Monday, June 10, 2013


My grandma, Lettie Kent Pierce Gilbert, would've turned 97 today.  She passed away when Keilana was a small infant.  Most people don't live to see their youngest child's youngest child's baby, so I'm quite grateful that I had a few opportunities to see my grandma hold and coo at my baby before she died, at age 88. To say that she was a big part of my childhood would be a terrible understatement.  In so many ways, Grandma was my childhood.  I have occasionally remarked to people that one of the greatest blessings of my life was that I had a working mother, because it meant that from a very young age, I spent my days with my grandma.  Some of my very earliest memories are of her, and certainly many of my best ones are.

I remember asking her once where she was born, and she laughed and said, "Nowhere!  It was called Naf, but I don't think it exists any more.  It wasn't much more than a logging camp then."  I loved that laugh--a big, open laugh, whatever the joyful version of a cackle would be called.  Cackle.  Heh.  Grandma had a great sense of humor, and a really big nose.  She had the classic "witch" nose, and one year a bunch of cousins did a "Wizard of Oz" themed Halloween, and Grandma delighted in being the Wicked Witch of the West: big, black, pointy hat, green face paint, and all.  She loved Halloween immensely, only slightly less than she loved Christmas.  She loved kids, and she loved giving, those holidays were a nearly perfect combination of the two for her.

Which reminds me of another favorite story, one I always loved hearing her tell because it so clearly delighted her: once when Michael and I were very small and were staying the night at her house, Michael woke up, somewhat disoriented, and, half-asleep, was trying to remember where he was.  He rolled over in the dark and put his hand to her face, found that dignified English nose and happily exclaimed, "Grandma!" and then quickly fell back asleep.

Grandma loved to take us on adventures, and we did all sorts of fun things together, but, in the wise words of Pete Doctor, "Sometimes its the boring stuff I remember most": feeding Wimpy in the morning, and brushing him in the yard on warmer spring days; decorating her Christmas tree and hanging candy canes and little elves all over the living room;  helping her plant her red-and-white-striped double petunias, picking snowballs and sweat pea blossoms; picking up Helen Atkins in Grandma's little red Toyota so they could go do their visiting teaching; cuddling up on her couch watching "Ma and Pa Kettle" videos; digging through boxes full of photos and letters and cards, as she told stories, often about people I never even knew but came to love through her stories; counting the shoes under her bed; digging through her jewelry box and hearing stories about where different treasures came from, or just playing a really fancy version of dress up;  eating lunches of tuna fish sandwiches with way too much mayo and drinking red Kool-Aid out in the yard (because "nobody should be sitting inside when the sun in shining like this"); snuggled up under the warm blankets on her bed, watching Mr. Ed and Get Smart on Nick at Night; unloading food trucks at the food pantry, stocking shelves, and filling bags up with food, usually, I noticed, for young mothers; playing rummy at the coffee table; doing puzzles on TV trays.  These little moments made up the substance of my childhood, and its hard to imagine having been any happier than I was, spending the evenings sitting on the "davenport" in the living room of my grandma's little double-wide, listening to her tell stories, and, always, laughing a lot.

In all the time I knew her, Grandma's life revolved around Little Things;  not petty things, or meaningless ones, but real things.  Good Stuff.  Too many people lose their lives pursuing Big Things, only to realize that such things are all too often hollow and unsatisfying.  Grandma wasn't lost in Big Things, instead she was constantly immersed happily in the Little Things that bring to pass Great Things. She planted flowers every spring, and loved to sit in a bench swing and enjoy the sunshine, the breeze, the sound of the creek and the scent of her lilac trees.  She looked after her twin grand babies, hauling them all over town, and, if it suited her, the western US.  She checked in nearly daily with her kids that lived close enough, and called and visited the farther flung ones about as often as road conditions and her own age allowed.  She spent all year collecting presents--a great deal on a toy here, a stuffed animal for a steal here--so that by Christmastime she'd usually have enough gifts for all the grandkids and great-grandkids that lived close.  She helped to literally put food on the tables of young families in her community, and spent a lot of time visiting friends whose health hadn't held up as well as her own, and often recruited grandkids to do service for them, be it chopping wood and mowing lawns, or just visiting and bringing a bit of the livelihood of youth to homes where it had waned.

She was a proud, stubborn woman:  most of her life, she was quite convinced that she needed no one's help and didn't want it, and it made me quietly giggle as a child that when she spent time with her younger sister, even when they were both in their 70s and 80s, no one would've doubted, based on demeanor alone, who was the older sister.  But that stubbornness that propelled her through a difficult life--a poor and sometimes challenging childhood, then raising children in the midst of a Depression and a war that took her husband out of the home and halfway around the world, running ranches and businesses together, and then, years later, losing that husband, becoming a relatively young 55-year-old widow--never hardened her.  She was tough as nails, with that good ol' British stiff upper lip, with little time for self-pity, or pity of any kind, really, but she was affectionate and generous.  I remember her being firm, but never angry;  thick-skinned, but not hard-hearted. My twin brother's daughter, born a little less than a year after Grandma's passing, was named "Lettie" in her honor, and a few months ago she told my mom, "My dad said that Nana loved him more than she loved herself".  Seldom have truer words been spoken: she had a lot of love to give, especially to her family.  She had devoted nearly all of her almost 90 years to caring for her family: her siblings, her children, her mother, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren.  And she knew that that was not a small thing, even if most of the world never noticed.

I remember, shortly after she died, a couple of family members making a good-natured joke about the aforementioned pride.  I turned to my mom with a smile and said, "You know someone's led a good life when you can remember even their flaws fondly."  In the nearly 9 years since she passed away, I've found that the memories of the flaws have begun to fade, but the other memories--her laugh, her smile, her voice, all those "boring" days we spent together--are as sharp as ever.  As I've thought about her life, I think Grandma understood that: that the flaws, the mistakes, the tough stuff, it all fades;  but not the Good Stuff, that lingers and endures.  The Little Things are the big things, and they outlast everything else.  I'm grateful that she showed me that.

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