Sunday, November 29, 2009

Grampa memories

We said goodbye to my grandfather yesterday. I sat on the edge of the dock as we scattered his ashes on the bay -- from the very spot where Grampa and I caught a bucket full of crabs and promptly tossed them back because we didn’t like to eat them -- and memories from my childhood flooded over me. Grampa was part of so many moments of my life, present for all the biggest, most important times. It was so difficult to watch his rapid decline in recent years because he was larger than life when I was a child; a visit to Bellport was a trip into his kingdom. Everyone knew Dick Stock. He was a teacher and principal, a volunteer fireman and ambulance driver, member of the Hearth Club and local Methodist Church, library trustee, fix-it guy, fence painter, builder. We would walk through that town and I felt a special sense of pride at being his granddaughter.

But as a child I often felt nervous around my Grampa. He was a stern man, a Navy man. He was raised during the Great Depression, came of age in wartime, and raised four children on a single income, so he was also a frugal man. He had high expectations of his children and grandchildren, and we all worked very hard to live up to them. As I got older, though, he mellowed, and I appreciated him more each time we were together. He was not outwardly affectionate, but Grampa never missed an opportunity to show his grandchildren the world around us, to give us new perspective, to make us things, and to teach us how to do things on our own.

When I became a parent, I gained a whole new perspective on the importance of grandparents. They are the foundation of the family, acting as back-up for the parents, supporting us with advice and childcare. Grandparents give their grandchildren love in a special way, often filling in the magic when Mom and Dad are too focused on the practical, everyday details. Oh, and grandparents are around on the most special of days – birthdays, Christmas, holidays, summer vacations, births. Many of my memories of Grampa took place on those special days; my grandparents were with us for just about every holiday and birthday I can recall from my childhood. The took care of us when my mom was bedridden during her pregnancy with my sister; they held us all up through my mother's declining health and her death. Gram and Grampa helped us celebrate, and they helped us mourn.

My most vivid Grampa memories are sun-infused and taste like salt water. We spent countless hours sailing on the Great South Bay and playing on the beach. He taught me how to sail -- how I loved to sit on the bow of that boat with my toes in the water! -- and we built sand castles using giant clam shells as shovels. He pulled me in a canoe when I was too afraid of the muck at the bottom of the water to dig my toes in for clams. He taught me how to slide down the fireman’s pole at the playground. He built us swings and a tree house in his backyard, and he piled the leaves up high so we could jump from the tree house into the leaf pile – totally grandfather stuff right there.

Food was very important to Grampa; every time I went away to camp or traveled to another country, the first question he’d ask was “How’s the food?” He showed me the joy of dipping a fresh strawberry in sugar before popping it in my mouth. He helped me pick sugar snap peas in his garden and crunch them in my mouth, warm from the sun. When I was a toddler, he grew pumpkins in his garden that were bigger than me, and when I started my own garden in my first house, he gave me helpful pointers about where and when to plant. He introduced me to Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies and crumb cake; we would sneak out to the back porch together and demolish a box of those cookies – and he always had a back-up box so Gramma wouldn’t know. He showed me where to find the best wild blueberries in Acadia National Park. And from Grampa I learned the joys of ice cream. Over the last few years that he lived in Bellport, especially, we could be assured a trip into town for ice cream – always vanilla for Grampa, peanut butter swirl for me. (Oh, and I still can’t eat a slice of apple pie without a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese on the side.)

He built us things. Fabulous, hunky wooden things: a built-in bed and walk-in closet in my childhood bedroom; a gigantic bunkbed that both my brother and sister used over the years; a dollhouse, a garage, a desk, an entertainment center. You name it, Grampa could build it. I marveled as I watched him design and build the giant gazebo down by the bay 25 years ago; today it stands tall and broad and sturdy, just like Grampa once did. The bedroom in my first college apartment was only 8x8 – no room for a bed and a dresser, when you considered the giant radiator that took up a chunk of that tiny space. No problem. Grampa visited with a tape measure and a clipboard, and before I moved in, he had built a custom-made dresser/fold-down desk/stereo shelf that fit perfectly over the radiator, between the window and bed, and out of the way of my door. He also built the cradle that my sister slept in as a newborn; my son slept in it when he was an infant, and soon it will rock our new baby. I know this cradle will slumber many more babies in its lifetime.

From Grampa I inherited insatiable wanderlust. He loved to travel and wanted us all to see the world. One of my favorite photos of Gram and Grampa shows them in fabulous silk robes in China; my grade school classes marveled when they visited to tell us of their trips to the former Soviet Union. Maine has always been a special place for my family. We camped in Acadia when we were young, and I watched Grampa scramble up and down the rocky shore like a mountain goat. My brother and I spent a week with Gram and Grampa traveling the East Coast one Easter break. We hit every military base between New Jersey and Florida, we saw where the Wright Brothers flew on Kittyhawk, we watched for alligators as we drove to Cape Canaveral; throughout that week the love of this country and his pride in our military glowed on Grampa’s face. Many years later, even though he was not a sports fan and had a hard time grasping the idea of a granddaughter-jock, he traveled all around the country following my basketball career. I still giggle when I remember him sitting in the stands at AAU Nationals in Amarillo, Texas, yelling “It’s not football!” when he felt the other girls got too rough. He funded my college trips to Europe, the UK, and Russia, and years later I’d call him and Gramma from fabulous hotels around the country when I traveled for work. (And every time, his first question was “How’s the food?”)

My most treasured Grampa memory, though, is of the day he held his great-grandson for the first time. He smiled and cooed and sang, and love lit up his face even when Hayden screamed and cried. I had never seen him shine like that, and my heart fills up when I remember those moments. I’m grateful Grampa had a chance to play cars with Hayden as a toddler, and I’m grateful Hayden had some time to sit on his Great-Grampa’s lap. I’m grateful too that sometimes I look at Hayden and see Grampa’s broad jaw and big sparkly eyes.

The last time I visited Grampa with my family, on his 85th birthday just over a month ago, even in his failing health and cloudy mental state, his eyes were crystal clear blue. He still recognized my grandmother and my uncles – proof to me that true love never falters. I’m thankful that he knew such a long healthy life. Can you imagine never spending a night in a hospital until you’re 81 years old? I’m grateful, also, to have stored up over 30 years of good, strong grandfather memories – one of the perks of being the oldest grandchild. My grandparents were present for many, many of the special moments in my life -- good and bad -- and I know how fortunate I am for that.

I don't know yet what heaven might look like, but I'm hoping that for Grampa, it's an endless sail on a crystal-blue bay, the sun shining above him and the wind at his back.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The only one in all the world

My son is training for a long, profitable career as a stunt man. Pretty typical kid stuff, I think, but for a newbie mom like me, it can be scary: He loves to jump off the fourth step; throw himself on the tile floor in the kitchen and pretend he's swimming; see how much air he can grab while jumping on our bed like it's a freakin' Moon Bounce. Lately he likes to bounce his little body off of anything he can and ricochet as far as possible, until he bounces into something else...and something else...until he falls down giggling...or crying. Picture a 4-foot, 55-pound pinball with limbs, and you'll get the drift.

In his latest pinball impression this morning, Sweet Boy leaped off my bed, bounced himself off my backside, then into the side of the bed. Only he misjudged where the side of the bed was, and he instead landed on his butt...and his elbow...and his head. On the hardwood floor.

First, I'm embarrassed to admit, I yelled at him (I'm a yeller, as maybe you've gathered) because he almost knocked me over with the velocity of his initial jump-and-bounce. Then I heard the thud and realized he had not landed on a squishy spot. When I turned and asked "What happened?!" the giant tears and ear-splitting wailing commenced. He wasn't that badly hurt, probably crying more because he was shocked and because I yelled. I scooped him up and we laid on the bed while I rubbed his boo-boo head, kissed his elbow and knee. Once he calmed down enough to hear me, I apologized for yelling, explaining that I yelled not because I was angry, but because I was upset that was careless and that he hurt himself.

"You've got to be careful with your body, Sweetie, especially with your head," I explained. "You're the only Hayden I've got -- the only one in the whole world! And it really makes me upset when you hurt yourself."

"I'm the only one?" he said.

"Yup, the only Hayden ever. And you're precious and unique, and you mean the world to Mommy and Daddy. So please be more careful."

"But don't worry, Mommy. You have another baby coming soon. It's ok if I bash up a little," he responded, in all his frank, 4-year-old literal-mindedness.

Oh my. Once again, Mommy's heart breaks. Wide. Open.

Perhaps I'll need to reiterate this point a few more times in the coming months, that there's only one Hayden in all the world and that's all there every will be. Just so he knows for sure that Baby is not a replacement.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Happy birthday, Baby

Today is my man's birthday. This is the 12th birthday I've celebrated with him, and he's not one to ask for a whole lot of hullabaloo. As he would say, birthdays happen every year. Maybe so, but when I started thinking about it this morning, I realized what an awful lot we've been through since his last birthday. And I was instantly awed and grateful to have this birthday to celebrate with my sweetie.

In this past year he's shown me time and again why I chose to spend my life with him. I have watched him conquer major health issues and come out stronger and healthier. He works so hard and endures a ridiculous commute, but he busts his butt to be home with us in the evenings. He is an amazing father, playful, wise, and stern in equal parts; his patience is far greater than mine. He shares household tasks (even writes cute little chores lists for himself) -- and I even overheard him say to our neighbor once this spring "It's a great day for yard work, isn't it?!" Always, without hesitation, he steps up for his mom and siblings when they need him.

He can tell by looking at my face whether I need a hug or whether he should just keep his distance. He listens to me gripe, laughs at my jokes, offers advice when needed, cracks me up on a daily basis. He tells me I'm pretty, makes me feel sexy. He respects my work, encourages me to try new things, and values my opinion. He is calm when I am frantic. He is patient when I am raving. He is kind when I am mean. He is charismatic when I am wallflowery. He is strong, always strong -- a rock, a boulder, a mountain for me and for our family. This man is everything I could hope for in a husband, and it's even clearer today than it was a year ago.

We have grown up together, really -- I've known him since I was 20! -- and we continue to grow up side by side every day. But in this one single year, we have gone through better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and health, and I know now more than ever that I am a lucky girl. So today I am doing more than simply celebrating my sweetheart's birthday. I'm saying a thank you prayer, and I'm celebrating another year with my best friend. And I'm looking forward to so many more.