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.
“Honey,” she said, visibly thinking, “do you remember when your grandpa died? You were pretty little…”
“Yes!” I exclaimed much louder than was necessary, impulsively lunging erect in my seat, gratefully energized by an engaging line of conversation–finally–to share with my grandmother. Out of respect for aged ears and tight quarters, and to ensure my grandmother wouldn’t get “cross” with me (she never got angry, and she rarely got cross—her term, always), I toned down my excitement a few decibels.
“Yes grandma, I remember.”
As an undergraduate, some eighteen years prior, I had taken a beginning creative writing course offered through the English department. The first assignment was to create a short story based on our earliest memory. Traveling to my grandfather’s funeral by car, and that I developed a case of the mumps at some point during the long ride to Valley City and was never actually able to attend the funeral in person, was the first thing I could remember in life. I was five.
“Actually,” I continued, “I wrote a story about that time. It’s not very long. I wish you could read it.”
Bob had been sitting quietly in the back seat. “Why don’t you send it to me?” he suggested, leaning forward.
That’s what happened. Bob reached into his wallet and pulled out an old photograph of my mother, him, younger brother Ron, and their parents (circa 1950, give or take a few years), wrote his address and phone number on the back, and the minute I got home from work the next morning, one-thirtyish, I put a slightly used fourteen page copy of short story in a large manila envelope and prepped it for Monday morning’s mail.
“I hope you like it, grandma.” I really wanted her to like it.
The story is called Here and There. In it, being so young at the time, I had little understanding of concepts such as death and funerals. What I knew for certain–aside from the fact that I felt so terrible–was that I hated being swept past a living room full of my favorite relatives the minute we reached my grandparents’ home, in tears, into the back bedroom, lights out, “close your eyes, try to get some sleep,” etcetera. In the story, I recount hearing my loved ones in the other room, talking, sometimes laughing, that I so much wanted to be with them, and that I felt so very alone. I detail—unable to sleep for a long while, even in the black of night, both inside and outside—how I tried to count, without unduly disturbing, the tiny white specks of whatever was riding the full-moonbeam, gloriously enhanced by the clear starlit night, slicing through the window at my side.
“Thank you, honey. I know I will.”
Here and There. It was perhaps part of a peaceful and wonderful dream—I don’t recall, specifically–that led me to the conclusion, however juvenile, that no matter where “here” and “there” are in your life, it’s okay. That we’re all together—in different sites or stages of life, certainly; some folks healthy, some not; living or dead; here, there, wherever—but ultimately one big brotherhood of man, to borrow a phrase.
Therefore, if I may, the author’s moral of the story: It would be okay to die, not an unhappy, depressing event at all. Certainly nothing to become dispirited about, simply a matter of different forms and different places. I recall it being a very pleasant vision, a quite satisfying feeling, but, at the time, undoubtedly, never knew why at such a young age.
The first person I saw when I opened my eyes the next morning, as the story goes, was my grandmother, standing over my bed, hand on my forehead, smiling sadly.
“Oh, honey,” was what she said.
The side and back windows of the car were well fogged over but the front defrost had adequately worked its magic, with two clear portholes of vision rendered available in front of us–one for her and one for me. We had been together for scarcely ten minutes but it seemed much longer, much greater, our mutually adoring eyes handling much of the communication, in a language I didn’t even know I knew. I felt sadly contented, bitterly grateful, entirely unaware of latent tears finally succumbing to gravity. I saw those same tears well up in my grandmother’s eyes but she turned and faced front at exactly the right time, gazing reverently, up through the fogless opening on her side of the front windshield, and I never saw them leave her eyes.
“I don’t mean to be a drag but shouldn’t you be getting back to work?” Bob.
I don’t remember hugging her in the car that night but I know I did. I do remember looking into her eyes one last time before exiting the car, with heartfelt yet ambivalent emotion, then walking two very brisk laps around the restaurant in the freezing cold, crying silently, before going back to work.
“It’s none of my business,” said John, tip-toeing his words, alone in the office with me after work, while I counted my till, “but…how’d it go?”
“Oh…” I stopped counting and looked up, deliberately, past him, into the lone, Venetian blinded, window in the room. “…fine, I guess.”
“That’s good,” he said, because he didn’t know what else to say.
My grandmother died twelve days later, in Colorado, exactly where she wanted to be.
A week after the funeral, which, to my great dismay, I was unable to attend, I received a letter from my uncle Bob. In it, he explained how the mail had made a mistake with my package, that it had gotten lost or somehow otherwise held up, and that it arrived too late for my grandmother to read it, that her condition had deteriorated so very gravely the week prior and she was unable to see nor speak more than a few intelligible words those last few days. So, with several close relatives at her bedside, Bob read Here and There to her in its entirety.
On a hunch, I looked up the word mystical in my dictionary. In its definition, the vitally important word is spiritual. I figured as much.
I like it, but it’s still not enough.
Evidently, when Bob finished reading, my grandmother indicated that “…she understood…,” smiled, sighed, and a few hours later, she died.
It was as if she hung on, outlasted even the U.S. Mail, waited for official permission to peacefully pass away in a final state of contentment.
She was the most spiritual person I have ever known, beyond any book definition of the word, as it turns out. So for me, in the eternal quest for an all encompassing definition of the word spiritual, one that satisfies all my innate and acquired sensibilities, I’m not quite there yet.
But I think I’m getting warm.