Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Grandparents are so great

    Many of my best childhood memories are from times we spent with extended family.   We were always especially close to my maternal grandparents and I have so many happy memories of time spent with them.  We called them Gugger and Poppy.  For most of my life, most of my mom’s life, and I think even most of their own lives they lived in a little old house with a really big yard on a busy two lane highway in northwestern Pennsylvania.  That house, though old and far from fancy, was such a place of love and comfort.  It was a place of true happiness for me and my siblings.  I remember walking into it after a long drive and immediately feeling the warmth and coziness.  The smell was a mixture of yummy baked goods, Gugger’s apple pie or famous home made bread, and Poppy’s cigar smoke.  The old familiar furniture, Poppy’s lazy boy chair, the fold out sofa on one wall and the other couch on another, the wood end tables with full candy dishes on them, was always the same.  The wallpaper in the kitchen, with spices in muted colors, and the matted down multi colored carpet was too.  It was all so wonderful just because it was Gugger and Poppy‘s.  We would spend hours in the kitchen with Gugger as she made fabulous home cooked meals, always with her baked goodies for dessert.  Or we would sit at the tiny kitchen table playing Scrabble, Yahtzee, or Boggle.  Her small black and white t.v. sitting on a cabinet in the kitchen would be on, tuned to Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy.   In the family room, Poppy would be sitting in his chair with his t.v. tuned to Judge Judy or The People’s Court.  He would have an old baseball cap on his head, and several more caps, all sporting rubber bands around the brim to keep them in shape, would sit on the window seat in the dining room, next to his cluttered desk.   Outside that window, next to the long wooden seat, was Poppy’s bird feeder and he’d sometimes sit at the desk watching the birds with binoculars as they came to eat.  At bedtime the sofa bed would be unfolded and my parents would sleep there under Gugger’s comfy crocheted blankets.  My brother would sleep on the other couch nearby.  My oldest sister got a littler sofa bed in Gugger’s cozy little sewing room, which was in the corner of the main floor near the only bathroom in the house.  As the oldest she was the only one who got her own room to sleep in at grandma’s house and I always thought she must be very brave to sleep there with the dress form in the room looking suspiciously creepy in the dark.  My closest-in-age sister and I would get to sleep in Gugger’s bed upstairs.  We would ascend the staircase, lined with decades worth of old National Geographic magazines, and pass Poppy's little room with his high marshmallow-like bed, to get to Gugger’s room.  I loved the sloped ceilings of the little upstairs, which was really just a finished attic with two bedrooms that had curtains in place of doors and a short hallway between them.  I don’t know how my sister and I got so lucky to get the best bedroom in the house but Gugger’s bed was always so warm and comfortable and smelled clean and fresh like fabric softener.   My sister and I would lay there, rubbing each other’s backs and talking.  I remember stacks of books in the corner, old black and white pictures of my mom and her brothers atop the wooden wardrobe and always the sound of traffic rushing by on the busy street outside the little tiny window.  Whenever I hear the sound of traffic it still fills me with a strange but comfortable feeling of serenity.
The only thing about Gugger and Poppy’s house that wasn’t warm and cozy was the dark, cold cellar.  To get to the cellar you had to go down a steep, creaky staircase with each step covered in unmatched scraps of carpet.  The cellar wasn’t like our basement at home, it was truly a cellar, cold, damp, and really scary.  There were shadowy corners that I never, in all my years of visiting, ever went into.  I heard there was an old half built go-cart in one of those corners, but I was never brave enough to check for sure.  The laundry room was down in the cellar and sometimes I would go down with Gugger to watch her throw a load of clothes in the washer or get clean clothes out, to hang on the line in the yard to dry in the wind.  My grandpa’s work shop was there too, smelling strongly of gasoline with tools and jars of nails and screws on the workbench.  There were piles and piles of empty cigar boxes saved for years because Poppy never knew when he might need one for storing little things.  There was the big chest freezer full of enough frozen meat to feed an army.  And there was a small closet that Gugger called her “fruit cellar”.  It had a light that somehow turned on when you opened the door and turned off automatically when the door shut.   Whenever I was sent there to fetch a dusty can of vegetables or fruit, I would shudder at the thought of that door closing on me and I would hurry back up the stairs to safety as quickly as I could. 
    The sprawling yard that spread in every direction outside grandma and grandpa’s house was as exciting as the old house itself.  Poppy was a bit of a pack rat and his yard was a testament to that.  He had a rusty black truck with splitting tires, a few broken down boats, their wood rotting away over the years, a tiny musty camper, an empty boat trailer and two VW Bugs in various spots around the yard.  All these, except for the black truck which was filled to the brim with junk, provided hours of fun, imaginative play for me, my siblings and cousins.  We’d sit at the wheel of the “Love Bugs” pretending we were racing, or in the boats imagining we were miles out at sea.  We would cook up bits of mulch in the camper, and climb on the boat trailer.  We would play “Mother May I” and “Red Light, Green Light” in the big field of the side yard or venture down the long hill in the back to the rushing creek that my older cousin had convinced me was all that separated Poppy’s yard from the country of China.  Just before the crest of the hill was Poppy’s garden, full of fresh vegetables and surrounded by wooden stakes connected by string meant to keep the bunnies out.  There was a clump of trees that formed the perfect playhouse, complete with two rooms and a few pieces of hardly recognizable metal lawn furniture.  Next to that was a little ring of stones around what Gugger said was a tea garden but just looked like a bunch of assorted green weeds.   I cannot begin to count the hours I spent playing in that wonderful old house and yard during my growing up years.  We moved around a lot as my dad climbed successfully up the corporate ladder but Gugger and Poppy’s house was the one constant in our life, the one place that was always familiar, always welcoming.  As much as I loved that old house, I now realize it wasn’t so much the walls, with their faded wallpaper and old fashioned paneling or the ceiling with its peeling paint and decorative metal register that made the house so precious to us all, it was the love of Gugger and Poppy that filled it, always there to be shared and to make each of us feel valued, accepted, and truly special.  In fact, no one in the world has ever made me feel as special and loved as my grandparents did when I was a child visiting them in their tiny, old house. 
    That old house was sold a few years back, after we lost Poppy to kidney disease.  Gugger, much to our delight, decided in 2004 to move to sunny Florida and settled just about an hour north of us in the Tampa Bay area.  For five years she lived close and my children were so blessed to have her be a part of their lives, building as strong a bond with her as I have always had.  When she was living near us we used to see her quite regularly.  We would go visit her, take her to the grocery store, and spend nearly every holiday with her. Then, last year Gugger decided to move back to her hometown in Pennsylvania.  She is now living close to her old friends, the church she has belonged to for at least 50 years, and extended family she hadn’t seen much of while living down here.  We miss her terribly but know she is happy to be home again. 
    This week, for the first time since her move, she has come back for a visit.  She has had the chance to meet our baby for the first time and to see how the other children have grown and changed.  We have had the chance to spend time with her, and share another holiday- celebrating the Fourth of July with her and my parents at their house over the weekend.   I’m not sure if they realize it but the bond my children and my grandmother have with each other means the world to me.  What a gift it is to watch the love span four generations and to know that my children are as surrounded by the affection of extended family as I was growing up.  The relationship they have with their great-grandmother is close and loving and I count that among my greatest blessings, along with the fact that I, too, share in the love and closeness.  There is just truly nothing like the bonds of family love and togetherness to make me see God at work and to fill me with gratitude for His abundant goodness.

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