Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Gram" - a Word for Love

Today is the birthday of my maternal grandmother, Agnes Timmons Leeper.  I lost both my grandfathers when I was very young, and "Gram," as we called her, was the most active grandparent in my life. Beset by tragedy in the prime of her life, she lived many years in our family home.

Gram was from the "old days."  She grew up riding horses and a visit to the nearby city (40 miles on mountain roads) was a rare adventure that took at least a couple of days by horse and buggy.  She worked hard as a young adult, cooking in logging camps and hotels and I've often said my love of cooking for crowds was genetically pre-determined as both my grandmothers were legendary group cooks!  She finally got to settle in as a housewife when my Granddad landed a good job as the manager of the grain warehouse.  A lady of her time, she never wore slacks until the 1970s or maybe 1980s and even then, wore them with stockings and under duress in only the coldest of weather; it was scandalous to her.

When I was 4 or 5, we drove the 1000 miles or so to visit my grandparents.  Gram was relatively young back then, in her 40s, and she showed us a good time.  Before the state had cut paths through the ancient, glacier formed mountains and  leveled all the roads, the roads in that part of the country were very hilly.  Gram took us to the county seat by back roads in her standard car; she'd shift into neutral on the way down the hills and the car would speed up faster and faster.  When we hit the bottom of the hill and started up the other side, our stomachs would flip just like on a roller coaster.   Just before the car slowed to a crawl, she'd shift the car into the gear, the car would roar to life, and climbing the next big hill, we'd start all over again. I credit Gram with my love for the thrill ride!

They lived in their family home still, and had chickens running around outside. I was a city girl --we lived in Boulder, Colorado back then -- and this was my initiation to rural life.  Grandma went outside and caught a chicken for a special dinner. She worked efficiently but learning where my dinner originated made a lasting impression me. That was a wonderful visit; I can still see her making pies in her kitchen, the counter covered with flour, the window vining with plants; I can smell the bread rising and see her standing shoulder to shoulder with my mom, then in her 20s, both of them adorned with aprons and laughing together.

Shortly after our visit, the unthinkable happened. My grandfather committed suicide. Grandma, unable to cope with her loss, was eventually given a common mental-health treatment of the day, shock treatment. Seen with today's lenses, the treatment seems primitive and cruel.  Back then, it's just how things were done.

After her treatment, she came to live with us. I know this was hard on my parents as she was like a toddler afterward; she had to re-learn all her adult skills, including self-care, and it broke my mother's heart. That said, this was back in the day when parents protected their children from adult problems and nothing my parents said or did ever indicated to me that they were struggling. For me, Gram living in our house was pure joy. She was fun and silly and all love to me. Grandma had not been raised to hug a lot or say she loved you, but she showed it in myriad ways.  We had adventures together and having her in our home was a great joy of my childhood.  When she moved back to Idaho, I thought my heart would never heal.

She was a woman of character too and fiercely defended all her grandchildren and grands-in-law. When word reached me that one of my cousins was getting divorced, I mentioned it to Gram. She said, "Well, no one had better say anything bad about her (my cousin's spouse). We loved her when she was married to him and we will love her now." That stuck with me.  I am sure I personally disappointed her many times but she showed nothing but encouragement to me.

When I was a young adult and lived for a time nearby, we had a number of adventures together. I loved spending time with her because she was a hoot!  Just as my kids love toast with jam because it is a treat my parents share with them, I love toast with cinnamon sugar and coffee with milk and sugar because Gram made it for me every time I entered her home. When I moved back to Texas, I missed her terribly and I felt so guilty for leaving her. I was a selfish 20-something then but I realize now, it must have hurt her so.

It's hard for me to believe she's been gone 15 years.  The last time I saw her, very shortly before her death, she had been confused and unreachable for several days. I lived 2200 miles away so had not seen her in a couple of years. She lay in the nursing home, unmoving and mostly unresponsive. Mom warned me that she had been very confused and likely would not recognize or remember me. When I walked into her room with 1 year old Pepper in my arms, she reached for my arms, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, "I never thought I'd see you again."  It melted my heart.

While I'm past old enough to be a grandma, I haven't reached that stage of life yet. When I get there, I hope I can be as loving to my grandkids as Grandma was.

Happy birthday, Gram.  I miss you every day.

[The cute 11 year old on the left is my grandma.  I now see how much my cousin Kelly has her smile!]