Sunday, February 6, 2011

Straight Talk

A little over 16 years ago on Christmas Day, I met Paul's Grandma Clair Simmel for the first time.  The house was a bustle of activity with Clair, her 6 kids, 9 grandkids (our generation) and (then) 6 greatgrandchildren.  With all those people in the house, you can imagine no one paid much attention to me.  After dinner, Paul's sister, Sharon, talked me into joining into a domino game and I found myself seated next to Clair.

Now, Clair is pretty serious about her "spinners."  So there was not much conversation on my end of the table.  Yet at one point, she leaned over and looked at me seriously and said, "Got any Grandmas?"

"Only one," I said, "In the nursing home.  She's pretty ill.  And no Grandpas."

Paul and Clair, Christmas 2009
"Well," she said, "You got me too."

That was the end of the conversation but suddenly, I was part of the family.  I next saw Clair just a couple of weeks later at our wedding celebration.  My sister-in-law had asked everyone to write some advice for us on slips of paper.   I can still see the slip of paper with Clair's advice on it -- straightforward and with an economy of words, "Never go to bed mad."

Thus began my love, love relationship with Clair Simmel.  Because she lives a 4-1/2 hour drive away, we have never gotten there as much as we'd like.  Yet every year, we manage to get there several times.  Often Sharon and I went together with our daughters and stayed a week or several days.  We would do a little housekeeping or garden-related things for her, when she'd let us, but mostly we sat and played Yahtzee or Spinner and just passed the time with her.

Maggie Rose, Chanelle, Grandma, Gabriel, Bennie, Paul
It's amazingly pleasant to hang out with someone who feels no need to chit-chat.  She has, as I said, an admirable economy of words.  Yet she has a real knack for saying just what I need to hear, sometimes compassionate and sometimes not -- just the truth as she sees it.  One time the girls were stomping up and down her wooden hallway, delighting, I suppose, in the terrible noise they were making.  She looked me straight in the eye and said, "You know, Henry [her husband] laid every one of those parquet tiles by hand."   You can bet my children never stomped down that hallway again!

Once when just the girls and I were up there, she was doing a lot of work in the garden.  I offered to have the girls do some weeding while she and I picked beans.  She said, "I don't allow kids in the garden. They're a nuisance."  You know, those girls had a great time romping in the yard while Clair and I made short work of picking those beans.

When our daughters (both African American) were toddlers, someone thoughtlessly made a racist remark about someone in Clair's small town.  She looked at me but spoke to them.  "We're all the same on the inside."  She has her prejudices; but no one is going to say anything against her Great Grandchildren!

Grandma with her two surviving siblings, Bertha Holley and Vera Duesman
She is an amazingly resilient woman and yet has the tenderest heart.  She gave birth to 7 children  -- 6 of them at home -- and all but one still survive.  But her heart has never stopped longing for little Patsy who died as a little girl.  She has spoken of her to me nearly every time I've seen her.  When Sharon died  at a youthful age in 2006, my first thoughts were for Grandma;  she treasures every one of her descendants, she can't stop loving any one.

My own grandma, Agnes Leeper, died about 13 years ago and I got the news while visiting with Clair.  She patted me on the back and never said a word. Later, she beckoned me over and gave me a hug.

"Well, honey," she said, "I'm the only old Grandma you got now.  So you don't call me Clair any more.  I'm just plain old Grandma, now."

That is probably the longest sentence she ever said to me -- and as it turns out, the most important.  She has been my Grandma ever since.  She stopped signing her cards with "Clair Simmel and Grandma."  They all just say "Grandma"  now.

Last week, Clair Simmel turned 100.  We celebrated with her two surviving sisters -- Grandma was one of 8.  All 6 of her kids were there and most of her 8 surviving grandchildren.  Her granddaughter Kendra couldn't make it from California having just recently given birth to Grandma's 20th great-grandchild! I have never seen a family with stronger ties.

I am so grateful that she has lived such a long and fruitful life because her living has made all the difference in my living.  Grandma has shown me how having a passion -- in her case gardening -- can keep you young.  She has taught me that when something needs to be said, you just say it and that dressing it up just muddies the message.  She showed me that on a holiday or birthday, every single one of needs to be there, because every one of us counts.  Most importantly, she taught me that that you never have too little money, too small a house or too many people in it.  Amen.

Grandma and several of her "grands:"  Paul Tischler, Kenny Simmel, Clayton Whitley, Tommy Simmel and Marsha Harris

1 comment:

Gerry said...

This one had me in tears. Wonderful writing. Thanks for the tribute to my Mom.