My first memory of you is when you brought me my first bike. I remember standing in the doorway watching you lug a huge box up the stairs, saying you had something for me. I watched you assemble the red poles and black tires and followed you back down the stairs as you carried it to the sidewalk, with its plastic white frills swaying from the handlebars. You held the bike steady for me to get on, then held the seat as I learned to balance myself. That little red bike with training wheels gave me so much joy. Just thinking about it still brings a smile to my heart. You saw my parents struggling to make ends meet, and you stepped in.
You and Grandma took me to church, where I learned prayers and songs that would get me through some of the toughest times of my life. For this I am forever grateful.
As a young woman, I loved playing dominoes with you and Grandma. You made the lemonade, and Grandma stirred up popcorn. I remember Grandma getting up from the table after a few rounds of dominoes, rolling her eyes and complaining, “You two take all the fun out of the game.” But you and I played on for hours until neither of us could stay awake. You taught me to be competitive, to play hard, win or lose graciously and play again. I watched you calculate what was in your hands, what was on the board, and try to bluff your way to a win. I noticed that even when you had to draw so many dominoes it seemed certain you would lose, you used what you had to set the board in your favor and win. I learned about winning in those games, and I learned about life: find the advantages in any situation.
I will always remember the time I lost my job and needed to move home. It still baffles me how just you and I got my sofa off the dolly and onto the roof of your station wagon. I don’t remember how we got it up there, but I remember that we got it up there. You showed me that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I learned great life lessons working on warm mornings in Washington, D.C., with you and Grandma in your gardens, too. Pull the weeds or they will choke the life out of the veggies you’re trying to grow (and sometimes in life you have to weed out friends and habits). Tend to your garden daily and in due season you will get a harvest (and it’s the same with any pursuit in life). Know that some seeds planted and watered will not sprout. And it’s the same in life. Anticipate some disappointment because there are factors and circumstances beyond our control.
Helping you take care of Grandma and keep your promise to keep her home taught me the most. I fought for you, with you, and sometimes had to actually fight you. That was rough! Getting you to church in time for breakfast on Sundays and taking you to doctor appointments, grocery shopping and running other errands was time-consuming, but easy. But it was hard negotiating Grandma’s care and navigating your emotions as you battled to hold onto any sense of strength and power you could as you lost significant measures of your independence — your driver’s license, control in your household. Yelling at you about your yelling at Grandma felt c-razay! But we got through it.
Remember that time you got mad because I wouldn’t go into your aide’s room to search for stolen goods because you suspected she was a thief? Mousy me was in there banging on your table, yelling at you with a fierceness I didn’t know I had. I felt bad about it until I called you to apologize, and you said my cussing and fussing didn’t bother you none. You said, “That kinda stuff don’t make no difference between me and you. You ’sposed to speak up for yourself.” I am forever encouraged to speak up for myself … and others.
Our role reversal was a test for us both. I used to think honoring my parents (Exodus 20:12) meant me doing whatever you want me to, when you want, just because you want. But being in the trenches with you through Grandma’s war with Alzheimer’s made me smarter. You had respected me for the decisions I’d made to go to school and pursue a career. But as you got weary and physically weak, you had to trust me to make decisions for you and Grandma — and you did.
When Grandma died two years ago, I thought it would be the end of you, but you found other reasons to live, and I am sure I’m one of them. Granddad, you taught me the many phases of love — delightful, playful, supportive, sacrificing, enduring — and for that I thank you.
Watching you, at 99, embrace life again with out-loud laughter and plenty of jokes proves it ain’t over till it’s over. Being back at the table slamming dominoes with you and talking smack feels like the good old days.
I didn’t get a 76-year marriage like you did. But you, and many others in our family, have already loved me a lifetime. I just want you to know that I thank God for you. It is a rare blessing to still have you in my life in my 50s. You are a wonderful gift.
A Letter to Granddad
As he approaches his 100th birthday, I want him to know that whatever gift I give him will never compare to the many gifts he has given me.