While I do my best to spend this week reflecting on all the things I am thankful for (and that list is long), inevitably my mind turns toward the things that I have lost as well. Specifically, my beloved Grandma Opal who died sometime on Thanksgiving Eve nine years ago. Technically the date was the 22nd, so the anniversary of her death was last Sunday. But it will always be tied to Thanksgiving for me.
Grandma Opal stood just 5 feet tall but she was packed with passion, kindness and good old fashion “gumption”. She helped work the farm most of her married life, taught Sunday School, gardened, crocheted, made quilts and was a church deaconess. Plus she put up with my grandpa who was the biggest tease ever. They loved each other fiercely though, and were married for just shy of 60 years.
I will always remember the softness of her skin, her rosy cheeks and her sweet little voice that always encouraged us grand kids. And her smell. (After her passing, Mark and I inherited her 1991 Buick. Every morning when I got in, I took a deep breath and smiled as the sweet smell of Grandma lingered.) I was blessed to spend most of my growing up years in the same city. Her and Grandpa Jim would take us bowling and help celebrate all the holidays and birthdays. They came to our school concerts and made sure to attend a few of our sports games every season.
In our minds Grandma is most famous for two things – her potato rolls and her Beef N’ Noodles with HOMEMADE noodles. They were a treat and a frequently requested meal. She always had Frosted Flakes in her pantry too – a fun treat for a kid who never got sugary cereal 🙂
Grandpa Jim died in 1997 after a long bout with liver cancer. It was hard for Grandma but my mom says it would have been harder the other way around. At the time Mark and I were living in Texas and had been trying to get pregnant for six months. What devastated me most was knowing that my grandpa would never meet his great grandchildren. None of the us had kids yet.
Grandma was not without her health problems and had a particularly bad spell in the weeks leading up to Noah’s birth in 1999. He would be her first great grandchild. I was holding a six-day-old infant when my mom called to tell me that they didn’t think Grandma was going to make it much longer. She was in the hospital and refusing to eat.
I hung up and called the after-hours pediatrician phone number. When they called me back I said, “I know you’re probably going to say it’s not a great idea, but I want to know if I can take a 6 day old baby on the plane. Unless his ears are going to explode or something I’m getting on a plane tomorrow.” Of course they said his head would not explode, and to just nurse him on take off and landing.
My next phone call was to my friend Tammy who was a flight attendant. A few weeks before she had offered up a free pass if I needed to get home. (Not that they would have let big ole fat pregnant me on a plane.) She made all the arrangements, picked me up the next morning and personally escorted me on the plane where I blissfully had a whole row to myself. Noah slept the entire trip.
I spent a week at home in Phoenix. While I can’t say for sure, I’d put money on the fact that holding her great grandson put Grandma Opal on the road to recovery. She made a complete turn around and was home a couple weeks later. Nine months later Mark, Noah and I moved back to Phoenix and bought a house 4 miles from Grandma.
I would occasionally stop by while I was out and about, shoot the breeze, and check the refrigerator for leftover Beef N Noodles. Now of course I wish I had done it a lot more often. She was there when we celebrated Noah’s first birthday and witnessed some of his first steps.
That year we were hosting Thanksgiving at our house with my family and Mark’s all together. My oldest brother was flying so there would be 10 of us. We doled out the food assignments. Grandma Opal got the potato rolls, of course.
I can play that Thanksgiving morning like a movie in my head. I remember that I was ironing the thanksgiving napkins by the laundry room. I can tell you exactly what I was wearing. My dad called. They had called Grandma to tell her what time they would be picking her up. She didn’t answer. When they called back a little later, she still didn’t answer. They called her neighbor and close friend who had a key to the house. He went over and then called back to say that Grandma was lying on the floor. That was all they knew. The neighbor had called 911 and my mom was on her way. They would call us back when they knew something else.
I remember turning to go find Mark, and then turning back to the napkins, and then turning back again. My mind was churning trying to put coherent thoughts together. It would take my mom at least 30 minutes to get to Grandma’s house. It would take me 10.
I quickly filled in Mark, who was in the shower. Noah was engrossed in a video so I grabbed my purse and got in the Explorer. I will admit to speeding…and praying. I will admit to seriously contemplating running a red light (there was NOBODY on the roads). But I didn’t. As I pulled up, I saw the firetruck and the police car. A couple of firefighters were outside the front door. I parked two doors down and ran for the house. I heard one of them say “Here she is.” I realized later that they probably thought I was the daughter, not the granddaughter.
One of the fireman gently stopped me as I got to the door. I remember his name was Dusty. I remember thinking that was a coincidence because that was what my other grandfather’s name had been. He told me that when they arrived there was nothing they could do. She had died sometime the night before or earlier that morning. He said that she was lying face down on the floor – that it looked as if she had tried to stand up from her chair and then died, falling forward. He warned me that it might be tough to see. I went in anyways.
The police officer was inside. I just stood near her and cried. For some reason I didn’t go and touch her or hold her hand. I didn’t wail. I just sobbed quietly. Not seeing her face was strange. People were talking around me. I didn’t really hear any of it. I finally snapped out of it about the time the officer was asking me if she had health problems and if I knew the name of her doctor. I spent the next few minutes looking for her address book and trying to remember her doctor’s name, finding prescription bottles and answering what questions I could.
When my mom arrived a short time later I went out and told her that grandma was gone. In her mind she knew, but of course you always hold out hope. When she began to gather the necessary information for the officer, she noticed something – Grandma’s potato rolls left out on the counter to rise. That made the tears flow again. It also helped us determine that she had probably died the night before. She always made the rolls the night before.
I don’t remember who called the others – my dad, brother, and Mark – but they arrived sometime later. Mark’s parents had gone to our house and were staying with Noah. Thanksgiving dinner was being kept warm. At some point everyone left except for mom and I. We told them to go back to the house and start eating. We waited for the funeral home personnel to arrive. The firefighters had gone home, only the police officer remained.
The officer suggested that we might not want to be in the room when they took Grandma away. So mom and I sat in the guest room and talked about Grandma until they were done.
Then we went back into the kitchen and looked at the rolls. I remember asking “Do you think we could still bake them?” We decided that probably wasn’t a great idea and sadly said goodbye to Grandma Opal’s last batch of potato rolls.
Though there were no potato rolls that Thanksgiving, they are a permanent fixture on our menu – our way of remembering Grandma. No one can make them quite like she could. We usually delegate the task to my mom, but this year I decided it was my turn. So tonight, after the kids are in bed, I’ll make some potato rolls, think about my Grandma and remember that someday I will be reunited with my both her and my Grandpa.