Tuesday, June 15, 2010
NOW, YEARS LATER, I UNDERSTAND
Mom Davis, Emporia, KS
Grandpa Davis Smokin', Emporia, KS
I had the wonderful good fortune to grow up in a rental house next door to my dad’s parents. Grandpa Davis was the consummate grandfather and from my child’s perspective, he couldn’t have been more perfect. One of my many fondest memories of him was when all of us grandchildren would run hysterically past his cigar smoking lounge chair. He would grab us one at a time and wisker us until we sometimes peed our pants! It was some of the best times of our lives. Now, years later, I understand.
But it was our grandmother, Mom Davis, that was quite the ubiquitous unforgettable character. She wore her feelings on her sleeve, so you never needed to guess her mood. Her every move in life revolved around her large family. From my child’s perspective, she never showed any signs of pretentiousness. She grew up in a large Kansas farm family and raised her own large family the same way. Her later years were lived out in a Kansas town with a bustling main street and her Methodist church within a six block walking distance. She never missed many Sundays, even though she actually may have attended many Sundays without any surrounding family, as most of her children had married and either moved out of town or attended their spouse’s denomination. I know she had a strong faith that sustained her through a rather hard life. That now seems to be the basis of another one of my many memories of Mom. My future wife, Karen, just happened to grow up Methodist in another town before we met in college. So, the first time we attended church together, we went to Mom’s Methodist church. She cried the minute she saw us enter together. Now, years later, I understand.
My grandparents had one of those great Victorian homes built in the 30’s that had a sweeping porch around the side and back. It was a great place to sit and talk on warm Kansas summer evenings to wait for the house to cool off enough to attempt sleep. One day, after Karen and I had been dating for some time, I was sitting on the porch and overheard Mom talking to one of her many ”telephone friends” in her circle, stating that she was so happy I had fallen “head over heels in love” for the first time. I remember being somewhat shocked that perhaps she was right! Now, years later, I understand.
Mom could be outrageous at times. You never really knew just what she might say or do. Of course, that was one of her very best qualities. I remember a hallway conversation she had with my uncle Ed one Sunday afternoon. She was bottle feeding one of her seemingly ever present grandbabies and remarked that she had breast fed all of her seven children on the farm. Uncle Ed inquisitively asked how on earth she had ever managed that. Mom replied that the only difficult part was weaning them. With the ever present twinkle in his eye, Uncle Ed asked how she did it. Of course, that was a knowingly loaded question for Mom. Without hesitating, she simply circled her breast with her index finger to explain to Uncle Ed and me how she took a black shoe shine applicator and circled each nipple. She matter-of-factly stated that they would take one quizzical look and decide on the spot that “I’m not going back there again”! I can still see Uncle Ed bursting out with uncontrolled laughter and I completely wilted out of site from utter sheer embarrassment. Mom just widely smiled at her creativity. Now, years later, I understand.
One of my earliest childhood memories occurred on an early evening when my great grandmother died. I didn’t know her very well as she was bed ridden by the time I came to know her. Mom had transitioned into her primary care giver at their home during the final years of her life. I remember family members arriving and becoming uncharacteristically solemn as they slowly gathered around the fireplace at our home. The moment that made the most vivid impression on me that evening was the gasp that my mother suddenly uttered while everyone was still reverently celebrating this woman’s life in our dining room. She was pointing to the old black clock on the mantle. On this night, the hands were frozen in time at the precise hour and minute that my great grandmother’s spirit had passed on from this life and into the sanctuary of our ultimate home, as if in tribute to and respect for her long and most recently painful life. Mom lovingly cared for her until the moment of her death. Now, years later, I understand.
Our grandpa actually ran for local politics and worked hard all his life. Mom was never formally employed, but ran the best household and kitchen in the world. In the farm country tradition, she was the last to eat, especially at our large Sunday dinner family gatherings. Consequently, she never had much disposable income and I suspect she never had much spending money in her large black purse. But, I do remember that she always had a present for everyone on their birthday and at Christmas. And I could pretty much count on receiving a nice white handkerchief in my nicely wrapped present. I received enough that I still have them and have no intentions to ever part with them. After receiving the fifth or sixth though, I vaguely remember thinking that this isn’t much. But it was very much to Mom. Now, years later, I understand.
Emporia, Kansas, was the birthplace for honoring all American veterans on the new Veterans Day holiday after WWII. Mom personally knew the VFW veteran who went to Washington DC to finally sell the idea. I remember walking down to main street as a boy with my older sister, Carolyn, and Mom on many of those special days and standing on a street corner to sell red poppies. The proceeds helped veterans who made it back from the great war disabled. Mom was a Gold Star mother in recognition of having a son that didn’t make it back. But she wanted to help those who did to channel her grief. I guess some of that modeled behavior rubbed off on a young boy. Now, years later, I understand.
As lively and full of life as Mom was, she apparently still had some very bad days like all us adults. I remember my mother telling me that when she was having a down day, she might have trouble getting out of bed. That’s when my grandfather would go upstairs after he returned home from work and lovingly order her out of bed because he needed supper. He knew his wife of so many years very well. She would jump right up and then be fine for awhile. Now, years later, I understand.
It’s funny how we adults never fully realize just how much attention our children are paying to our every move. I’m certain it’s been going on since Cain watched the way Adam ate apples. Sometimes, out of sheer frustration over one of life’s foibles, I occasionally catch myself saying under my breath to no one in particular, “Oh dear, bread and beer”. That nonsensical little rhyme makes perfect sense to me, as I observed Mom saying it all the time. My grandparents were part of the “greatest generation”. Mom and grandpa lost a son in WWII and another returned wounded beyond repair. I’m sure there were many other tragedies in her life, including the Sunday afternoon she found the stable rock in her life dead of a massive heart attack on their living room floor after celebrating their last family dinner together. Mom was never the same again. Now, years later, I understand.