Chocolate Gravy and Fussy Love

chocolate gravy and fussy love

“Your sister just called. Something happened to your grandma this morning. They think she had a stroke and she’s on her way to the hospital.” My husband’s brother whispered to me in the lobby outside the sanctuary, after apparently taking a call from someone in my family.

“What?! Are you sure? Do you mean my GrandPA?” I pelted him with questions.

“I’m sure it was Grandma. She’s in good hands though. I’ll tell Steve and get the kids.”

My morning suddenly went from the rush of getting our little family to church, my kids in their preschool class, my husband in the sound booth and me sitting peacefully immersed in the message, to the tap on my shoulder that changed my life in a way I would not truly understand for years.

My mind was a runaway freight train. Grandma’s life flashed before my eyes in vibrant glimmers of memory—snapshots cascading. As my husband held my hand on the drive to the hospital, knowing that talking would only cause me to melt into an oblivion of tears, a flickering old movie projector was rolling through my mind… Grandma giving sugars all over my daughter’s cheeks… her thinning curly brown hair all a muss in the breeze on the front porch swing. As much as the morning’s announcement had made my blood run cold, I was warmed by these wonderful memories replaying in my mind—of Grandma’s quips and quirks, her struggles, and her traditions—all the things that made her who she was to me. All that I had enjoyed about her for my 28 years. The memory reel in my mind became my prayer, begging God for more time to make more of these sweet memories.

He had to have meant my Grandpa, I kept wondering again of my brother-in-law’s announce. He’d just celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday a few days earlier and most of us had lost count of the heart attacks he’d suffered the last twenty years. But as far as I knew Grandma was in good health in spite of some extra weight. Her Southern cookin’ was incurable. That ceramic crock of solidified bacon grease that always stood guard on her stove was the go-to seasoning for all her Arkansan cuisine.

“Chocolate ‘n Biscuits” was the affectionate nickname we had given her most-favored sweet and savory breakfast meal made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits, creamy chocolate gravy and crispy bacon. It would seem that the enjoyment of this culinary treat was a genetic trait. Those who married into the family almost always preferred sausage gravy for their biscuits, so the requisite amount was provided for these conscientious objectors. The rest of us dove head first into the chocolate and came up fat and sassy!

Another flicker on the projector—my earliest memory of our trips to visit Grandma and Grandpa when they lived in Arkansas was the time that I found my way into the shed where Grandpa kept the bikes he’d gotten to fix up and sell. I found one with a shiny blue and white frame that was probably a little bit bigger than what I needed but I was sure I could handle it, so I jumped on, pedaled to the top of the hill and raced down like the wind! I wasn’t all that familiar with this pure unadulterated joy and freedom, but it was exhilarating! That is until about a hundred yards before the big curve at the end of the road where I discovered why that old bike was still in the shed instead of the end of the driveway with a for-sale sign.

No matter how hard I spun backwards on those pedals or how tightly I squeezed the handlebars that bike had no idea how desperately I wanted to stop. I had to think fast! My seven-year-old mind formulated a split-second plan to gently skid my feet along the street to slow to a stop. I know now that a better option was riding off into a yard to let the soft earth cushion the blow. Then again, I won’t need hindsight. The moment I come crying for consolation, I’ll have a house full of people more than willing to tell me what I shoulda done.

Right then, I didn’t have the luxury of hindsight or a loving adult offering curbside advice. I had only me, a runaway bike and about five seconds to decide how to save my life. My plan might’ve worked except that surging adrenaline caused me to slap, rather than slide, my feet onto the pavement. Several end-to-end flips later, I lay in the street with a huge scrape on my knee—the scar’s still there to remind me—but otherwise, unharmed other than scared out of my wits. I saw that bent-up bike and tears began to pour. Hobbling back to the house, I needed comfort. Although, I don’t recall what happened from this point on, it’s more likely that I was either yelled at by Grandpa for wrecking his bike, or yelled at by my father for not asking permission, or for just being a dumb kid who shoulda known better. Because memory doesn’t often serve me well when it comes to childhood, I get to fill in the blanks the way I like sometimes. I like to imagine Grandma fussing over me to get me bandaged up and quieted down. My clear remembrance of her later tenderness with my kids enables this comforting image.

We drove on, my husband serious about the task of getting us there as quickly as safely possible and tending to the kids along the way. I stayed in my muse reminiscing about how Grandma loved to fuss. At everyone, and everything. She fussed at me and all my cousins for all our rough-housin’ and horseplay. She fussed at the television when Victor and Nikki were once again in trouble on The Young and the Restless. She fussed at herself every Christmas morning when, to her annual amazement, she once again had not prepared enough of her signature meal to feed the entire bunch. I guess most years there were around forty of us, though you never knew much in advance who might decide to show up and who might decide not to come. She’d had years to practice this guessing game as the family grew but she had always just thrown together whatever unmeasured amount she felt like and then fussed when it wasn’t enough. She also fussed when Grandpa had forgotten to get “par-ME-san” cheese for the spaghetti. (I loved how she mispronounced that word. I still call it that for fun sometimes.) She fussed at Grandpa, usually in response to him fussing at her or when he was bringing home more junk, “…as if we don’t have enough already!” She loved to fuss at Pépé, her white mini-poodle, for “always being under foot.” Fussing was the incessant background music of my childhood. Not a tune that I was particularly fond of, but something about Grandma’s fussing felt like love.

We continued our long, quiet drive to the hospital to see what had happened, but my mind was far from quiet. I recalled how I was in high school by the time Grandma and Grandpa moved back to Kansas City. I didn’t miss that winding, nauseating drive to Batesville. I did miss the wonder and excitement of those trips. Now I’d be able to able see them more often but I was older and my head was stuck in my own world by then. High school and the years following flew in a rush of self-focus. I graduated, went to community college, started working full-time and spent all my extra time with my friends and the man I’d loved since I was fourteen and then married at twenty-one. Through those too-busy years, though we lived only ten minutes apart, I don’t remember how often I even saw Grandma and Grandpa.

I do remember, as a newlywed, that it was their habit to show up unannounced on doorsteps. Sometimes these spur-of-the-moment stopovers were to bring some unprompted gift that Grandpa had made or found. He’d make note of random comments one might make and then in his retired boredom and inability to sit still, he’d take to his garage workshop and create something.

Once he’d taken some old landscape timbers that he’d gotten from God-knows-where, cut them down into 4-foot segments, mixed up some paint, hoisted his tools and supplies into the back of his little red two-seater truck and headed over to my house. I wasn’t home but the week before this, they’d been over visiting and it was a nice day so we had the kids out to play in the backyard. As we sat in the swing watching the kids run around, I gasped as Courtney breezed by an old tree stump that I had always been concerned about one of the kids face-planting on. A week or so later, I came home from running errands to find a little sandbox where that worrisome hazard used to be. Grandpa had cut down what was left of the stump, built a simple little 4-foot timber box, painted it bright green on the outside, lined it and filled it with sand. My kids were so excited! Who needs Playskool plastic when you’ve got a Grandpa like mine?

Sometimes he would be on the lookout for a certain something when he was out “trashin,” his hobby of finding various items in the neighborhood trash piles on trash days and fixing those items up to be surprisingly-impressive creations, epitomizing the old adage of one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. He may not even know what he was looking for out on trash runs, but once he laid eyes on it, he could envision a creation and he would toss it in the truck and set his mind and hands to work. Then when it was done, he and Grandma would load it up and show up. Just like with the sandbox, if I wasn’t there when he came to deliver, I’d arrive later to find my treasure waiting… and maybe Grandma and Grandpa with it. That, of course, was the real treasure.

I sure hope their generation is not the last to fix broken things instead of tossing them to the curb, to see value and take pleasure in giving new life to discarded things—and people. Just like that collection of old bikes in Arkansas, he would find what someone else didn’t care to take the time to fix, and he would create a cherished gift for a kid who couldn’t afford more than $10 for a bike. It gave him something useful to do in his retirement and I believe it gave him great pleasure to bless others in this way. Grandpa and Grandma really would do anything for anyone, even if there was some fussing involved.

It seemed like a very long ride to the hospital but I kept the worries about Grandma’s current condition at bay by thinking about so many things… including when I became a mom. I discovered a deeper love in Grandma than I had previously known, and she and I grew closer, when I became a mother too. She and Grandpa became an everyday part of our little family’s lives. I wasn’t “too busy” anymore. As a full-time homemaker I was blessed with time to spend with her and Grandpa. They loved on my baby girl, played pat-a-cake with her and there was almost never a time I would ask Grandma to watch her for me that she didn’t joyfully oblige. And when my son came along late the following year, he began to join us on our frequent visits, sometimes at our house, more often at theirs. Grandma loved to make us all lunch—usually sandwiches, hot dogs or leftovers.

One of my favorite memories was of how we’d sit around on the front porch swing on nice days, just visiting while the kids climbed around on the front patio, playing with whatever old toys Grandpa had summoned up from the grave and restored. Sometimes we’d watch The Young and the Restless together—even Grandpa watched with us. On other days, Grandma would call me when exciting twists happened on the show. She’d sound so serious in her reveling that one time my husband overheard her, he asked with concern, “Who’s Jack?” He thought she was talking about something that happened to a real family member!

Years later, the thought of not being more welcoming of Grandma’s calls would feel a bit like a knife in my gut. That day, as we were nearing the hospital to see what had happened with her, I would have cheered her phone call, unlike the many times I’d rush her off the phone to get back to whatever else I thought was more important at that time. Grandma’s random “just-seein’-what-you’re-doin’” calls would later become among my greatest losses. And because hindsight’s 20/20, only now am I really able to see how precious it was of her to think of me and take the time to pick up the phone and call. She’s the only relative in my life to ever have done that on such a regular basis. And oh, what I’d give to hear that sweet fussy voice on the other end of my line now!

Like any cross-generational kinship, we did find our places of contrast. I was pretty grossed out with how her and Grandpa saved flushes. I guess having lived through the Great Depression, as far as they saw it, if you only went number one there was no need to waste the water to flush. Maybe they had plumbing problems because also would sometimes place the used toilet paper in the trash can. I preferred the toilet. And flushing every time.

After some time I realized we must have grown quite comfortable with one another when one day Grandma waited for Grandpa to disappear into his garage workshop after he fussed at her about something and then she let loose, “I don’t know what his problem is. He’s been so grouchy lately! Dudn’t matter what I do, he’s not interested in havin’ sex no more!”

“OhmygoshGrandma!” I blurted out too quickly to even separate into coherent words. “I love you but I will never be able to erase those images from my mind!”

“Well, I’m sorry… I gotta be able to tell somebody. He sure won’t talk about it!”

“I know, Grandma. I don’t mean anything bad, but maybe you could give your friend Virginia a call? I’d bet she’s probably been through something like this and could help you feel better about it.”

“I guess! She’ll probably just tell me to pray about it.”

My long memory-reel trip to the hospital ended with the news that Grandma was generally unresponsive after what was definitely a stroke while she was in Sunday school that morning. She had to endure a long stay in the ICU, a surgery to remove part of her skull—a life-saving procedure reserved for the largest of strokes, and though she would improve some, it would be very slowly and even more slightly over the next 40 days or so in the hospital after her late December stroke. The life-altering clot had stolen most of her speech. I don’t think I ever heard the depth of love in all her fussing until it was silenced; stolen by the devastating stroke.

After we got all the immediate reports and were just sitting in the waiting room doing just that—waiting… I found myself zoned out again, back in my memory-reel remembering. I thought about how before she became a great grandma to my kiddos, she had been one of thirteen children, she had raised five of her own children and had helped bring up eleven grandchildren—not to mention helping to raise countless nieces and nephews all of whom I can’t even begin to recollect—so I thought she always had answers.

One of my favorite great-grandma moments was when I called asking for diaper rash advice for my baby girl. I had tried all the creams and had been keeping her dry, but it was not improving. I knew nothing then about food allergies. I did know some of Grandma’s ways were a little old school, but I was sure she’d have an idea that I hadn’t thought of. She did not disappoint. I never would have thought to put an old dirty cobweb in her diaper after each change. I never did it either, but I did get a good laugh out of that. Many good laughs over the years. I was also tickled by reminders about itchy noses meaning someone was going to visit me. Growing up with severe hay-fever kept my nose itchy much of the time offering a lot of frustration, the least of which was how few visitors I had. Who would’ve ever known if it were true that itchy ears meant someone was talking about me? Some of her old wives tales were pretty entertaining. I never knew if she believed them or just enjoyed passing them on for fun.

We visited her often and prayed constantly, but she wasn’t progressing as we hoped and Grandpa had finally come to terms with not being able to take care of her at home on his own, no matter how badly he wanted. And after an exhaustive and discouraging search all over town, God put a brand-new nursing home in our path that was beautifully constructed, brightly landscaped outside with clean, modern fixtures and furnishings, and a cheerful, loving staff inside. It was closer to home and more affordable than some of the foul-smelling and fouler-looking homes we’d toured on our search. It was a no-brainer that everyone agreed upon. You have to understand, there are no words to describe how seldom a decision made within my extended family was amicably agreed upon by everyone. Oh, wait. Yes, there is. The word is never. This truly was a gift from God.

It was in that gem of a nursing home that I saw love come alive between my Grandma and Grandpa—a kind of tender love that I don’t think I’d never seen—in them for sure, maybe in anyone. The kind of connection for which my heart had always longed. Does it take fifty years and fifty-thousand problems to develop that kind of connection? I watched in sobering delight as Grandpa fussed over Grandma as the days became weeks and then months. He was there nearly every waking moment, fluffing her pillows, arranging her blankets, getting reports from nurses, feeding her, swabbing her dry mouth with those pink spongey sticks. Once he even plucked a wayward chin hair upon her request. I think he found their empty home insufferable, and knew that his place was by her side, wherever that was. He didn’t know how to live there without his Marie.

During her three-month stay, I would bring my kids—two and three years old at the time—just to hang out like old times, to play games, read the Bible to her—the Psalms were her favorites—watch TV or just visit. We even hosted my daughter’s fourth birthday in the dining hall there because I was determined for Grandma be a part of our lives in every way possible for as long as possible.

Her words didn’t come so easy anymore so when she spoke, we all listened closely. Each time another visitor would come and lean in for “some sugars,” she’d tell them anything important on her mind. When one prodigal relative came to visit, Grandma was ready to clear her conscience.

“I’m sorry for all the bad things I’ve said about you.” She murmured slowly in her new raspy voice.

“Oh, it’s okay. You didn’t say anything bad about me.” Her visitor tried to assure.

“Ohhh… Yes, I did!” Grandma confessed with enthusiasm. Everyone in the room stifled a giggle. Gossip was one of Grandma’s favorite ways to fuss.

Once she had made her peace with everyone, Grandma drifted away quietly one afternoon surrounded by loved ones. It almost seems like poetic injustice that she didn’t go out fussing. She just slipped away quietly and forever changed the lives of anyone who had the pleasure of really knowing her.

Grandma never had any idea how her love affected me. My heart broke in more ways than I even understood in that moment as I watched the parental figure with whom I had enjoyed the most meaningful heart connection slip away from me. Life had taught me pretty early on to care for my own heart and protect it at all costs. I had known no one to be capable of the kind of connection for which my heart yearned. I’m saddened that it took losing her to understand this, but I’m grateful that she opened her heart to me so I could know that kind of love was possible. In this way, she taught me that to know love is to know risk. We cannot fully love someone without opening ourselves up to the worst kind of pain a heart can imagine—letting them go. Her fussy love was the soil in which my own heart began to take root and grow.

Grandma was one of the most faithful, loving and mysterious women I would ever know. Her faith was in Jesus. Her love was deeper than it seemed, and her secret was the depth within her heart. Like every introvert I’ve ever known, myself included, you had to want to know her or you never would. She didn’t force herself on anyone, and she didn’t open up her real self easily. She had to know—through the test of time—that you would be for her and with her, or you would never know the real her.

She didn’t open herself up to everyone, but she did pray for everyone. She prayed for Grandpa’s salvation until the day he finally asked Christ into his wearying heart at the ripe old age of seventy-two. God honored her faithful love and decades-long prayer because she honored her vows “for better or worse” since she had made them at just seventeen years old. She believed her one and only love may be saved one day because of her prayers—and he was. What a lively celebration that quiet little Baptist church had the morning of his baptism.

That height of joy crashed to the depths of grief just a few years later. Saying goodbye to Grandma tore my heart out, but Grandpa proved that he didn’t know how to live without her by running to join her in heaven just four months later, once again showing me what true love really does. I guess it really is possible to die of a broken heart.

The worst part of losing Grandma and Grandpa when my children were so young is that they have no memories of them. I can never give my kids the gift of knowing them. And that breaks my heart. The best thing I can give them is the gift of knowing Grandma’s love. A love that came from God flowing through her to me, and now me to them. I want my children—and everyone I know and love—to learn what I learned from Grandma: Love may be fussy, but truly opening your heart to let it flow in is better than chocolate gravy.

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