Every summer until I was fifteen, all six members of my immediate family piled into our Ford Windstar minivan and embarked on the maddeningly long journey to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Weiser, Idaho (population 5,343). Across the Donner Pass, through the empty desert of Nevada, and tiny farm towns of Oregon, my siblings and I giggled, delirious with the excitement of seeing our grandparents and the adventures we would have along the creek that ran through their property. At the same time, we also fought relentlessly due to the lack of personal space, boredom, and anger at being forced to take our turn in the “booger seat” (the last bench seat in the van which we lovingly wiped our boogers on). When we would finally arrive at our destination, Grandma and Grandpa would be outside waiting for us, after having been alerted by Lily, Grandpa’s K-9 companion. For the next two weeks we would explore how far the creek went, have mud fights with the rancher’s kids down the road, go on tractor rides with Grandpa, play dress up in my mom’s old clothes from high school, and get in exorbitant amounts of trouble for our antics.
It had been ten years since my last trip to Weiser, until last weekend, when my older sister, Jessica, and I loaded up her Honda Civic and hit the road. Eleven hours of driving, 663 miles of open road, Jessica’s new iPod, loaded with exactly 79 songs, and my iPod, which was not fitting to Jessica’s superior musical tastes, left us with ample time to talk and reminisce about our childhood. I also must mention that there was a strictly enforced no sleeping rule, with it’s roots founded by a traumatic experience involving Jessica napping while her friend took to the driving during a post high school graduation road trip. (I don’t blame her for being a little nervous about it all, after hearing of how she awoke from her nap that day, spinning in circles down Highway 5, because the driver also decided to take a nap.) New rules were voiced as I continued to break them…
Me: “Jessica! Look at that cute little donkey in that field over there!”
Jess: No pointing at things on the side of the road while I am driving! Keep your observations to yourself.”
Approaching a sign for Jessup, Nevada…
Me: “Jessup…” Followed by a moment of deliberation and the final decision to gently push Jess’s head down while shouting, “Jess-down!”
Jess: “No touching my while I am driving!”
Me: “Man, my lips are so chapped. I really need some chapstick. I think it’s the air-conditioner.
Jess: “Just shut up and put it on.”
I couldn’t sleep, make sudden movements, talk about the landscape, or touch her, but I was allowed to write notes for our eternally evolving, fantasy screenplay, and share funny stories. It is amazing to me as I look back on our total 22 hours of driving and think, “That didn’t feel long at all.” I haven’t laughed until I cried in a long time. I was giggling like we did on those long drive years ago. It must be something in the air on those long desert roads, or maybe it was just lack of sleep and desperation for entertainment within the strict boundaries I had to abide in.
I knew that this visit with Grandma and Grandpa would be different. The path to the creek, which I now know is in reality an irrigation ditch for the local farmers, had long ago been grown over, the neighbor kids had, like us, turned into adults and moved away, the tractor had gone out of commission a long time ago, and my mom’s old clothes didn’t fit anymore. Lily passed away years ago, and Grandma and Grandpa were stuck inside with Grandpa’s oxygen machine when we pulled up. Instead of excited grandparents in the front yard, we found our frazzled mom who had flown in a day prior to spend time with her parents during Grandpa’s last days. Jessica and I both braced ourselves as we reached the front door to their house because we knew just how much could change in ten years.
Despite her lack of mobility, Grandma looked and acted how I remembered her. Only when I hugged her could I feel her frailness. Grandpa, on the other hand, had changed. He was thin and had tubes in his nose. I have to stop there because it’s too hard to describe the metamorphoses of a gilded image that has been tarnished by time and age. I had put off seeing them in recent years because I wanted my memory of them to stay the same. I never wanted to see them old and sick, but I decided that avoiding a visit to preserve my memories was utterly selfish, and sitting with them in their living room made my heart soar with love and affection. Suddenly, this desperation arose in me. I had to find a way to hold on to all the memories of our grandparents and our childhood visits to their house. My sister and I ran upstairs and basically raided the bedrooms, in search of artifacts to bring home with us. I frantically selected fabrics from Grandma’s sewing stash, while Jessica located old drawings and books that we had read. We both lost it in a fit of laughter when we stumbled upon a piece of paper that had long ago been lost and been reallocated as a legend in our minds. It was the drawing I had done in the car during a trip to Weiser long ago. Jessica and I had drawn pictures of what our future husbands would look like. This was that picture. There on a piece of white computer paper was my tan, muscular, mustached man, chopping wood. The detail of chopping wood has long been a source of laughter for us. When I meet a new potential guy my sister jokes, “Oh. Well, does he chop wood?” (I’m purchasing a frame for this picture so I can hang it on my wall for a reference.)
I felt a little strange about taking these objects, weighted with sentiment, from their home. The fabric should always be kept in Grandma’s fabric stash, dress up clothes in her closet, and memories of our childhood should litter the drawers of various desks and dressers. It was as if I was admitting to my grandparents that I knew their secret; they are going to pass away soon and, in doing so, leave that house emptier than the day they moved in. During our raid, Grandpa went into his bedroom to take a nap, so we missed out on saying our goodbyes when we were leaving. This may have been for the better. One last hug to say hello is much easier than one last hug to say goodbye. As far as hugging Grandma goodbye goes, I may have responded a bit inappropriately. Getting around it not easy for her, so I bent down to hug her in her rocking chair, and suddenly I felt like I was coddling a baby. She felt like a tiny and fragile casing that was hiding something so deep and special inside, and I had to be very gentle while showing my respect at the same time. With this wave of emotion came this silly impulse to rub her head like you would a child. As I reached my hand toward her thin gray hair, I watched in horror as if my hand were no longer a part of my body. “Don’t pat her on the head like a baby!” my inner monologue screamed at my hand, and at the last second my hand made a quick recovery and caressed the back of her head, in the way that I think is probably ok to hug old people. And then we were off.
I’m moving up to Idaho next month to go to school at Boise State (Woo! Broncos!) and I’m pretty sure I will be seeing my grandma frequently once I get there. It was just eerie not saying goodbye to my grandpa. I suppose the relationship I had with him in the past consisted of few words, so why should so many words be shared now? Sometimes words fall short of how we feel anyway. I have my treasures, and I have my stories, and the more I share of these things, the more brilliant and alive the legacy of these two people lives will be. So, let the story telling begin…
(Much love to Grandma and Grandpa Mac.)