How Sweet Life Is

May Twenty-Fourth, 2006.  The phone rang just before six o’clock in the morning.  I am NOT an early riser, and six a.m. is just to damn early to be conscious.  I can hear my Aunt Marge on the line, but I’m not exactly sure if I’m awake or just having a really weird dream.

“Nicky, I wanted to ask you if you’d do something to represent your mom’s side of the family at Grandma’s funeral.  The oldest child of each of her children have all agreed except you.”

“Um, of course.  What do you want me to do?”

“Just talk about your memories of Grandma.  We wanted each side of her family to get a chance to speak.  Jace and Lisa agreed to do it last night.”

“Yeah, I’d be glad to.”

“Good.  Try to keep it light hearted.  Funny memories, things like that.  We’ll already be crying so much, it would be better if we had happy things to think about.”

…and with that, I was signed up to give a light-comedy reading at a funeral for my beloved Gramma in front of hundreds of people.  Had I been awake, I might have thought harder about it.  But then again, I probably wouldn’t have.  I DID have to ask my wife several hours later if I had really agreed to that or if I’d just dreamed up the whole thing.

For the next three days I procrastinated mightily.  I knew I had to come up with something, I just couldn’t make myself take pen to paper.  I had a terrible time gathering my thoughts into anything resembling coherent sentences.

Marge asked me to try and be funny, but the only specifically funny story I could think of was “cop vs. white-haired grandma in tennis shoes” and I figured that one was going to be told about a dozen times before I got up to speak so I decided I’d skip it all together.

Oddly, no one actually TOLD that story at the funeral (perhaps because it involved repeated violations of the law???) so I shall relate it here just for posterity.

My Gramma’s maiden name was “Ledford” which is surprisingly close to “Lead Foot” which would have been an even more accurate description of her driving style.  Deep into her eighties my Gramma would still bomb down Nile Ave. in East Wenatchee at about three miles-per-hour less then what would be defined as “utterly insane” by rational people.

As you would suspect, police officers look dimly at one car high-speed car chases being re-enacted down a relatively busy four-lane avenue, and so she found herself explaining “the rush” to more than a few of East Wenatchee’s finest.

My Gramma was the quintessential Gramma.  She had beautiful pure white hair and an incredible peaches and cream complexion.  She looked like she’d just sprung fully formed from a Norman Rockwell painting.  No one could be cross with her for even half a second, you just wanted to hug her and forget everything bad that had ever happened in the world.

And bless her heart, she knew it.

As soon as a police officer would come to the window, she’s roll it down, look as though she was near tears and ask “officer, you wouldn’t give a ticket to a little old white-haired Grandma in tennis shoes, would you?”

To which, they would always crumble like abashed six-year-olds and assure her that they would only give her a warning. It was her own special superpower.  We seriously considered getting her a tee-shirt with the superman logo replacing the S with a G.

Which isn’t what makes this story funny.  What makes this story funny is when a police officer stopped her, walked up to the window and heard her typical plea for mercy…and then replied “Lady, I didn’t last time, or the time before; and I’m not gonna this time either, but  you have GOT TO SLOW IT DOWN!”

That’s right, my Gramma occasionally used her superpowers for evil (well, as evil as the most pure-hearted woman ever put on this earth could be). Lawbreaker…

I realize this might sound like an urban legend, so let me assure you that I was IN THE CAR when he said it.


SAME cop.

No lie.

Since I figured that story was going to be beat to death before I could tell it, I decided to give up on being funny and just talk about the things that define how I remember my Wenatchee Gramma; and about the lessons I learned in her home.

What follows is that remembrance, and to be honest, it was probably the first thing I was ever “proud” of writing.  Not because it is “good” writing, but because people told me that it was exactly the way they remembered her too.

As far back as I can remember, she was always the “destination” Gramma; “Road-Trip” Gramma; “Event” Gramma. And while a trip to Wenatchee was something that Alex and I looked forward to for weeks, the journey itself…

When you’re eight years old, the drive from Boise to Wenatchee is just slightly longer than the 40 years that the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, and almost as scenic.

A journey so entertaining that somewhere around Pendleton we were reduced to mindlessly drooling zombies, uttering monosyllabic grunts and fighting bitterly for control over the four inches of seat that were supposed to separate us.

Eventually, after a length of time so vast and sweeping that historians fail to comprehend it all, we would fall asleep in the gathering dusk and only wake from time to time as the car would come to some stop or another as highways were changed, exits were made, and stop signs were obeyed.

Then finally, magically, from the front seat would come my mother’s voice saying the most wonderful phase I have ever known: “wake up, we’re almost to Grandma’s House.”

We’d sit up, peer out the window, and strain to see her house materialize from the darkness. The porch light would be on, and the living room window would have a faint glow coming from a lamp.  Without fail, whenever we’d enter the house, Gramma would be waiting up for us.  Sitting in a chair reading; waiting to invite us in and welcome us home.

There was one other thing that Gramma always had without fail; She had this great old-fashioned glass cake cover, and inside it there was ALWAYS a supply of her homemade cookies.

12:30am? No problem. “Here, have a cookie, now off to bed.”

The first Christmas that really stands out in my mind was saved by one of her cookies. Jamie and I had wandered into Gramma’s room and discovered her high bed and feather pillows. What would any self-respecting five and six year old do when they discover feather pillows and a high bed? They have the world’s greatest bed-jumping pillow fight.

Oddly enough, the size difference between a five-year-old and a six-year-old was enough that I’m pretty sure Jamie outweighed me by a solid five pounds; apparently ALL muscle. Either that, or being the youngest of five gave her a set of pillow-fight self-defense skills that I had yet to master…or sufficiently respect.

When a five-year-old who isn’t particularly big for his age jumps up and his six-year-old cousin swings a king-sized feather pillow at him with all the force she can muster, what you have are all the elements of physics that allow baseball players to hit grand slams; only in miniature…and all working against me.

Gramma always had something else in her home besides cookies; she had antiques.  Very old, very ornate (and probably very valuable) antiques.  Everywhere.

I learned this by flying – nay, hurtling – through the air at a very old, very big, and very fragile vase in the corner of her room.

I remember the flying. I remember the look on Jamie’s face as I rocketed away from her, and I remember the pieces of the vase under my hands and beneath my bottom as people came running from all across the house at the sound of porcelain shattering.

Now, in discussing this event with Jamie, I’m reminded of one little fact that I’d forgotten at the time…she may have rocketed me across the room…but I knocked her feet out from under her and she knocked out her two front teeth when she landed.

So now you have the total scene:  Feathers everywhere, blood all over, two screaming children and a shattered antique vase.  It was like we’d snuck into Gramma’s room and killed a goose with a vase and Jamie’s face.  It was NOT a pretty sight.  And since I wasn’t bleeding, it was pretty obvious who’s fault it was…

I also remember being able to parse the general gist of the phrase “stop wailing RIGHT NOW and go downstairs, or I will end your life and make another BECAUSE I CAN!!!” from the look of shaking rage that my mother directed at me.

(Years later my Mother assured me that the “or” I was picking up was probably superfluous and could have been excluded from that sentence entirely.)

I went down to the kitchen and awaited my Mother and my impending demise.  Many long hours (well, probably less than one) later someone finally came to put me out of my misery.  But it wasn’t my mom, instead Gramma came in and went to the counter. She lifted up the cake cover and got me out a cookie. She gave it to me and said “Oh don’t worry about the vase Nicky, it’s not like it was new.”

For years I believed the only reason Santa brought presents for me that year was because my Gramma had a direct line to the Naughty/Nice list elves.

Several years went by, and many more trips, until I got a chance to do something that a lot of her Grandkids got to do, I spent two summers with her and Grandpa learning some valuable lessons and doing a lot of growing up.

I learned that the chickens might not be up at 4:00am but the Cherry Pickers are.

I learned that working your fingers to the bone is a real and serious possibility so bring medical tape.

I learned that you should NEVER eat an entire bucket of cherries on your first day in the orchard.  IF you do eat an entire bucket of cherries on your first day in the orchard, DON’T go to your cousin’s new home that evening. Stay home and suffer alone with no witnesses.  The alternative is just horrifying. For everyone.

I learned that nothing and I mean NOTHING beats a home-cooked meal at lunch.

But beyond anything else, what I had to learn was that we choose to be the people that we ultimately become; AND that we have to choose to be the kind of person that we would want to be around.

You can ask Pete and Jace, working on self-improvement did NOT come naturally to me at fourteen. Nor did being a person I would want to be around just spring fourth from my brain. I had a lot of lessons to learn and a lot of growing up to do.

In three months that year I grew several inches, dropped two registers to my voice, and had a long conversation with my Gramma over her kitchen table as the sun was setting over the canyon wall.

We talked about what it was like to grow up “po’ in a place so po’ that they couldn’t afford to pronounce their R’s.” What it was like to teach in a place so poor that they burned the schoolbooks in the winter for heat.  What it was like to grow up an orphan, alone among a family that she’d never truly be part of.  And what leads a young woman to get on a train and leave her life behind because she hoped…hoped for better…chose to find better.

One conversation.  One evening.  One moment to choose.

We are who we choose to be.  We become what we work for.

When the sun had finally set, and the glow was dimming in the sky framed by the window, she got up and went to her cake cover and got each of us a cookie. As she gave it to me she said, “no matter how dark it gets, or how rough the road is, it’s always important to remind yourself how sweet life is.  I always keep that lesson near me.”

And THAT was my Wenatchee Gramma as I will always remember her.  And I will always keep her lesson with me.