By Michael Price
John was my boss and he was very boss-like about it, significantly more managerial than I had ever known him to be.
“Leave the bar,” he said softly but firmly–and in extreme contrast with the din of the night’s shenanigans–looking me straight in the eye, not a smile on his face, which was decidedly unusual.
I thought he was kidding.
“That man over there says he’s your uncle,” he said, pointing. “You need to go talk to him. I’ll watch the bar for you.”
I hardly remembered my uncle Bob, it had been so long. But that was him, most assuredly, standing at the far corner of the bar, behind another guy and his lady friend sitting in front of him, waving timidly. He looked old from that distance, still a head taller than most people, but older than it seemed like he should have looked.
John is a great guy, I’ve always liked him. And, being Saturday night, dinner hour, he knew what he was stepping into; the bar was three deep everywhere. John had tended bar—we all knew that—and was probably very good in his day. But that had been many years prior, several thousand margaritas past, and he had to know he was about to get slammed, and real bad.
It was a very busy night.
Uncle Bob was…I had very little recollection, really. He was a relative, a very tall relative; I remembered that. An army doctor somewhere, I thought. Used to move around a lot; I vaguely remembered that, too. Who I hadn’t seen for twenty, twenty-five years.
And he had my grandmother in the passenger seat of his car.
“She wants to say goodbye to you,” Bob said calmly, softly cupping my shoulder in his bony-fingered hand, leading me out the door, past the waiting list of wanna-be diners, and out into the parking lot.
It was about ten-below, and I was dressed in the my work uniform–black high-tops, cut-off jeans shorts and the company logoed mid-sleeve T-shirt, twice rolled up at the sleeves–but I don’t recall being the least bit cold.
Bob was my grandmother’s son, my mother’s brother. I may not have remembered him much, but I certainly remembered his mother.
I loved my grandmother, the most spiritual person I have ever known. And I’m not even sure what that means.
“I’m taking her back to Colorado with me,” Bob said. “It’s where she wants to be.”
I knew what that meant.
“Here, you get in front.” He unlocked and opened the driver’s side door for me.
The car was parked in the back row of the parking lot–engine running, heated defrost hard at work–facing the restaurant, just to the left-front of the main entrance. There wasn’t another available spot in sight.
Like I said, it was packed.
I remember bumping my head getting into the car, but I didn’t feel that much, either. I sat down and turned to her.
“Oh, honey,” she said to me.
The high, overhead parking lot light beamed down through the front windshield, directly onto my grandmother’s face, ineffective, for the most part, in concealment of the deeply drawn features that had crept over her face since the previous time our paths had crossed. She had always had gray hair, ever since I could remember, but that night the bright light from above shone down on a head of almost unbearably phosphorescent white curls, tightly spun and immaculately brushed, as if Bob had just picked her up from the “beauty parlor,” as she still called it. Her heartrendingly weary and doleful eyes looked happy to see me, somehow, contented, at the very least—we both felt it, a stronger connection I had and have never sensed—eyes that were smiling somberly through moistness, and her body was shivering from only, I hope in recollection, the cold.
“Hi, Grandma.” Then, with a deeply lodged lump in my throat and desperately at a loss for words, “How are you?”
“Oh…” She looked far off, past me and out the window, her head tilted skyward, as if she were searching for a divine answer. “…fine, I guess.”
She gently shut her eyes, deep in reverence, it seemed to me. I assessed her appearance; I all but stared right at her, it was difficult not to.
Much too much white facial powder and blue around the eyes; that was my initial impression. A character straight out of Ghost Story.
Except, excluding a little carefully applied red lipstick on Sunday mornings, my grandmother had never worn make-up in her life. Of that, I was all but certain.
I wavered but held on. “Good. That’s good. It’s good to see you,” I blathered.
I didn’t know what to say. Five minutes earlier, from behind the bar, you couldn’t have shut me up. And glib stuff, too, not that conversationally appropriate drivel you get from a lot of bartenders.
“It’s been a long time,” I trifled.
“Oh…” I was so sure she was scrolling the highlights of her life across the top of her memory. “…yeah,” she finally answered, smiling wistfully at me.
We—my parents, older sister, and I–enjoyed several Christmases with my grandmother in North Dakota when I was a creature. Those early memories are few but precious: the wondrous aromas emanating from grandma’s kitchen–krumkake, pfeffernuesse, and other family holiday delicacies–while watching football on TV with my father and, before he died, my grandfather; playing Go Fish with my older sister and, sometimes, when she wasn’t cooking, baking, or vacuuming, my grandmother; listening to George Beverly Shea sing his Christmas tidings and other generic praises from the big brown stereo console I wasn’t allowed to touch; playing with the across-the-alley neighbor kid’s basset-beagle puppy, Samuel (not Sam, I remember that distinctly; I forget the kid’s name), an animal that stepped on his drooping ears about every third step, which I thought was the funniest thing at the time; and assisting my grandmother with the Sunday crossword puzzle–in ink, no less. Although I’m quite certain I knew very few answers, if any, she always had a way of making it seem like I was “a big helper” to her. Sometimes she even let me help out in the kitchen—I was “a good little stirrer”–to my father’s mild dismay.
“How are you doing, honey?”
Incidentally, she and my mother are the only two people that have ever called me that. I don’t know why that seems important, but it does.
Insipidly, “I’m fine, grandma. Really.”
If my life ever reaches the stage where the end is nigh and I know it, when I’m cognizant of the fact that I don’t have long to live and am fortunate enough to be able to articulate a final goodbye to my family and best of friends, it is my sincerest of wishes that I am able to look at my loved ones the way she looked at me at that moment, that night. I have never felt so treasured, so cherished, in my life.
Who am I kidding? I’ll never come close.
In my dictionary, the word spiritual has five definitions, at least three of which can be directly or indirectly associated with religion. Certainly, being the loving and devoutly supportive wife of a Lutheran minister, with whom she ardently and faithfully helped serve multiple parishes sprinkled throughout both Dakotas for over forty years, my grandmother was most certainly the very model of a spiritually religious being.
But it wasn’t just that. In her presence, spirituality was more than that. Continue Reading…