Going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house always meant a road trip. They lived on the southwestern border of Iowa–practically in Nebraska, so it took some time to drive there from Minnesota. Their city is a fun little town with a lot of character; shiny casinos ablaze with twinkling lights, and greasy black trainyards that stretch on and on. Trains is most certainly what puts their city on the map.
Up the street from their house a ways was the “Bottoms Up Lounge”, which was a really seedy-looking bar that was probably quite nice in the 60’s, but no one has bothered to remodel it since. I only mention it because when we first arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, we would often be driving into that neighborhood late at night and seeing the lights of that bar was kind of a cozy thing for me as a kid, like some bedraggled lighthouse saying “You’re almost there….” I learned later that it was actually a strip club. Haha, what a clever name. And it always seemed so in-congruent to me that my wholesome, good and devoutly Catholic grandparents would live so near such a place.
Their neighborhood had its heyday in in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s one of those post-WWII neighborhoods that they built all at once, the houses are practically the same, and while they were sturdy and practical homes, they were probably very affordable.
Grandma and Grandpa’s house always seemed small to me, but it was cozy. It didn’t have a basement or an upstairs, nor did it have a cellar. It had three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room and family room, and kitchen. Despite the modest size of their home, (and only one bathroom) they did manage to raise six children in it, a feat that I always found particularly impressive.
My earliest memories of Grandma and Grandpa were mostly from when I stayed at their house while mom and dad went to Colorado for a week. Grandma would give me a bath and I’d play with this little plastic, red tea set in the water. She had a stack of board books that I liked her to read to me. She also had this super old-school live-action version of Snow White that I’d never seen anywhere else. I watched that movie over and over.
Grandpa was diabetic, so he had to take shots multiple times throughout the day. If I happened to be around he’d always pretend that he was “gonna stick me” with it. I knew he was kidding, but I still kept my distance during insulin time. 😛 Grandpa liked to build woodcrafts his in workshop and read books. He would sit in his comfy chair and read all kinds of stuff, one big thick book after another. On account of his diabetes, his eyesight was failing and he had this huge magnifying glass that was on a posable stand so it could hover over whatever he was reading without having to hold it. Later, his eyesight got so bad that he eventually upgraded to this big TV that had a camera mounted under it. You could rest a book on a little table and slide it around under the camera and it would project onto the tv. He spent hours in that chair. He also devoured books on tape. He would sit in a different comfy chair in the next room with headphones on. His favorite subject was history. His dedication to learning still inspires me to this day.
Grandpa also owned a bike shop. I got all of my childhood bikes from grandpa. I remember learning to ride a two-wheeled pink bike with a flowered banana-shaped seat in front of his shop. When I was 11 I got my first adult-sized bike. I was so proud of it; it was a navy-blue 21-speed mountain bike. I rode that bike all the way into my adulthood, and eventually I had to get a different one, because the mountain bike was so heavy, and I wanted one that was lighter so I could ride faster. I was kind of sad to give it away, really.
Meals were always wholesome and sensible. Grandma had about two dozen different things that she’d make all the time, my favorites were Rice-a-Roni, potato salad, beef stew, cherry jello with marshmallows on top, and spritz cookies. Grandma’s spritz cookies are divine. They’re like cream cheese and flour and sugar, I’d eat them by the handfuls. My favorite thing that I inherited from her when they moved out of their home was her manual spritz cookie maker. This thing is like 60 years old and still works great. I think of her whenever I make spritz cookies. Her potato salad was really good too, and it’s tricky to replicate because she never used recipes when she cooked dinner. The key with the potato salad is to not overdo it too much on various spices–minimal sugar, vinegar, pepper, etc. Mostly just mayo with onion. Her 100% Irish heritage didn’t make her too adventurous with the flavorings.
During Thanksgiving the TV was ALWAYS on football. Football all day long. It seems weird to me now, because my family is so intellectual and they don’t really seem all that into sports. No one really sat down and watched the football, it was just on. People usually sat in a comfy chair and read their books to the sound of football.
I think perhaps my favorite thing about Grandma and Grandpa’s house is all the board games. Grandma had an entire entry room closet FULL of toys. I’m sure Grandma got tired of playing board games with me after a while, but I loved them. My favorites were Clue, Go for Broke, and Payday. Still are my favorites, actually.
As I got older I came to realize that my Grandpa was a really great storyteller. He had a good memory and a fun childhood growing up on the farm. We’d sit at the table, go through old photos, and he’d tell me about the people in the pictures. I always wished I had recorded some of those sessions. He’d sit there for over an hour talking to you. I did manage to get a good video of one of his stories about a goat. He was good at pacing his stories, keeping them short, funny, and to the point. He never rambled.
Here’s that goat story if you want to listen. It’s good 🙂
He spoke fondly of his childhood, describing his school, and learning violin. He didn’t live with his dad, he went to live with his Uncle (I think) after his mom died and his dad re-married. I get the feeling that he didn’t get along well with his step-mother. He never talked about them much. He played football in high school. He showed me so neat pictures of him in his uniform. Basically looked like rugby in those days–not very much protective gear! He also described this neat wind-powered radio the family had. I get the feeling that he was kind of spoiled because they could listen to the radio whenever they wanted since it was on it’s own energy source.
You’ll notice that I don’t know very much about my Grandma’s childhood. She didn’t have as many pictures of herself growing up, and she wasn’t really the talkative type. She talked about plain things like weather, cooking raising kids, and stuff. 🙂 Her favorite past times were jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles and sudoku.
Grandpa also talked fondly of his adventures in the navy. I remember asking him once, “Why the Navy? Why not Army?” to which he replied, “Well I don’t like being cold and muddy, and I wanted to serve, so Navy it was.” He served during WWII. He had a hat and a jacket that his kids gave him as a gift with a picture of the ship he served on embroidered on it. He wore it all the time. Grandpa was a cook on the boat. He described the process of planning and preparing a meal for hundreds of guys at once. He always liked rich flavorful food, especially barbecue ribs. Bless his heart, he never complained once about his wife’s Irish cooking.
One thing he talked about was the rucksack that you get to take with you on the ship–it’s one of those standard canvas tube bags. Even though space was tight, he chose to bring his roller skates along–secured safely in the bottom of the bag. Funny picture in my head of my 80-year old Grandpa rollerskating, but he apparently loved it. Whenever the ship was in port, he’d hit the rinks. He said he could do all kinds of tricks and spins and stuff. heh!
Anyway, after the war he went back to his hometown where he eventually met Grandma. Back in those days, going to dance was what young people did for fun. Grandpa talked about dance halls with great enthusiasm. Grandma and Grandpa met at a ballroom through a mutual friend. My grandparents never seemed madly in love to me, in fact, they strike me as very pragmatic. Perhaps it was because they’d already been together 50 years by the time we came along, and being with someone for that long has a way of tempering passions.
Well, they must have been in love once, because they got married after what I imagine was a short courtship. Grandma said they married in the middle of the week at their church with all of their family in attendance (back in those days, families stayed where they were raised, and didn’t spread out as much families seem to do these days). After they married, they moved to their home city, where they lived for nearly all their life.
Time to Move
About five years ago, Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimers. She seemed to be coping with it pretty well for a while, but then Grandpa’s diabetes got to be too much for her to handle. When you manage diabetes, you need to take medicine at regular intervals throughout the day, and I think Grandma started losing track of time. Grandpa was a little better at keeping track of time, but on account of his eyesight, he always needed Grandma’s help with the meds and such.
Finally, all the kids and the parents got together and decided that it would be better for them to move to the same city my parents lived in, so one of the kids could be nearby to help out. They moved into a senior living community. I think they kind of liked it. Grandma had less house to care for, and their meals were now being prepared for them. It definitely got hard for both of them about a year after moving there. Grandpa needed more physical help getting around, and Grandma, while able-bodied, was not always able to meet his needs.
They were eventually transferred to the memory care unit in the same apartment building. This actually turned out to be a really good decision for Grandma, because now she had nurses nearby to help Grandpa get around. She seemed much happier here. However, it wasn’t too much longer after this move that Grandpa passed away. Grandpa had a myriad of health problems, and he was seeing the doctor nearly every single week for this and that reason. He died last February–he was 91. We sent him off in style with lots of family around, telling stories, and drinking fine whiskey.
Grandma’s still with us. She seems to be doing pretty well. One nice thing about them living in the same city as my parents is I got to see both of them a lot more than I ever did as a kid. Every time I visit mom and dad, we’d see Grandma and Grandpa too. In a way, Grandpa still feels alive to me, you know? He definitely lives on in my memory.
That’s my grandparents! They left behind a legacy of 6 kids, 7 grandkids, and 7 great-grandkids (and counting).
Future Stories to Add Later
- Historic mansion museum