Barbara Anita Box Parker
A few years ago, I was talking with a friend about what she wanted to be like when she grew older. She referenced a poem that she said epitomized exactly the image of what she strived for. The first line is…”When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t go.” Immediately, the picture that appeared in my mind was of my grandmother. She was the forerunner of the “red hat club” except for her membership was unofficial. A few select ladies who met over coffee. And there were no real red hats. Just a random assortment of hot pink pants, bedazzled belts that say NYC, and lots and lots of cheetah print.
I am lucky enough to be able to say that I knew my grandmother well. Stories of the past, stories of the present and plans for the future were all shared between such unlikely confidants. I was young and naïve (which she probably wished she still was) and she was seasoned and wise (which I hoped some day I would become). She always lit up with excitement for every celebration I had, helped me with projects for school (I think she inadvertently memorized all the countries in the world due to me) and would give me advice on things that were difficult.
A running joke between us was that she needed to pick out my future husband. She wrote a list of about 10 qualities that were mandatory in order for him to be perfect. Among them were “must make enough money” and “must love you more than his job” and even “must not have red hair.” I would find her chatting up every youthful looking boy and asking “what do you think of my grand daughter?” I had to draw the line, however, when I think she gave a dowry to the meat carver at a hotel in Jackson, MI. I had standards, you know.
The last requirement on the must-list was “must love grandma.” That was certainly the only one that wouldn’t be hard to find. Most people who came in from the outside did love her. She and grandpa had friends at every eating establishment deemed worthy. They knew the managers of the De Soto Square mall, they knew the baristas at the coffee shops and the cashiers at the Chick-fil-A. They were friends without borders…including the Greek man who brought back wine for them just because they were regulars at his restaurant.
One day I got into my grandmother’s car and saw a picture of a girl I went to high school with. I asked her where she got it from and she explained that she was her “coffee granddaughter” at Beaners, now Bigby’s coffee. My twinge of jealousy went away after hearing that the girl’s grandmother had died and she let her call her grandma because she reminded her so much of her own that she had lost. My grandmother had open arms and a big heart.
Even among my friends, my grand mother was well received. She always did a little tiptoe dance when we drove into the driveway up north. Greeting each of my girlfriends with a hug and challenging them to a big game of yahtzee later. And everyone remembers the yahtzee yell. To this day, I have people questioning my sanity when I explain the rules of yahtzee…”and when you roll five of a kind you have to throw your hands into the air and scream Yahtzee! Yahtzee! Yahtzee!” It’s the only way to play…in fact, I think it’s now officially “hoyle” to do that.
Some of my favorite memories are the interactions between grandma and grandpa. Some might call it a love/hate relationship…but I’ve learned that it is definitely just a love relationship. Calling him “pa” and giving directions. “Put your head up, get your feet in, did you shave, slow down, hurry up, wait for the prayer…” Or the time that the hurricane took out her key-lime tree…Grandpa had been trying to cut that thing down for years. I’m pretty sure he has some pull over global-weather patterns to have organized that fateful plot.
Amidst all the seemingly begrudging quarrels, I learned the most from finding those moments when the love was perceptible. When they’d give each other a peck on New Years Eve, or the way Grandpa held her hand when he said goodbye in Florida. Or when Grandpa told the story about when he jumped off the truck to pick up a letter she had written him while he was stationed in Europe during WWII. I recall him crediting her with “saving his life” as a bomb went off minutes after he stepped off the truck. That is probably the most beautiful story I had ever heard.
When I took my first plane ride to Florida at sixteen, my grandmother was on the other end to pick me up in Tampa. She explained to me that she was in her late 20’s before she ever flew on an airplane. She warned that I was going to get “bit by the travel bug” if I wasn’t too careful. And that’s precisely what happened. I remember looking through all of her photo albums and wondering if my life could be as exciting as hers. There weren’t just a few snap shots here and there. There were poses and dresses and hats and experiences one cannot package and sell. She was a world traveler and I wanted to cruise the globe just as she had.
My sophomore year of college, I boarded a plane for an 18 hour trip across the Atlantic. Even though she couldn’t go herself, my grandma embraced my trip to South Africa and I felt like she was there with me. I emailed her as often as I could and would tell her my stories of baboon encounters and zebra spottings. She would reply with “be more careful” warnings and sign every email “ngiyakuthanda kakhulu, GoGo” which was Zulu for “I love you very much, Grandma.” I’m pretty sure it was written out in that little notebook that sat beside her “email machine” so she could remember it. I found it very supportive that she would take my experiences and make them her own.
The Zulu name GoGo stuck, not by my own doing but by hers. And when I think of that name I find it interesting how well it fits her. She wasn’t just a grandma who cross-stitched and played bingo. She was vibrant, colorful, alive and loved living life big. Big hair, big cars, big rings…
A few weeks ago, I sat next to my grandmother as she lay in her bed at the Dobie road care facility. I had brought the “Sing Along with Mitch Miller and the Gang” CD because I thought maybe some familiar songs would cheer her. We would always sing these in the Cadillac as we drove up North each summer. She laid there and sang with her eyes closed, each word a few seconds too late or mumbled due to her aging brain. Right before I said goodbye, the song “Till We Meet Again” came on and I sang it with her. The words never quite had the meaning for me as a child as they do now.
Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu
When the clouds roll by I’ll come to you.
Then the skies will seem more blue,
Down in Lover’s Lane, my dearie.
Wedding bells will ring so merrily
Ev’ry tear will be a memory.
So wait and pray each night for me
Till we meet again.
Tho’ goodbye means the birth of a tear drop,
Hello means the birth of a smile.
And the smile will erase the tear blighting trace,
When we meet in the after awhile.
I know we will meet again someday in the “after awhile.” And it is my hope that after awhile ”I shall wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t go” or at least a straw one with a giant sunflower, like my Go-Go. I will take what she taught me and live as big and appreciate life (the tastes, the sounds, the sights and smells) in the way she did. Ngiyakuthanda kakhulu Gram.
© 2011 D. Willson