On Wednesday, my Thanksgiving feasting began. Super healthy, too. With 30 minutes down, 4.5 hours to go, my dad pulled his SUV into a McDonald’s parking lot and thus began the lovely eating habits of the weekend. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my burgers (yes, plural) and $1 fries. Back in the backseat, I plugged into my iPod and picked up Flannery O’Connor only to fall asleep before the end of Revelation. Music and motion tend to put me into nap mode pretty fast. Yet, no matter where my family makes our next pit stop, I can always wake up from my deep slumber and play “name the small MN town” game with fairly decent accuracy. I was wide awake for the second leg of the five hour trip – just quietly watching the towns and beautiful snow-covered MN out my window. It truly was breathtaking. The Iron Range looked somewhat mountainous. The dark green pine trees blanketed in snow stood majestic and pulled off the perfect winter-wonderlandish post-card look. Past the Iron Range the SUV traveled. A road I am no stranger to traveling. Dot-on-the-map towns that I have eaten in, peed in (in a bathroom, of course), stayed in, and played in. And after five hours of traveling windy and hilly roads, past farms and woodlands, lakes and rivers, landmarks and the Range, we arrived like we always do in the town.
Signs greeted us. Flags whipped in the wind. Snowflakes danced down to earth. And my dad kept driving. Past the McDonald’s where the Stars and Stripes fly next to The Maple Leaf. An Up North town. A real Up North town. But that’s where things are no longer the same. At the McDonald’s. We used to turn there. Left. And then a series of right’s before we’d arrive. Actually arrive.
As the last three years have gone, we no longer make those turns. And no matter how many times we’ve been back, no matter how many times I tell myself we won’t go back, I still find myself wanting to say, “we missed the turn. where are we going? this isn’t the way.” And then I think I have the answer. That maybe we’re going to the other destination. But we aren’t. We can’t. Missing turns is the way. The new way. New turns in town and out to another neighboring town are the way. No more “to grandmother’s house we go,” for me. We move past the turns and streets and homes that I have memorized in my memory and on to other relative’s homes. Because grandparents no longer live in their homes, no longer own their homes. No one is home.
Tired and hungry (ha) Wednesday night after traveling five hours, we visited with family. In town. We ate pizza and sipped our pop’s. We shared stories and laughed. And though many, many people were missing, it was enough. Just having us all together. Knowing these times are special. After visiting, before the snow really hit (seriously, TONS of snow Up North!), we hit the road again. And headed just outside of town to another relative’s comfy-cozy wood-surrounding home. A home I visited often as a child, but never really stayed at – except for the time I stayed in my cousin’s room and got a bloody nose in the middle of the night and just went in the bathroom and used some toilet paper to stop it – to which my aunt was shocked and wondered why I didn’t wake her for help. Yeah. That one time. Otherwise, there was no need. Before. Before three years ago. Now, that’s where I stay sometimes. In my cousin’s old room. A room that used to awe me. A room with remnants of my cousin – old jersey’s and trophies, plaques and pictures. Hockey sticks and hunting gear. So, in my cousin’s old boyhood room, I snoozed.
And Thanksgiving morning we woke early. Not for the Parade, but for family. To visit and chat with my aunt and uncle. A cousin came with her family – her husband and her kids – adorable and full of fun! They were eager to play in the snow. To ride on the snowmobile and sled down the driveway (long, dirt-roadish). And after turkey, stuffing, potatoes, homemade buns, cranberry dishes, and pies, all grandma’s old, tried and true recipes, we did. We sledded and snowmobiled in the cold, cold snow. Unfortunately I forgot my snowpants and official winter gear, but had enough to get by. I’m a tough Minnesotan after all. I slid down the hill, played in the snow, built a teeny-tiny snowman, and jumped in the sled for a ride behind the snowmobile. And I’m glad I did. Because though many, many people were missing, it was enough. Just having us all together. Knowing these are special times.
By Thanksgiving afternoon, we headed back to town for round two of Turkey dinner. Needless to say, I had ceased feeling hungry at this point. Before our second feast, we made a stop. To see my grandma. The only grandparent I have. Not at her house, of course. But at the place she stays. Whatever you want to call it, it’s just it. Sad and depressing. She was rolled out in a wheelchair, her eyes vacant and her words mumbled. Her sentences stuttered and memory muddled. But we all sat around her. We all snapped pictures with her. And held onto her while she’s here. While she’s still holding us together. Light moments were sprinkled in with our nursing home nightmare. One of my aunts inquired to a staff member about another resident and the conversation was quite entertaining:
Aunt: What’s that one lady’s name? She used to be a school teacher. She has gray hair.
Uncle (Aunt’s husband): That doesn’t eliminate anybody! Except for the workers, they all have gray hair here!
Me: It’s like that children’s game, Guess Who? ‘Does your person have gray hair? Does your person have a walker?’ Geriatric Guess Who?
Fleeting moments of laughter in my grandma’s presence help us remember that this is not the way she is. It’s not who she is. Old age and a faulty memory have made her someone we don’t know. So we find ways to remember her the way she was. It seems kind of backwards – to remember someone when they’re still alive – but it’s how we cope. We move on and we live our lives by celebrating the way she’d want us to. They way they’d all want us to.
On Friday, we packed up the SUV and said our Minnesota goodbyes. We drove to town again and said goodbye to aunts and uncles before our final farewell of the trip. Back to the place where grandma now lives. Regardless of how many times I’ve been there, or to other places just like it, I can’t get used to seeing her there. She has her own room, hospital like and sterile. A few of our family pictures hang on a bulletin board. A framed candid of my grandpa rests on her bedside table. We went to say goodbye and found her fast asleep. Burrowed under blankets and sleeping like a child – innocent and helpless, clueless and confused. She woke without our prompting and we had a chance to talk to her again. I watched my dad say his goodbye first – kneeling next to her low bed (we think it’s so low because she has a special lift) and whisper to his mom – the woman who raised him. And before you knew it, I was crying. Because that’s not the way it should be. It’s not the way I want it to be. It’s not the way I remember it. I took my turn and said goodbye. I leaned down and hugged her frail frame and could barely bear to look into her hollow, glossed over eyes. I told my grandma that I loved her. And in her confused and cluttered state, she said she loved me, too. I don’t know if she realizes what it means any more. I don’t know if she realizes that she’s saying it any more. But she did. And it’s a reminder of her former solid mind and old self. A reminder of her love for me. For all of us.
We drove off. Five hours back home. Again I opened up O’Connor only to fall asleep before we hit the south side of the town. I woke in the same small town I had woken in on the trip up. I ate McDonald’s once again, one burger instead of two. And I stayed awake for the rest of the ride home. It was the same trip, but I was not the same me that had gone Up North. Every trip up changes me. Just a little bit.
My most recent trip Up North taught me that when I think about it, I am most thankful for the times I did have with grandparents and family. The growing up years when everything was exciting and squeal worthy. When cousins were playmates and kitchens were really crowded. We’re not going there for Christmas this year. We bundled Thanksgiving with Christmas. And that’s hard to handle sometimes. Like right now. It’s hard to think about. To think that no one will gather at my grandparent’s or grandma’s house for Christmas. Cookie trays and apple cider won’t greet us at the door. Cousins won’t pile in. Our sneakers, boots, and Doc Marten’s won’t cover the entry way floor. Christmas trees won’t sit in their living rooms. Laughter won’t float through their homes into every crevice of every room. Stories won’t be swapped and games won’t be played. But I’m still thankful. For the memories. For the times, special, that I had with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins in my grandparent’s houses. At Thanksgiving and always.
That’s what I was, am, thankful for. At Thanksgiving and after.
I ask. You answer.
- What were, are, you thankful for this past Thanksgiving and always?
- Do you roll Thanksgiving and Christmas into one holiday?
- What’s your experience with grandparent’s?