Letter to my boys about Grandma

I wrote this May 20, 2010 to my boys, and just came across it again. I’ll share it here…..
Dear Kendall and Nelson,
Today it was pouring rain, 46 degrees out and bitter. It had rained all morning and yesterday we had Great Grandma Vera’s funeral service/burial. It’s terrible to say burial and I hope you are very old and very gray before you ever have to face the permanence and sadness of saying goodbye to someone it seems impossible to live without.
It was a gorgeous day for her service yesterday, but today the outside matched my insides. The sad, emptiness of the day. I wanted to ride as hard as I could, as long as I could and let some of it out. Just be a body in motion, doing, not feeling.
When I got to Mud Lake there was standing water in the dirt parking lot at the trailhead. I knew I’d be soaked between getting out of my van and getting my bike out of the back. But I didn’t want to rest, go home and sit in a house that my Grandma had visited only twice. She was a homebody but anyone could see why. Her house was the place to go. Even if you went alone, you always arrived to a houseful. I can’t remember ever going to her house, as a child, as a young adult or now, at age 35, without someone stopping by for coffee or because they saw the car out in the drive and wanted to catch up.
I was soaked by the time I got my helmet and gloves on. I had a rain jacket on and it did its job keeping my core warm and dry. But the rain ran down my legs and into my socks and shoes in rivulets. I got on my bike and hit the trail. I was soaked and cold but I pushed into the feeling. I wanted to just feel, not think. Feel the rain and cold and grit. Not think about the who and what of yesterday.
I pedaled as hard as I could, standing over the ruts in the trail as my bike jumped and bumped in the cold stiffness of the day.
Should I turn back? You’ll be freezing the rest of the day.
But my body wanted to go, feel the push and pull of muscle and joint and skin still alive and breathing. I wanted to feel young again, reckless again, stupid even. Stupid enough to ride in a rain so fierce and wide.
I sprinted the first two miles. There was mud and water on every part of my body. It felt delicious. Like a child who jumps in a mud puddle when there’s a dry path to walk on, as their mother is telling them no, stop, don’t get wet! (You’ve both done this many times to me!) My clothes were muddy, a new helmet, a new pair of bike pants and a new riding shirt. All fresh for the season, their maiden voyage, made a mess now. I haven’t been that muddy in years, maybe not since I was your age Kendall, age 7.
I slowed as I neared the dam on Mud Lake Road. It is a stretch of dirt road between the trails, so I came out of the trees into the open road. The rain fell down on me freely now, blurring my vision even more. I stopped in the road and tipped my head back for a moment, letting it wash down my face, into my helmet, through my hair.
I biked toward the two back loops of the trail. One loop was short and sweet. The other long and hilly. My bike took the long trail, even as I thought the short one would be far wiser.
I gained speed again, gaining and mounting in speed as the trail filled with water. There was standing water the entire length of the trail now. It was like a 7-mile-long mud puddle. But I went on, felt the mess spin off my back tire and up my backside. Felt the rain finally penetrate my raincoat and seep into my back, my shirt.
I thought about Grandma, how saying goodbye sucks, how I won’t ever be able to go “home” again to the UP. Yesterday, before we went to the cemetery just across and up the road, the usual collection of aunts and uncles and cousins met at her house for the last few moments of awkwardness and nervousness that always comes before an event like that.
It was quiet, save Uncle Marlin who told dirty jokes to anyone who would listen. It was so inappropriate and it made me love him even more. He is Grandma’s brother. He’s had a funny, funky right eye for as long as I can remember. He always tells me “I feel better than I look… did you hear the one about the waitress and the preacher?” and off he goes, even as his eyelid swells around his bum eye, the eye red, so red in one corner that you think he must be in pain. But soon his smile is all you see, the strong wide nose and his cheeks, old but full, an old man with chubby baby cheeks. Not-so-innocent and you want to kiss them.
Despite Uncle Marlin’s best efforts, I realized in the moments before the funeral, that Grandma’s house was empty. There was a stillness in the house, a hesitation. Everyone stood, no one sat. You could feel and see and hear it on every person in the house. It just wasn’t the same. How can a house that just a few days before looked and smelled the same, be a stand-in today, the furniture nothing more than props?
It’s because Grandma was home. That the people who once came to see Grandma, would come no more. That the house would stand empty much of the time. It was an overwhelming grief, the kind that stopped you, sat deep in your heels and stayed. It made me want to run from the house and pretend it was still the same; it made me want to stay, settle in and soak out the last nuances of her presence. Maybe find her unopened mail, her jewelry on the dresser, her robe in the bathroom and just feel. But Uncle Ron had taken that all away and packed it up and washed it down and gotten rid of it a week after Grandma, his mother, had died. I’d missed my chance to get something little of hers. But nobody had asked. I didn’t take it personally. I knew it was done with a business-like grief that was unbearable. Uncle Ron was a man of few words, few smiles. But I remember a time when he did laugh and carry on with my mother, your Grandma Judy. Back when they were younger, about my age now, in their 30s. Their children running through the house – me, my sisters, my cousins. And that kitchen filled with laughter from my mother and her brother and sisters. It was a wonderful way to grow up. That trek up north to Grandma’s, to the house filled with people and cousins and friends and food. For Uncle Ron to box it up and to carry on showed strength, not weakness.
I miss Grandma in a way that’s more than just tears, a huge drowning amount of tears if I let it go, let myself think too much, too long. But I also miss her in a way that is physical too. Reaching for a glass from her cupboard and filling it over the sink that looks out into her driveway. The window we all ran to when we heard a car pull in, the adults quickening their step to look, too. Or in pulling open the door to her potato cellar and feeling a thrill of fear at the cold and darkness of it, the weight of the door in my hand, the only thing that kept the ghosts underground, in my mind, in that old house. I miss her in all these little physical ways that I took for granted, that I did and did and did again, never knowing when it would be the last.
That’s why I rode today. The fact that it was raining, pouring shitloads, made it all the more fitting. I rode as hard as I’ve maybe ever ridden. I pushed and gasped and felt weakness in my legs, arms and inside, where Grandma was. It felt good, like matching an outside to an inside that was a jumble of mud, sand, water, dirt in my mouth, eyes and ears. But also a good kind of dirt, a good kind of sadness. To feel such sadness tells you how much I loved your Grandma.
I felt good on one hand, happiness spreading out as I rode along the trail. It felt miserable on the other, water hitting my face with sand and dustings from pine trees. The ride was all the things I felt yesterday: I had to say goodbye, it had to be messy and sad and wet. But I also want you to know that I got to say hello to her in this lifetime, to love her, grow up with her, hold her hand, pick her strawberries. I carry a grief countered with a gratefulness to have been there at all.
At her service down at the little cemetery next to house (the same cemetery we used to dare each other to walk through when we were kids, me and your Aunt Kerry), the preacher read from an article I wrote about Grandma. It was such an honor, one of the proudest moments of my life. I want you to remember that no matter what you do professionally, what really matters is what you do personally.
I wrote that article for my magazine, but I wrote it because I wanted a legacy, a letter for you to read later about her. I printed it publicly, but really, it didn’t come to life until I heard the preacher read those words over Grandma’s grave, where we laid her next to Grandpa Nelson, your namesake Nelson. To hear those words fall over a quiet cemetery with her family all around, standing together in a swelling sadness, with sunshine above and tears below, I realized that this feeling, this moment of standing together as one because of one, is what a family is.
When the service was over, I couldn’t bear to think that that part of my life was over too. That grandma’s house would sit quiet, that I’d never laugh with her at that table or watch my own kids, you two, run through her kitchen again. But I also thought about our house, our home and how I hope it’s filled with love and laughter for you. And that I’ve brought people into your lives with houses filled just the same. I hope you feel that, that love that Grandma Vera started and passed on to my mom (your Grandma Judy), and passed on to me. That even though they are both gone now, life is good even when it is hard. Because we laugh every day and kiss and hug and remember and cry and love and create more of the same.
I love you.