Tuesday, February 12, 2013

farewell, gentle man-grandma

The rule is: If you don't come home for Christmas, you don't get a gingerbread man. And trust me, you want a gingerbread man.
Jon's grandparents make them for each kid in the family each year. They're about the size of your palm and the traditional shape, but they're not boring: Grandpa is in charge of decorating. He uses the red-hot candies and frosts the outline of the clothes. Zap one of those bad boys in the microwave and it's like you're chewing on Christmas. There must be a magical ingredient they're keeping secret from the rest of us, because none of the grandkids who've attempted to make these cookies has done them justice.

The last few years, Jon's mom and aunt have been baking the gingerbread men, but Grandpa insists on icing them--this Christmas it took eight hours, but he made sure they were all well-dressed. And we got to enjoy them because we came to California for the holidays. I'm fairly certain that Madelyn somehow got to eat two.

It was my first Christmas with Jon's family. On one hand, I wouldn't be with my own parents for the first time in 34 years, so that was a little sad. But at the same time I was looking forward to it. I grew up hearing great stories about my mom's house with her six siblings laughing and bickering over making sweets and playing cards until four in the morning at Christmastime. And for so long it has been just my parents, brother and I during the holidays while my friends all went off to sit at "kids' tables" and fight with their cousins. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't jealous, especially because I have a big, loving family--it just takes 23 hours on a plane to meet them for dinner. Jon has three sisters, two brothers-in-law and a brand-new, adorable nephew. It was going to be the bustling family Christmas I had always longed to experience.

Before driving down to Jon's sister's house, we visited Grandma and Grandpa. Jon showed them how to use their new laptop to FaceTime with their great-grandson. They looked so sweet with their headphones, watching him wiggle and coo on the screen. There's nothing like a baby to bring joy to anyone's face, but it's extra special to see that kind of smile on a grandparent.

On Christmas Eve, Grandpa had a heart attack and was admitted to ICU. We were able to see him a couple of times before coming back to Chicago. Jon said it was difficult for him to see the man who has always spoken with such authority and strength barely talk above a whisper. But Grandpa was sitting in a regular chair next to his hospital bed and eating hospital chicken; he looked tired but otherwise pretty ok. We held his hand and told him we'd see him the next time we came to visit. 

Three weeks later, we were back in California for his memorial service. 

We left frigid and icy Chicago for 70-degree, sunny California. The front of the church was lined with beautiful arrangements of roses, irises, green plants. And posterboards of photographs. Grandpa had looked so smart in his military uniform back in the day. People milled about outside, talking quietly. Many of the smiles were directed at the great grandson, who showed up wearing a onesie with a tiny striped bow tie.

The service was lovely. There were hymns and a lot of stories about how Grandpa was funny, such a loving father, and how he treated Grandma like a queen, always. And there was an honor guard: I had only seen this on television and it was really moving in real life. They asked everyone to stand and played "Taps." Sweet Grandma, who is wheelchair-bound and very very thin, held herself up on the arms of her chair for the entire song. After the flag was unfolded and re-folded, one Marine held it close to his heart, turned and knelt before Grandma, presenting her with the flag on behalf of our country and president and armed forces. He thanked her for Grandpa's service.

I did a lot of crying and holding Jon's hand and surreptitiously trying to hide my soggy tissues. I hadn't known Grandpa very well; I've probably spent a handful of afternoons with them when we would come to town. But I know my husband, what a caring man he is, and I know he spent a lot of time with these grandparents growing up. When Jon was little, he would call for "Grandma," but when she came he'd have to clarify, "No, I want the man Grandma." Even on the way home from the service, Jon and his sister M talked about countless summer days spent at Grandma and Grandpa's community pool and how nothing tasted better than Fritos and cranberry juice after a long afternoon in the water.

When Jon and I were first getting to know each other, it took me a long, long time to guess what his favorite flavor of muffin was. Bran. Yeah, because Grandma would make them so delicious every Sunday; they'd have them after church. Jon likes to slice his muffins in half lengthwise, butter in the middle, and warm them in the toaster oven. He never makes bran muffins, probably because they just wouldn't be the same.

The memorial was very sad, as expected. But it was hardest to see Grandma, having also just lost her sister/best friend right before Christmas. She has this crazy notion that being in charge of her care the last few years may have kept Grandpa from staying around longer. She said as much when the family was gathered and discussing next steps. She started to cry. Jon looked her right in the eye, and with a strong and authoritative voice said No, that isn't the case, and I know it for a fact. Then he made a bit of a joke and she smiled through the tears. Later he told me that it meant so much to him to be able to be there in person for her, to at least try to reassure her it isn't her fault, and hug her and tell her again that he loves her so so much. I hope she felt his love for her as much as I did.

During the service, the pastor asked for people to stand up and share something about Grandpa. I'm terrible at funerals, but I wanted to get up there and say something about the gingerbread men. I just never got up the nerve. Which is a shame, because everyone loves those cookies. And I have a feeling they're never going to taste quite as good.