Stilts, tracker rides, hay forts.
The Lizzard of Oz.
Coconut cake, cheese toast, cranberry sauce.
“A horse bit off my finger.”
Peacocks, armadillos, kittens.
Being together for every Thanksgiving meal of my entire life. Until now.
“NICHOLAS, I DON’T LIKE HOW YOU ARE TREATING ME!” Its an early memory, I was probably five or six, but I remember clearly it was the loudest anyone had ever spoken to me. I started crying.
“Grandma,” I sobbed, “why did you yell at me?”
“Because you yelled at me first and I didn’t like how it made me feel either.” She was right, in the bold defiance only a spoiled 5 year old can muster, I had slammed the refrigerator door in her face.
She paused and then cooed, “let’s make a deal…you don’t yell at me and I won’t yell at you, ok?” It seemed reasonable and I agreed, we’d never raise our voice to each other ever again. A few days later, before my parents arrived to collect me she leaned in and whispered, “this can be our secret.”
And that’s how I learned how to treat people. I won’t yell at you, and you won’t yell at me. I hope I’ve lived up to the promise she and I made.
When we need them most, memories have a way of retreating to their caves, cowering in fear of being exposed to light and disappearing in spontaneous combustion. Our brains are cruel that way.
Right now, I want more than anything to remember everything. I want to remember every single memory of every visit and every conversation with my Grandma Grace. But there are themes, very clear brush strokes making up one of the most amazing women I’ve ever known.
What follows is an attempt to capture what comes to mind on this somber evening.
She always had a project.
My Grandma Grace was a maker before being a maker was a thing. Every problem life presents was a challenge, a puzzle, to be solved. The farmhouse was always a playground of sorts. You never knew what kinds of projects she had cooking and how you might get roped in.
When the farm moved to its current location, Grandma Grace wanted to line the driveway with maple saplings, mimicking the dogwoods of Dogwood Lane Farm where my father grew up. The problem is that saplings require water. During my visit that summer, we drilled holes in the bottom of several five gallon buckets and placed the buckets near the trunk of each sapling. Every few days, we picked up a big container of water with her John Deer tractor. I’d sit in the tractor’s bucket and fill the pales with water, allowing it to slowly trickle out of the holes and into the soil.
The maples of Windchase Farm
As she got older and the aging process began to present its own challenges, Grandma Grace turned her making skills towards hacking her own life. She built ramps around the house. She made improvised grabbing tools and wrapped kitchen implements in duct tape and rubber bands to improve her grip.
She also designed and built ways to keep us occupied. As young kids, my cousins and I would visit the farm for weeks at a time. One summer, she introduced us to stilts. She had made them from 2x2 posts, some wood scraps for platforms and lag bolts. We spent our time that summer trying to master walking on stilts. She kept joking once we were good enough, she would make us wash the windows. There’s a chance it was not a joke.
I’m convinced most of life’s problems can be solved with things you can buy at Nichols Hardware Store. At least, Grandma Grace could have solved them that way. For Grandma Grace, no problem was insurmountable.
There’s no such word as can’t.
It was a favorite expression, usually offered as a retort.
“Grandma, there’s no way someone can balance on the top rail of that fence. I can’t do that!”
“There’s no such word as can’t.”
At the end of World War II, two young Russian girls arrived on her doorstep late one evening. They had a note from her husband, my grandfather who had been helping place refugees from concentration camps, asking her to care for them. She had two young boys of her own she was caring for alone while he was in Germany. “There’s no such word as can’t.”
Just before my dad underwent a Whipple procedure for his cancer diagnosis, she told us, “there’s no such word as can’t.” I sent friends and family email updates and closed each note with her favorite phrase. A family friend sent us a package of tee shirts she had made with the line printed across the back.
Last week, I ran a marathon. On the morning of the race, I awoke thinking of Grandma Grace; we knew she was growing tired. I clipped the back out of the tee shirt —which reminded me of the day I s my pilots license which has a similar tradition —and pinned the phrase to the back of my race jersey. “There’s no such word as can’t.”
There are stories. So many stories. Never in the history of people has one person had so many myths, legends and tails associated with them. And they are all —ok, almost all —about caring for or giving to others.
In my personal beliefs, heaven and hell aren’t places; there isn’t a fluffy cloud city or fiery burning depts. Rather, its how we are spoken of and remembered. I take comfort knowing my grandmother, our Grandma Grace, will live forever, always being spoken of fondly and loveingly as someone who touched the lives of so many.
For now, as those of us left behind struggle to go on in a world without hour hero.
“There’s no such word as can’t.”
Grandma Grace and her children - 2006
The Dawsons, Windchase Farm - 2006
Charms, representing her grandchildren and great grandchildren
On her 90th birthday - 2010
Having lunch with me - 2008
Visiting Ashlawn, a childhood home - 2007
Thanksgiving - 2008