Holidays such as Memorial Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be sad ones for those of us who have lost our grandparents and parents. If you have siblings, it can help to talk to them. My brother Jeff and I were visiting on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. I had the phone on speaker as I strolled around my backyard. I described the brightly colored pots I’d painted and the lush water garden. “It’s looking real purdy around here,” I said. I blinked. Time slowed down. I was instantly back at my Grandma’s kitchen table hearing her, my mom, and aunts use “purdy,” one of their pet words said in the same sing-song tone I had just used. “Seesters,” an affectionate term for sisters, and “martoonies,“ an affectionate term for a favorite drink, were just some of the others.
As Jeff visits about his latest house project, my mind drifts off to my grandmother’s kitchen table. My brother, Mom, and two aunts crowd around it. Grandma Caroline pours coffee. Caroline Bergsbaken, a large woman with dark pouches under her eyes, also has a cigarette dangling from her lips. A scrumptious-looking poppyseed cake is ready to cut. My mom’s telling a story about my brother Jeff and she flings her arm high to add drama to the ending. (I often use the same gesture.)
“That’s my Jeffey,” Grandma says, ruffling his hair. Grandma is left-handed. She once told the story of her first-grade teacher tying her left hand to her side so she wouldn’t write with it. Grandma was stubborn, though, and prevailed. She was also very bright and skipped two grades. As the only girl in her family, her parents didn’t make her work hard. That changed when she married my grandfather and she needed to help tend crops and milk cows. My mother reported that “she nearly had a nervous breakdown” from the hard work and stress. Grandma was happiest visiting with the neighbors, talking politics, and entertaining.
Grandma calls in their black Cocker, Connie. Using that special sing-song voice, she says, “Smile, Connie, Smile.” The dog grins, showing her teeth.
Connie had several batches of puppies. I spent many happy hours playing with them in their bed of straw in the barn. Sadly, one cold night my grandfather set up a heat lamp for Connie and her pups. The lamp started the straw on fire and the puppies perished. My mother said it was the only time she’d ever seen her father cry.
The closest I came to see my own father cry was when we were wilderness camping. Dad, Jeff, and I were fishing in our old boat that had seen better days. Jeff, a pre-teen, became obnoxious. My father warned him that if he kept it up, he’d drop him on shore. Jeff replied, “Go ahead.” Dad made him get out. Jeff walked off into the wilderness. We were miles from anywhere. Only a few logging roads wandered through hundreds of acres of dense forest. Dad threw his fishing line in the lake. He sat staring at it, saying nothing as usual, but his drawn face told me he was worried.
There weren’t any cabins around and no phones to use. Dad gave up pretending to fish. We motored back across the lake toward our camp, but got into a shallow bay and sheered a pin on the motor. Dad said The F-Word, the only time I ever heard him use it. Now I really knew he was scared. He had trouble with the motor repair. Darkness set in.
He finally got the motor running again, and we made it back to our camp only to find out Jeff hadn’t. My mother was frantic and angry words flew from her mouth. When she calmed down, my parents talked about driving to a phone and getting help. Dad was heading to the car when my brother, who later told me he knew he just had to follow the lake, strolled up.
“Amy?” I realize I’m still holding the phone and my brother has stopped talking about his house repairs.
“Yeah, sorry, I’m here.” I force myself to return to the present.
Jeff tells me he’d hoped to stop by for a Memorial Day visit, but can’t this time. We’ll get together on the Fourth of July, we decide. We’ll swap more stories then. After we say our goodbyes and our “Love you’s,” I set down the phone. My spirits lifted, I keep walking around the flower gardens.
Remembering our past helps us understand who we are or more importantly, who we’re meant to be. Swapping stories and sharing the “purdy” parts of our lives helps bring those we loved back to life, if only for a moment. And for that, I’m thankful.