The happiest and the saddest day…

Every year on my birthday, for years and years, my mammaw would call to tell me she was thinking about me. She would always start off by saying, “This was the happiest and the saddest day of my life.” And then she would tell me about how my pappaw woke up the morning I turned six and said to her, “Today is our girl’s birthday.” And I could see in my mind’s eye the “life-size” doll that he had planned to give me, a “fashion doll” in a frilly formal gown, leaning against the wall in the corner of their upstairs apartment in Salyersville, Kentucky. At six years old, I preferred baby dolls but was fascinated that this doll, dressed in someone’s idea of a glamorous gown, could stand shoulder to shoulder with me.

I was the first grandchild and the only girl in the family for a long time. Eventually there would be eighteen of us cousins, but on that happiest and saddest day, the day my pappaw died, my sixth birthday, there were only four of us–me, my brother, and our cousins Randy and Timmy. What I know about that day is that my father was on his way back to Norfolk, where he was stationed in the Navy. I also know that dad and pappaw had parted on bad terms (they had recently fought, with dad refusing to get out of the Navy and take over the family grocery store). On the morning I turned six, pappaw suffered chest pains so severe that the family decided to drive to the nearest clinic, about an hour and a half over winding mountain roads.

These days doctors can save many people in my pappaw’s situation by putting in a stent or replacing a valve or performing a bypass or any number of other procedures that are so common we take them for granted. But back then, there was nothing to be done. My pappaw, who was only 49 at the time, died later that day. I don’t know if he died there at the clinic and the family had to bring him home somehow, or if he came home first with some sort of medication and then died later. I should ask my father about that. There was also at the time no email, no cellphones, no text messaging, no way to contact my dad and tell him he needed to turn around and come back for his father’s funeral, other than to send a Red Cross message, which he found on the pillow of his bunk when he returned to base. He thought it would be good news telling him his younger sister had had her baby, and he was shocked and saddened to read the contents of the brief message.

In my imagination, dad arrived by plane, in his dress white uniform, and I was thrilled to see him coming back to me so soon after he had left. But I couldn’t understand why he was crying. It was the first time I remember seeing him cry. The next thing I remember was my pappaw lying in a box in a formal living room for the visitation and all my aunts and uncles and great grandparents and second and third cousins, and cousins twice removed, and other people I didn’t know standing around in dark suits and Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, telling stories and occasionally laughing. At one point mammaw took me in to kiss pappaw goodbye, which seemed like the most natural thing to do and did not freak me out at all, although my mother, when she found out, was beside herself with worry over how it might damage me psychologically.

It has been nearly nine years since mammaw died. Although she remarried a widower who had twelve children of his own and remained married to him until he died, mammaw is now buried beside pappaw in the family plot, along with my baby cousin Connie, who died when she was only three days old. After all these years, I miss hearing mammaw tell me about her happiest and saddest day. Although everyone in the family obviously knew the facts of the matter–that pappaw died on my birthday–no one else ever brought it up. They did their best to let me have my special day and not mess it up with sad stories. But this year, when my dad called to wish me a happy birthday, it was as though he were channeling his mother, when he said, “You know this is a happy and sad day for me.”

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I’m going to miss these little guys.

I really wish my grandchildren didn’t live so far away, so I could take them to special events more often and so we could work on projects together throughout the year. It has been fun taking them to things they’ve never done before and watching their reactions. I’d also love to be able to attend their school programs and such. But life is so danged complicated these days, with blended and extended families, I am happy for whatever time I get.

Technically, only the youngest child is my grandchild; the older two are from a previous marriage. But when we first met the kids in 2002 (after my son started seeing their mother), Jearid was two and Bethany was four years old, and the kids ran up to us as soon as they saw us, saying “Grandma Grandpa!” Jim and I weren’t married at the time, and since Jim had never had any children of his own, being suddenly cast in the role of “grandpa” came as a big surprise. Now that my son is divorced, it takes a Herculean amount of coordinating to get us all together, since the kids live with their mother and new stepfather in Colorado, my son is stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, and “Grandpa Jim” and I live in central Missouri. Then add in “Grandpa Mike,” my ex, who lives in the same town in Missouri, and we have one big complicated family. (At least we no longer have to factor in the older kids’ real father, since he got himself put in jail last summer.) Occasionally, the children will pause and say, “So how are we related to Grandpa Jim?” Or I will ask, “So how many grandpas do you have?” Or my son will play the song, “I’m my own Grandpa.” And we’ll all just laugh.

This week has gone very fast.  We have settled into some semblance of a routine, and we have done most of what we planned to do, plus a few extra things that their Grandpa Mike wanted to do. The mornings are generally relaxed, with everyone getting up at their own pace and fixing cereal. The adults (and Bethany) check email and Facebook, watch the news, write blogs and journals, or work on projects. When the boys get up, they inventory their Batman Lego figures or other belongings or make things out of duct tape and cardboard or watch episodes of South Park on their dad’s phone until they are fully awake.

After the last person has had breakfast, it’s time for lunch, and after lunch, we check the calendar we made when they first got here, think about what’s for supper, and then head out to do whatever we had planned. If nothing is planned, we go swimming again. Then dinner and cleanup and after that, we start winding down again. Sometimes Grandpa Jim will read out loud from a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth that belonged to my mother when she was a girl. Usually Jearid will get hungry again, so we’ll have snacks at some point (popcorn with honey and butter has been popular). Then the boys put on their pajamas and we start heading to bed in the same order we got up, with the boys staying up the latest.

Grandpa Jim reads from The Phantom Tollbooth.

Here is what we’ve done this week:

On Sunday, Grandpa Jim took Jearid out to the bee yard to inspect the hives. They determined that we need to order a new queen for one hive that is lagging behind the rest in number of bees and honey production. Then we all met at Coopers Landing, and Bethany and Jearid got to see friends they had made last summer at dance camp, Liam (age 11) and Kyra (age 8). Jearid and Liam and Grandpa Jim rode bikes down the trail, Stephan and I threw rocks in the river, and Bethany and Matt sat and talked and listened to the music.

Throwing rocks off the old railroad bridge near Coopers Landing.

Jearid smoking the hive

Coopers Landing is a great place to be on a hot summer night.

Monday I got a break while they went with their Grandpa Mike to the ceramics studio, where they learned how to make pots. Afterwards, I took the kids back to the lake to swim  while their dad took a break. Liam and Kyra and their mom met us at the lake, so it worked out for all of us. Stephan has gotten much braver in the water in the last two weeks, especially since his Grandpa Mike bought him a noodle, so he can float. Jearid and Liam, who are close to the same age and activity level, had a great time together.

At the potters’ wheel.

At the ceramics studio

Tuesday we got up early and drove to Kansas City to Lego Land, which was a little overstimulating for the adults but still fun. The main attraction for the boys was a station where you could build vehicles and test them on all kinds of tracks. The adults and Bethany especially liked the scale model of Crown Center, including the new Kauffman Center, made entirely out of Legos.The scale model of the Wizard of Oz (including a farm house that would spin and rise up into the air when you pushed a button) was also “epic,” as Jearid would put it.  After dinner at Cracker Barrel, we stopped by for a short visit with my aunt Juanita, who had made lemonade and chocolate chip cookies in anticipation of our visit.

Building cars out of Legos

We spent most of Wednesday hanging out at the house, to give everyone time to recover from a long day. I showed Bethany how to operate the sewing machine and read a pattern, and she got started on making her owl bag. The boys played with their Legos, and Matt went out with some of his high school buddies. After dinner, we headed back to the library for a Funtastic Classics program, where they were happy to see Liam and Kyra again. During the program, the conductor of the Missouri Sympony read two stories while the members of the orchestra played sound effects to go along with the story: one was an Asian story about a girl who was willing to sacrifice her life to bring water to her village; the other was about Brer Raccoon and how he tricked some frogs. As we were walking up the steps to the library, Stephan was naming all the things he had done this week for the first time and acting very proud of himself. After the library program, he asked if we could look for a Batman book and was thrilled when the clerk found a book about his favorite character Two Face. After we left the library we all went back to Sparky’s for ice cream. (I think this made the third or fourth time for Sparky’s.)

Cutting out the fabric for her first sewing project.

Thursday Bethany and I worked on her bag some more, while Matt took the boys out to the bass pro shop for a Family Day Camp, where they met Grandpa Mike. At the camp they went to a couple of classes on bird watching and fishing, made leather bracelets, spun some wheel to win a prize (small frisbee and a wallet), and got to shoot arrows and bb guns. They came back very excited about the outing, with lanyards, awards pins for their classes, and coloring sheets. Afterwards, they picked up Bethany and went out to dinner with Grandpa Mike at Golden Corral (kids’ choice).

Stephan draws a picture of his favorite character, Two Face.

Today is our last full day together. They said their goodbyes to their dad last night, and he left for Georgia at 5:00 this morning. We are taking the kids to meet their mother halfway in Salina, Kansas, tomorrow. Today we have several things on our list. First, we will head around the block to visit Jim’s sister Norma, who has woven bookmarks for the kids (she showed Bethany and Jearid how to weave on an inkle loom last year and had them pick out colors for their bookmarks). Then we’ll have lunch and after they are full, we’ll go to see Madagascar 3 (Stephan had requested that we watch a movie sometime). After lunch we’ll go swimming one last time. Then we’ll take them back to Shakespeare’s for dinner (the first place we ate with them when they arrived two weeks ago). Sometime during the day Bethany needs to finish her bag, and we’ll need to do one more load of laundry, and pack everything for their trip home.

We’re all a little sad our time is coming to an end, and we have begun  planning for next time.