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Sunday, October 7, 2012


Story Keepers
How is it for you to be in the world?

Grandma (Ellanore) Picken and Fiona - August, 2012

I’m 12 years old again. You devolve into a tween when your dad drives you to see Grandma. It’s an hour and-a-half of déjà vu en route from Ashtabula, Ohio to Cleveland’s West side. You’ve made the same trip all your life. Three decades later, you’re still making it. Only this time, you’re bringing three people you couldn’t have envisioned at age 12 – two you helped produce and one you’ve commandeered from 16 times zones away.

We enter the building through a stone-pillared portico. Our entourage - Dad, me, Fiona, Finley and our Kiwi import, Pete (my PAHT-nah) - gradually hushes as we snake down the beige-carpeted hall. Dad points us to a door marked, “Ellanore Picken.” My grandmother told me years ago the midwife who delivered her couldn’t spell ‘Eleanor,’ hence, her name’s unusual spelling. Family and friends call her ‘Ellie.’
Grandma and Finley

Caught in the Current

Grandma’s whirled in and out of nursing homes and hospitals for five years. Like a duck caught in the swirling eddies of a river, she’s been swept from hospital-home-nursing-home to nursing home-hospital-nursing home.  Stroke, blindness and hearing loss have pinioned her at river’s edge. She can’t walk or feed herself. My grandfather at first tried caring for her at home in Avon Lake, Ohio, where they’d lived together more than 60 years. Ellanore and John raised six kids in that one-bathroom house. The bedrooms perch atop a flight of steep, carpeted stairs. The dining room became Grandma’s bedroom.  It’s the same room where we used to lay a feast of sliced meats, cheeses, croissants, raw veggies and cookies each Christmas Eve. You could pretty much count on the same annual spread, table groaning beneath the weight of contributions from aunts and visiting neighbors. I can still taste my Aunt Pam’s bear paw cookies – dense, round shortbread, two inches tall with fluted sides, dusted with powdered sugar. They’re made with loads of butter and ground almonds. They’re so good, one must assume the lotus position and meditate on the dense cookie before devouring it, small bite by small bite.

I’m not sure Grandma’s allowed almond cookies these days. She’s diabetic, so her sugar and salt intake are restricted. She tells me her nursing home serves finely-shredded meat with gravy and fruit. “It’s not very good,” she says.

She can’t see to watch TV. Or read. Or write. Her pleasures flutter inside the cocoon of family visits – from Grandpa (her daily lunch date), and others living nearby. Also, she listens to books on CD from the library. That’s what she’s doing when we enter her room.
Pete meets Grandma for the first time

Reunion/Meeting Pete

“Hi, Grandma,” I say, bending to hug her as she sits in her wheelchair.
I haven’t seen Grandma in almost two years, just before leaving the States to schlep the kids around the world. She’s 88 years old.  Ellie’s dressed in a navy cardigan sweater, tan pants and shearling slippers with Velcro closures. She’s still round, but not nearly as heavy as she used to be. Time and illness have taken off what birthing and feeding six kids put on. Grandma wears wire rimmed glasses, and a pouf of curly white hair. She’s missing two bottom teeth and retains her pointy nose.

“Where’s Fiona and Finley?” Grandma asks.

“They’re here,” I say. “Kids, give my grandma a hug.”

Fiona looks at me with eyes that say, Maw-awm, do I hafta? I return a gaze that insists, Yes, or you’ll be in big trouble. Finley and I repeat the exercise.

“Oh, my, you’ve gotten so big!” says Grandma, to the kids. Fiona and Finley look around the room for something to do. Meanwhile, I introduce Grandma to Pete.

“G’day, how you going?” says Pete, in an accent that seems more pronounced in the US than among his peers Down Under.

Grandma says, “I’ve heard SO much about you, Pete. I’m pleased to meet you. I hear you’re very special, and I’m glad Dawn found someone.”

I smile. Ellie continues talking to Pete, saying, “I wish I could see you.”

So do I.  I wish she could see his thick brown hair, high cheekbones, deep-set brown eyes that flash when he’s happy or upset, straight Patrician nose slightly squared at the tip. It’s the kind of nose Greek statues wear, sloping sharply on either side. And those biceps. The arms are a gift bestowed by genetics, not sculpted at the gym – since Pete’s an affirmed gym-o-phobe. Would it be odd to invite Grandma to feel those biceps? It would definitely be weird to suggest she pat his belly, which Pete says is sticking out more lately due to a steady tourist-in-America diet of hamburgers and steak.

Tell me a Story
How is it for you to be in the world?

After pleasantries, I send Pete, Dad and kids away so I can sit, uninterrupted, with Grandma. Her body’s failing, but her mind and memory remain sharp. Maybe Grandma wants me to read to her. I’ve brought my laptop – I could read a couple blog entries, since she says she wants to hear more about our travels. But when I mention it, she doesn’t say anything. Maybe we’ll just talk. You talk. I’ll take notes.
Grandma’s stories are precious. It’s remarkable she’s still around to tell them. Later, I read a question (the question) in Patti Miller’s The Memoir Book, that echoes what I want to know: ‘How is it for you to be in the world?’

 Ellie starts telling me about her secretarial career. She says, “I finished high school on a Thursday and started work Monday.” She drew artwork for the bus company, Greyhound, for their bulletins.

“How did you and Grandpa meet?” I ask.

Grandma says, “We met in high school, but I wasn’t allowed to date. Our first real date was dinner at my sister’s house. That night, he asked me, ‘How would you like to marry an Irishman?’”

Ellie had been writing to five servicemen at the time. After her soon-to-be-husband’s impromptu proposal, she told them, ‘it’s over.’

Grandma was 22 when they married. Grandpa (John) was 24. Ellie bought her dress at Higbee’s and later loaned it to three other brides. “One of them got ketchup on it,” she says.

Ellie says the minister who married them had the bible upside down and Grandpa turned it right-side up. Their reception happened in the church basement, where Grandma’s stepmother (Ellie’s Hungarian mother died when Grandma was three) served ground bologna and egg salad sandwiches. Grandma says, “The guys drank a little bit of whiskey in the parking lot.”

My grandparents intended to honeymoon at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Instead, Grandma says they drove in circles and landed where they started, in Avon Lake.

That’s where Grandpa began and ended his political career – getting elected first to city council, then council president, then two terms as mayor. And now? Grandma runs down her visitor list – starting with her husband, moving to her six kids.

“John comes every day at lunch and he feeds me. I can’t see to get the food without spilling it all over me. Then we go and sit out in the sun when the weather permits. Then he goes home. Janet and Pamela come at least once a week [Janet later tells me it’s three or four times a week] and young John comes here usually on the weekend when he’s not traveling and Tom comes about once a month [Dad says, ‘I thought it was every other week.’]. Bob comes from Michigan – once a month. Nancy moved to Texas – she had worked at the Cleveland Clinic 37 years but got tired of driving into Cleveland, so she applied for a job in Texas.”

Grandma traces a path up the family tree, telling me about my Grandpa’s mother, Ruth. Ellie says, “She was a sweet lady. All the children loved her. She had an Irish-Scottish brogue, because [Northern] Ireland’s close to Scotland. She was a dear. She made tea and always had cookies.“

Common Bonds

I think of my own Scotsman, who immigrated to New Zealand with his newly-widowed mum around the same age my grandfather emigrated from Northern Ireland with his family– eight years old. Pete’s family. My family. Immigrant families.  Steaming across the Atlantic. Flying across the Pacific. Fleeing for opportunity. Leaving for love. Circling the globe to find each other.

 I ask Grandma the secret to a long marriage. She and John have been married 67 years. Ellie says, “Never go to bed angry.”

My Grandfather was famous for his Irish temper and love of Crown Royal. At age 90, the anger has  reduced, like a slow-simmering sauce, tempered by age and fatigue. The stories of ‘Jumbo’ (as his kids call him when he’s not around) are legendary. His children recount yelling, swearing, and political incorrectness (to put it diplomatically) that would make even a person with cocoa brown skin blush.

I ask Grandma what was the toughest part about being married. She hesitates and says,
 “John has a thing about him where he wants to be in control. I let him do it when I was home with the children. Then, his control was fine. But when I started to work, I took over the finances. They were good with him, but after a while, I wanted control over money… “

She pauses again, looks at me and says, “I think when we were first married - I was home with the children, he used to go a place called The Stand and drink and I’d worry about him getting home. And now, he never, ever has a drink. When I came down with diabetes, he wouldn’t drink anymore. But he never drank a lot in his older life. It was just a beer with his friends. It’s sad his friends are all gone. He’s a good man. We’ve had a good marriage.”

Potty Talk and Marriage Vows

I hear a nurse or aide talking to the family member or friend of a patient in the next room. She says, “There’s a possibility there’s something there that’s not fully digested. We’re looking for something that’ll make her really go to the bathroom ... we can also order an x-ray or sonogram…”

Over decades of our lives, the focus shifts from love, marriage and children to dependence, duty and ability (or lack thereof) to poop. Shit morphs from expletive to fervent hope.

Grandma says, “To stay here is seven thousand dollars a month, but they take good care of me. Still, I’d rather be home with John. We don’t know what life is gonna deal us, so you have to do all the fun things when you’re young.”

Ellie tells me she and John traveled when they were younger, to the desert Southwest. Her sister from California got them a penthouse suite in Las Vegas, where they ate breakfast in bed. They attended a performance of Siegfried and Roy and visited the Grand Canyon and Sedona. “It was so picturesque,” says Grandma.

Dad, Pete and the kids return. We kiss and hug Grandma goodbye, then drive five minutes to Grandpa’s house. I ask him about the difficulty of living apart from his wife. Grandpa says, “We believe we were obligated to take care of her and we are. Because we believe in the vows. If I had to do it all over again, I would.”

John praises Grandma’s skills as a mother. She had her last child at age 43. Grandpa says, “Ellie did a great job with them. I was never home – I was out playing basketball or gallivanting.”

When I ask him the secret to a long marriage, he says, “I really don’t know about that. I think the secret to keeping young is you gotta drink a lot.”

Thanks, Jumbo.

Grace, Love and Stories

I glance at my Kiwi PAHT-nah, Pete. We’ve been slowly steaming along the visit-my-grandparents train at least four hours, and Pete shows no sign of ennui or disinterest. Am I this gracious when we visit Pete’s family? Doubtful. Maybe I’m just restless inside. You can’t see that, right? I love my PAHT-nah a tiny bit more during his Stateside visit. It’s like showing off an exotic lizard from the comfort of my home country. I’m having my triple-chocolate peanut butter brownie and eating it, too.

Grandpa pronounces Pete likable. I snap a picture of the two UK natives on the sofa alongside Finley and Fiona, who clings to Pete like a lovesick barnacle.
Fiona, Pete, Grandpa (John) Picken, Finley

Ellie and John have eleven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. We and our descendants will tell their stories from our perches at home, hospital or (God-I-hope-not), a nursing home.

Grandma tells me, “I pray for every one of you and it takes me a half hour. I include you and Finley and Fiona and have started including Peter, too.”

I remember leaving Ellie’s room. My stomach knotted as I hugged Grandma one last time before we left.
Halfway down the hall, Finley asks, “Is she gonna die?” He’s just voiced my thoughts. This could be the last time I see Grandma.

“We’re all gonna die some day, Finley,” I respond. Finley says, “I mean, now. Soon.”

I say, “She could, honey. She’s 88, and her body’s falling apart.”

We unravel like fishing line during decades – looks, eyesight, reflexes, health – slip overboard. The visit with Grandma reminds me if we tell enough of the right people enough stories - if we write them, verbalize them, keep passing them on - those tales will circle the globe long after we’re gone.

Ask someone – How is it for you to be in the world?

Yeah, Finley – we all ‘hafta die some day.’ But if you share your stories, they (and by extension, you) may never expire.

Whose story have you asked to hear?

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