I’ve been cautioned by wise and well-meaning people that my penchant for emotions (namely crying) may alienate those who don’t struggle with waterworks the way that I do. But today it’s not to be avoided. As I was downloading photos from the camera to our computer, this one showed up and all my love for this woman came raining down on me like a summer storm.
This past weekend was the first time I heard about the tumor…and the cancer. After a hard year of moving from her home, enduring both open-heart surgery and a painful knee replacement, at 83 it comes down to the dreaded enemy that seems to be sleeping in us all. With grandpa waiting for her in heaven, I doubt that she will be resolute to fight it, and I suppose if I’m honest, I’d feel the same in her shoes.
The sadness this news brings has come over me in waves. Today while dusting the mantle and looking into the paper eyes of my children in framed photographs. Sitting down and seeing her familiar features on this screen. It’s the smallest things that remind me of the enormity of her impact in my life.
So, in her honor, I’m republishing something I wrote last fall about her and the memories I’ve hidden away in my heart. For anyone who’s ever loved a grandparent for her care, compassion, sewing-instruction, Jesus-teaching, garden-tending, clothes-on-the-line, cookies-in-the-oven type of way, please keep reading. And if there’s room on your prayer list for grandma, I’d be beholden to you for remembering her.
As I was leaving the library with our two youngest children last week, the book’s cover caught my eye. The delicate painting was so lifelike it might at first glance be mistaken for a photograph. The vintage barn wore the pattern of a huge American Flag and was sitting atop a blanket of grass left behind in the dust of an old pickup truck. Displayed near the floor on a Plexiglas stand was Heartland, a lovely children’s poem about that area of our nation, told from the perspective of the Earth.
I am the Heartland.
On this soil
Live those who through the seasons toil:
The farmer, with his spirit strong;
The farmer, working hard and long,
A feed-and-seed-store cap in place,
Pulled down to shield a weathered face-
A face whose every crease and line
Can tell a tale, and help define
A lifetime spent beneath the sun,
A life of work that’s never done.
I am the Heartland.
On these plains
Rise elevators filled with grains.
They mark the towns where people walk
To see their neighbors, just to talk;
Where farmers go to get supplies
And sit a spell to analyze
The going price of corn and beans,
The rising cost of new machines;
Where steps are meant for shelling peas,
And kids build houses in the trees.
by Diane Siebert
paintings by Wendell Minor
At home that evening, tucked under covers and reading to the kids before bed, I found myself heartsick and missing a place I barely knew. My voice caught as I heard the words aloud. Ever observant, my daughter turned to me and sweetly asked Mom, why does your voice sound like that? I swallowed hard and read slowly, trying not to cry. What is wrong with me?! Crying over a story about farms in Minnesota?! Then I realized, it was something else in Minnesota that had me crying.
We grew up 750 miles away from my maternal grandparents. They lived in a rural town in central Minnesota roughly two hours west of Minneapolis. Driving into town, the welcome sign listed a population of less than 600 people–a number that’s been steadily declining for years. There are two churches in this town, one school. The old grocery store with creaky wooden floors has been gone for decades, but I still remember how it looked and how it smelled: of timber and soap and paper. They used to have a miniature red shopping cart that I loved and would fight for, because for 20 minutes in that store, I became a grown up. My brother and sister and I would clamor on bikes and race ‘uptown’ as my grandma says; not all the way to the grain elevators or the city hall, but past the bank and the funeral home. An entire world to us, knit together on two tidy city blocks.
Trips to grandma and grandpa usually happened in the summer [so although I speak of these times with sentimentality, I really did not spend a great deal of time living them]. We would pile into our huge Olds 88 — maroon with velour interior and ENORMOUS — and hit the road for the 12 hour trek west. By the time we turned off highway 7 and drove past Warren’s station, I was practically coming out of my skin to see the people I loved so much. Would the house look the same? Did grandma remember to put Kit-Kats in the candy dish? Are her rows of marigolds in bloom?
Turning into the driveway and seeing the familiar landscape felt like coming home. I have so many wonderful memories there. Trying to sort through them now seems like ‘counting shades of light,’ as some of my favorite poets say. She used to wash my hair in her kitchen sink and then set it in curlers for Sunday morning, letting me sit toasty warm under one of those huge astronaut-head blow-dryers she’d bring to the table. She was with me when I got my ears pierced. She played games with me endlessly, laughing and slapping the table when I’d beat her. My brother would sit on her back patio for a summer haircut. My sister went fishing with grandpa. And at the end of our weeks together, she’d cry with me when we had to leave.
I grew to love her house and her small town. Literally right in the middle of a corn field, she lived in the Heartland, and I think that’s why this book affected me so. The descriptions were a guided tour through the things I have stored up in my heart. Perhaps I do have rose colored glasses–remembering only the beautiful and pure and innocent days of summer. But isn’t that what childhood should be?
Last year my grandma moved out of her house–the house she bought with my grandpa when they got married in 1946. The house that changed and morphed and grew around them; as they built their family, they built on to their home. The house in all of my mother’s childhood photos. The house in every one of my memories.
Sometimes thinking about how things change seems so perfectly normal and expected, and other times, like this, it seems to slice away at the most tender parts of my heart. What will it be like, next time, to go visit her and sit in the visitor’s section of the assisted living center, next to old magazines and piles of jigsaw puzzles? What will it be like to walk into her room and not smell layers of coffee and years of love? And my worst fear, of course, is to go back, knowing that there will not be the kind of visiting I so long for with a woman I love so deeply. When that happens, the landscape of the Heartland–of my heartland– will never be the same.