Monday, August 15, 2005

Happy birthday, Gran!

Today my grandmother would have been 95. She made it as far as 84, which was still pretty good. I suppose sadness over somebody's death is usually supposed to be confined to people who died too young, but I still think about her a lot. This is going to be a long one, I'm afraid.

Mona Ketcham (her name was Larson, then) was a schoolmarm in the 1930s, in a one-room schoolhouse at Dead Ox Flats, Oregon, which isn't even there anymore. Another teacher in a neighboring town brought her home one day to introduce to her older brother, Merritt, a cowboy and ex-bootlegger. He had skipped out of Missouri at 14, one jump ahead of the Volstead Act. He was six-foot-seven to her five-foot-not-much, with a cowhand's manners and a weak heart, but he was charming and made her laugh. Merritt had made a promise to God back in Missouri, that if his ailing baby sister didn't die, he would become a preacher.

So he did, a little bit at a time. He would work as a cowpuncher for a season or so, to build up a supply of money, and then he and his bride would take the train 2,000 miles back to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, to study until the cash ran out. It wasn't until Gran had died that a relative told me that they traveled Livestock Class, in the boxcars. (Update: My mom and aunt both say the boxcar story is hooey. It came from my my grandpa's sister Hazel, who seems to have had a habit of embellishing stories. Oh, well, I'm siding with Aunt Hazel; the facts should never get in the way of a good family myth.)

With his ordination fresh in his pocket, they came back to the Northwest, and he preached. First Mossyrock, then Portland, then Athena, and in Goldendale, where he pastored for ten years before he died. I had been born only a couple of years earlier, and I don't remember him at all. Gran stayed on in Goldendale.

That's as early as I remember her. She was there when my parents divorced and my mom was broke and broken, with two small children, and had nowhere to go but home. She was there when I started school; in fact, she taught second grade when I was in first. She retired the next year. She was there my whole childhood, and I can't imagine what it would have been like to grow up without her.

Her house was just around the corner, and I probably spent as much time there as at home. Gran's house wasn't anything fancy; she had bought a "fixer-upper" near the church when her husband died, and the men in the church had fixered it up. But it had an attic, with all kinds of old books and toys that she had probably forgotten about, and a basement full of dust and cobwebs that made a great laboratory for an 8-year-old mad scientist, and a garage whose roof was just the right height for seeing how far I could jump off it.

I don't think anybody ever knew Gran who didn't love her. She was the example I wish I could follow for so many things, for kindness and gentleness, and for loving everybody whether they deserved it or not. She took care of some of the older ladies in the church, even when she was in her 70s herself, and no baby was ever born in our church that didn't get a crocheted blanket. I wasn't old enough to know it then, but I've been told since her house was an emergency "safe house" for battered women. I just knew she had families staying with her every so often that I didn't know. She put food out for stray cats, and her porch was usually swarming with them.

She had her quirks, as well. Despite decades as a preacher's wife, she never could cook. Every time I put on a stiff pair of boots I think of her roast beef. (And let's not even get into the time she tried to make lutefisk.) She also couldn't drive very well, probably because she had learned at the age of 60, when Grandpa died. My dad said once that Gran was the only person he knew who couldn't get out of the garage without denting both doors. I don't know if that's true, but I do know she once totaled her car in a parking lot. Gran was always a little... well... unworldly. She wasn't dumb, no; far from it. I don't really know how to explain it. Sort of like Rose on the Golden Girls. The best comparison I can give is that when my daughter was about 10, I got hold of an old Burns and Allen videotape. I plugged it in, pointed to Gracie, and told my daughter, "That's your Great-Gran."

Gran had the kind of soft lap that children dream about. I didn't; I just took it for granted. I took her for granted a lot, in fact. She had six grandchildren, and I don't think any of us appreciated her as much as we should have, but I was the worst offender. I was supposed to mow her lawn and split her firewood, and I would usually put it off until I saw her go out and try to do it, and felt guilty. I lived with her for about half a year after I got out of high school. I spent most of it with my friends. One day I came home and found a note that she had gone to the hospital. I hadn't even known she was feeling poorly. But when I was 19, she was the first person I told that I had knocked up my girlfriend and we were going to have to get married. She just said, "Oh, well, my sister Mabel was a seven-month baby." Totally unfazed.

When my oldest daughter was born, Gran was at the hospital the next day. It was the only great-grandchild she ever saw. A couple of years later, she suffered a series of strokes that left her unable to speak. She moved into a nursing home for a couple of years, and then into a hospital, and then my parents' living room, to die. I remember reading to her from the Bible. Isaiah, chapter 53 was her favorite. I was selfish then, too. I kept wishing she wouldn't die, because as long as Gran was in the world, it couldn't be a completely bad place. My marriage had failed, and I was raising a little girl alone, and I needed her. My about-to-be-ex-wife came to say goodbye to her, and brought the divorce papers at the same time. I signed them in the hospital room. I'm pretty sure Gran never knew that.

They had the funeral in Goldendale. The church I had grown up in, where she had been the pastor's wife, had by that time moved into an old school building. They had the funeral in the gym, and it was still overflowing. If everybody who had benefited from her kindness had come, my uncle said, they'd have needed a stadium.

Once in a while, I go through Goldendale, and I stop at her grave. It's a double headstone, where she can lie next to her husband, whom she had to live almost a quarter of a century without. I brought Christina there once, before we were engaged, and said, "Gran, this is the girl I've been telling you about. The one that reminds me of you."

I miss you, Gran. I miss your silly jokes. I miss your Norwegian nursery rhymes. I miss hearing you recite poetry. I'd give anything to hear you sing "The Walrus and the Carpenter" one more time. Heaven help me, I even miss your pot roast.

I wish I'd listened better to your stories. About the Depression, about Dead Ox Flats, about your flapper days in Portland. I really wish you'd told me about the boxcars.

Most of all, I miss your serenity, and your wisdom. I've been through a lot, and I've made mistakes I never imagined could be made. I needed you after you went, more than I could say. I wish you were here now that things have turned out all right.

I'm sorry for all the times I could have done something for you, or kept you company, or just been a good grandson. I hope you don't remember those times as much as I do.

I wish you could have met my kids. They're great. You'd have liked them all. Mom's a really good grandmother, and I know where she learned it from. You'd be proud of her.

I know you're happier now. You're in heaven, with the Savior you loved and taught me to love. All your friends are there, and most of your family. And I know you're probably reading this as I type, and I know you're praying for us more now than you did on earth. But I still miss you.

I love you, Gran. Happy birthday.

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