One of my favorite quotes from “It’s a Wonderful Life” is when Clarence the Angel says, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” The hole left by the passing of my maternal grandmother is likely felt even today in the effect it had on the culture of my mom’s family even though she surely would’ve passed long ago.
How It Used to Be
When I was a little girl, I was lucky enough to have not just one, but both grandmothers nearby who were able to watch me during the day as my mother taught elementary school in a neighboring town.
Back in the mid to late 60’s was when I was with her. Since my mom was the middle child of five, there were still two of her siblings more or less at home when I was with my grandma. My Aunt Sandy graduated from high school just before I was born in 1964, and my Uncle Bill graduated in 1968.
I have some memories of him eating breakfast before rushing off to school. He’s the one who showed me the deliciousness of catsup on scrambled eggs, after all. Other random memories that I have from then are cherry pie, red velvet cake, and stealing a box of Nilla Wafers and hiding under the counter to feast. Grandma’s recipe for red velvet cake and bread pudding are still two family favorites.
Whereas my other grandma had no one at home to care for anymore and could lavish all her attention on me, my maternal grandma still had a home humming with young people. Aunt Sandy lived at home and had a job at Zaner-Bloser (the penmanship college and printing company in Columbus where my Great-Grandpa Lupfer had been the principal). Uncle Bill was still in high school; my parents and I lived around the corner. We didn’t have a washer and dryer so that was another reason to be at Grandma and Grandpa Lupfer’s quite often. When Aunt Sandy married an Army man, Uncle Wayne, they sometimes stayed with my grandparents depending on his assignments–eventually having my cousin Sherry who lived there as a baby too.
It wasn’t unusual for the two older siblings, Uncle Larry and Aunt Pattie to visit with their families. The house on Cedar Hill Road was the hub of family life—everyone came home for holidays. It was a close-knit family and arguments were few or nonexistent.
Grandma was a great cook and Grandpa was the BEST gardener I’ve ever seen. His green thumb was legendary. On their small property on Cedar Hill he had vegetable and flower gardens, a pond with fish to catch, and a small orchard.
There was a woods behind their house from which we sometimes cut down our Christmas tree. There were summer days spent in a kiddie pool with my cousin, Sherry, and fishing in the pond. It was pastoral and family was everything.
The Day It All Changed
The hive of activity that was life in the house on Cedar Hill came to a crashing halt in May of 1969. That cool, rainy morning in May, Grandma and I had some errands to run, and then she had a doctor’s appointment. We had picked up a giant bag of asparagus from some market and she had treated me to McDonald’s. After the doctor, we headed home. On the way there, Grandma pulled the car to the side of the road unexpectedly, and said, “Let’s see if these pills the doctor gave me work.”
They were the last words she ever spoke.
To my four-year-old eyes, it looked like Grandma had fallen asleep. She kept raising her right hand toward her mouth? her chest? And I think I remember her moaning softly.
I stayed in the car and tried to wake her up by pulling gently on her hair. I guess I thought—“That should do it!” I also hoped for someone to stop and would try to signal through the steamed-up windows for each passing car to pull over. A pick-up truck finally did.
A kind man wearing a fishing cap opened the passenger door of the car and reached for me. It was only then that I started to cry as I said, “There’s something wrong with my grandma.”
This was the first time I remember that feeling of being able to hold myself together about something awful until I gave voice to it. Now, I’m a firm believer in not holding things in and talking through things to heal them. But, sometimes, it is too hard to name a problem or say it out loud. Sometimes, you have to wait until you get home before losing your $h*t. Telling the nice man in the fishing cap that something really, really bad had happened was my first experience with this phenomenon.
Mr. Fishing-Cap took me to a nearby gas station/convenience store while the squad was called. The kind folks there offered me anything I wanted, but I wouldn’t take anything. I remember sitting in the passenger seat of the policeman’s car who was attending and I dutifully told him my name and address, my parent’s names, and where they worked. Kudos to my mom and dad who had taught me those important bits of information at such a young age.
While he contacted them, he dropped me off at his own home,
and his wife and young son watched me until my folks could come get me.
I remember Mom crying and washing the tears from her face in the small bathroom off the kitchen in Grandma’s house; I had no understanding. It was my first real experience with death in a very immediate way.
Through Adult Eyes
That year was a tough one for my family; five of its older members passed away within a month or so of each other. I lost a great-great-grandmother, two great-grandfathers, a great uncle, and my grandma.
There is no way to minimize death, but of the five, Grandma was the most vitally important to my part of the family.
When I reflect on this as an adult and as a daughter, mother, and spouse, I am saddened anew for those she left behind. They say that you are never ready to lose a mother—but how much harder it must be when you are young. The effect her death had on the life of the family cannot be understated; those effects were far-reaching and sometimes unexpected. Don’t misunderstand–our family continued to be a wonderful one–but what might our family life have been like had she NOT passed away in 1969? The other 7 grandkids that came along would have known her. The siblings that moved from Ohio (of the five, my mom was the only one to stay here) might have come home more often, and we certainly would have had bigger family holidays with more of the aunts, uncles, and cousins together.
The axis of the family was gone. Coming home wasn’t the same because home wasn’t there. Home as we knew it was gone forever when her heart stopped beating.
Family Was Still Important
The five siblings still made it a priority to get together for Thanksgivings every other year until 1982, and there were many, many visits across the Appalachians to visit during the summer, but Christmases were no longer spent at the house on Cedar Hill. Gone were the loving Christmas gifts for the grandchildren and the times spent together for both holidays and every days.
Here are a few pics of holidays as they were–everyone home, time with cousins, presents lovingly selected for the grandchildren (just Steve and me, then), visits from extended family. It was comfortable. It was home.
They did manage to get together, however, for one Christmas in 1973. That was the year that my mom must have had Uncle Lornie’s name in the gift exchange. Now, Uncle Lornie was known to have a slightly larger than normal proboscis.
See the pic for him modeling the lovely nose-warmer she crocheted him. That gift, and the fact that my parents allowed my three-year-old brother, Mike, to drink Pepsi all evening are about the only things I remember from that Christmas.
Grief Is a Powerful Force
Grandpa, in his grief, remarried fairly quickly. Unfortunately, his choice had a devastating effect on the family. Not only were all the “kids” reeling from the loss of their mom, but insult was added to injury by the actions of the woman who took her place. Many of Grandma’s belongings—favorite dishes, prized knick-knacks, were given away willy-nilly to people who didn’t even know my grandma. Grandpa was either unaware of the hurt this caused or powerless to stop it. Holidays became either torturous or non-existent. The new wife was spectacularly cruel at times; each of us had at least one interaction with her that was simply awful–even me, a child. Perhaps she was a different person with her own children and grandchildren, but our family rarely saw that side of her. Nowadays there is more information and education available about grief, blended families, and relationships. Back then, it wasn’t something that was going to be discussed or “worked” on.
I don’t know if my dear, funny grandpa ever realized the enormity of the decision he made in a haze of grief. I’m sure he must have been lonely. The beautiful place on Cedar Hill was sold. Its new owners let it go to ruin, and it became a living metaphor for his relationship with the family.
When Grandpa’s second wife died in 1986, he came back to us. Once again, he was accessible, present, and loving. Her toxicity was gone from his life, and by extension, ours. Even though my grandma’s presence was still missed, we were consoled by the ensuing years we had with him until his death in 1992. It was as if the 16 years in between were a bad dream that he woke up from. There were visits and laughter and he was easy with all of us once again. His innate generosity was again everywhere. For my wedding present, he drove a trailer from Florida with large pieces of furniture in it. One piece was my great-grandpa’s writing desk (you’ll recall that he was a penman). The other piece was a beautiful antique glass-fronted hutch with extra storage beneath. Grandpa saw it out with someone’s trash (covered in green paint), picked it up, and refurbished it for me. I still treasure both pieces and they are in use every day.
Our Experiences Shape Us
Life, with its losses, its toxic people, and its traumatic experiences, is still, well, life. We learn as much or more from the bad things as we do the good. There is perhaps a heightened appreciation for those with whom we share the journey , an awareness of how NOT to treat others, and an acquisition of strength to face challenges. I have sometimes felt guilty that I stayed in the car instead of trying to go to a nearby house for help. Would it have changed anything? We’ll never know. What I do know is that our relationships are of utmost importance, life isn’t always easy, and sometimes it takes a little bit of bad to appreciate the good.
Maya Angelou said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” I don’t know that this story was causing me agony, but I DO feel better for telling it.