. They scraped along.
A break in the gloom
Eventually they answered an ad to go to California and work for an elderly gentleman who needed a property manager for a mobile home compound and a housekeeper. For them it was heaven, to be in the sunshine. They had housing provided, even though it wasn’t glamorous. Grandpa loved going around keeping an eye on things, fixing this and that and chewing the fat with the leaseholders. There were orange trees all around the property and Grandma could swim in the pool.
Our second trip to California was to visit them for Christmas in 1971. That was the only long trip we ever took with my parents while they were married. I remember it as being fun, except that our car got hit in a snow storm at Mount Shasta. Fortunately no one was hurt and the damage wasn’t too bad, so we continued on. We had fun in the snow and fun in the sun on that trip. I ate so many oranges straight off the trees that I got a rash.
The house was a genuine old adobe home, fantastic from a historical standpoint…we spent one summer there when the old man was away. That was the summer my youngest sister was conceived, 1972.
It was also about the time they discovered that I am allergic to the sun (I turn red quickly and get a bumpy rash.) So I was smeared at regular intervals with cortisone cream and, during the day, had to stay in or wear a hat, which made me even hotter, 1000 Palms was often the hottest recorded temperature in the country during July.
When the old man passed away Grandma and Gramps were at loose ends and went to visit old friends in Eugene Oregon. While there they got a gig managing an apartment complex. But the winter came, and after a couple of years in the California desert it bit hard, even though Eugene Oregon isn’t bad compared to upstate New York. Grandpa started to save money in an old Galliano bottle to go back to California (he hated being cold). He poured all of his spare change into the bottle as well as going around picking up bottles and cans to return for the deposits, and sorting through trash to find them, and anything else that might yield a nickel for the Galliano bottle.
His magic bottle filled up, they headed south
They did save up enough and went back down, I do not know if they had jobs lined up before they left or not, but, if not, they were employed soon. Grandpa worked at Palm Springs mall, managing the janitorial staff and grandma did books and answered phones for various businesses. We visited a few times for parts of school holidays but during that period most of our contact was by letter and infrequent, very costly, phone calls. Nobody had much money for travel.
Hot, hot summers
My parents got divorced in 1976. Things changed in our relationship with my grandparents in several ways. First they were really, really angry at mom and she resented that, while at the same time she needed them, because she couldn’t take care of us in the summer when school was out. Every summer we were sent down to stay in the desert.
During most of that time they were working as a team to manage Casa Dorado, a posh condominium complex in Indian Wells. Grandma was working in the office several hours a day, so we were kind of on our own, but she was nearby and Grandpa was in and out, so it wasn’t 100% unsupervised either. It did put rather a lot of responsibility on me. And I was often miserable because of my sun allergy.
Also,there weren’t many folks around because of the heat of summer and no kids to hang out with. I used to read a whole lot, even riding a bike to the library to get books, but, even though it was only a few miles, in 110 degree heat it wasn’t particularly pleasant and in those days they didn’t have the great sun protection fabrics available today so I either really cooked or had a bad skin reaction.
We did, however, get a trip in to Disneyland most years. Uncle Sonny, Grandma’s brother lived in Garden Grove, near Anaheim.
The summer after my junior year in high school I rebelled, if you can call it that. I went and spent the summer at my Dad’s. Dad lived on Vashon, where we had lived before the divorce, and since I had gone to school there through eighth grade I still had friends I could visit. I worked with him on the house he was building on evenings and weekends. I think my sisters saw it as a near treasonous act.
Lessons from this time
My grandparents were hard workers, life didn’t treat them well and they felt trapped. When Life pulled the carpet out from under them in the form of the Boeing layoffs they finally got to make a choice. That choice was the Coachella valley desert, near Palm Springs. For them the place itself represented freedom and warmth. In a way it was a reward for sticking through the tough stuff.
My sister and I lost something precious when they moved and we always felt a sort of homecoming to wherever Grandma was. This was magnified after my parent’s divorce. Life was crazy, uncertain and unstable. I was thrust into caring for my younger sisters, when we were at Grandma’s I could relax more.
There is always going to be a tension between living for yourself and being there for others when they need you. I talked about this some in the post “the waiting is the hardest part”. I really respect that my grandparents moved to California and followed their happiness. That move helped to show me it is okay to leave. You can still have relationships. My grandparents supported my decision to leave home and go to college on the east coast. They even helped me to pay for expenses. That was a tremendous gift. I felt very trapped in Corvallis.
My grandmother’s dread of moving back to Seattle was, I believe, in large measure a fear of being trapped again. The jaunt we took to California a year after she moved up was very important to her, I talked about this in Carpe Diem.
I sometimes wish I had found that Galliano bottle, I would have kept it as a symbol: that hope combined with perseverance can move you to where you need to be.
My family trends toward the hoarding side of the spectrum. Grandma was not a hoarder (Gramps was). I like to think I am moderate, but don’t we all? I keep things I am fond of and things that I think will be useful. My greatest weakness is being optimistic about what I will actually use. Now and again I do a purge…and get motivated to do projects. But mostly I don’t think too much about stuff.
The big move brought stuff to the front of my mind.
When I went down to California to help Grandma pack for the big move to Seattle I packed a whole lot of things that I knew would not see the light of day again until they found new homes. A whole lot of things.
Before heading down to help pack, I had cleared away a lot of our life “savings” and had the garage pretty nearly empty (the first time in years we could have even considered putting a car into it!). After being so ruthless with our own belongings I had to make an effort to turn off the purge switch when I got down to the desert.
In continuing to try and explain (mostly to myself) about my grandmother and how the relationship has changed and affected me, politics needs to be mentioned. Because of the wide disparity of views, and the way they have caused animosity, and, at times, complete ruptures within the family.
My grandparents liked Ike, and tricky Dick (a misunderstood soul), and absolutely adored Ronnie. Any tax was too much…but why should the government be so stingy with social security benefits, and the roads sure need fixing. Their loyalty and belief in the Republican Party was greater than their loyalty and belief in God, if actions are any guide.
My uncle didn’t serve in Vietnam because of a bum knee (I was pretty young when this drama unfolded, so I may be off by a few inches about the body part). That was a disappointment to my WWII veteran grandfather, and I think also, on some level, to my grandmother, although she probably had mixed feelings.
Note: I started this post on Veteran’s Day, but struggled with it.
I always think about Grandma when I see veteran’s memorials…
In her later life Grandma always sold poppies, until she couldn’t drive any longer (due to the diabetic ulcers mentioned in Carpe Diem).
She was a die-hard VFW Ladies Auxiliary member. She ran her local group with an iron hand from the secretary-treasurer position that she held for probably about 20 years. I still have several photo albums and a rules book somewhere in the garage. It’s hard to know what to do with them.
Within the VFW her particular cause was disabled veterans. She put on many a spaghetti dinner to raise money to help them.
I am a rather intense person. I like to focus in and do things from beginning to end, and I really like to have a final product. Elder care does not lead to that.
When I realized how much of my life was being there for people, I knew I needed to have something other than “fixing things” or I would either go insane, get very mean, or both. Also, it is very hard to live a depression-free life when anything you want to do is less important than a dog sniffing a light pole.
I decided that I was not going to wait for grandma to die to live my own life. I didn’t want to poison our relationship with that sense of waiting. I did a few things that I really think helped me.
You can’t ever do everything. Sometimes it is too easy to decide that at some future point you will have it all together then you can start doing stuff. Being in relationship with the elderly you learn to let go of that. Tomorrow won’t necessarily be better than today.
You have to learn to do what you can when you can, and take the joy in those things, not regret what you can’t do.
My grandmother passed away this year, the day after my 57th birthday. It is a rare gift to have a grandparent in your life for so long. I am going to do some posts this month trying to put some of my lessons from that gift into words, not my best thing.
Just after midnight here, at home it was about 9 am
yesterday, my grandmother left this world.
I should, perhaps, feel sad. But, so far, I feel thankful. Very few people get to my age with an intact grandmother. She sent me a happy birthday email the day before she died. At almost the same time, I sent her an email with these flowers:
I should, perhaps, feel guilt, because I wasn’t there for
her at the end. But, so far, I’ve been remembering happily our last few visits.
Before we left, I took her youngest great-grandchild to see her. Our last visit
was our regular Wednesday night: sharing a glass of wine and laughing together
as we watch British sit-coms. Our good-bye ritual is for me to put each of her
two dogs in her lap for some loving attention. So, she got to say goodbye to the
pups, even though we didn’t know it would be their last goodbye.
At some point I may have different feelings, you don’t lose someone you have known for 57 years all at once, you don’t really lose them at all in some ways, and being so far away I haven’t perceived the changes in my life landscape yet. But, so far, I am not feeling regrets because I wasn’t there last night. Just happiness that I spent as much time with her as I have over the course of our lives, and it was very good time.
I am going to miss her, but, boy, am I lucky to have had her in my life.