These are my grandparents, and without question, they are the best people I have ever known. They did more to influence my worldview and my behavior than I ever could have realized while they were alive. And as of this month, both of them are gone.
This is Miriam. If you took a class from me in the past seven years, you heard stories about Miriam. You probably heard me do my imitation of her voice–or tell the story of the time I accidentally did my imitation of her TO her at my grandfather’s funeral reception. Fortunately for me, she was taking a very strong prescription cough syrup at the time, and I don’t think she noticed. But the rest of the family did, and now it lives on in family legend as one of Those Times.
We don’t take ourselves too seriously, it would seem.
Miriam and Arthur were married for over 60 years. They loved each other in the way only people who have been married for the majority of their lives can possibly love one another: deeply, unconditionally, and with selective hearing. Neither of them went to college, or held elected office, or made the record books. They lived quiet lives of goodness, went to church, helped their friends and the poor, did good deeds. They were completely wholesome and All-American, but never won a single award. Well, unless you count the blue ribbons Arthur collected later in life for his duck decoys that he carved and painted in the detached garage–but he would tell you he “almost felt bad taking them.” Except: not really.
My grandfather built houses and loved to fish. We would visit them every summer in South Florida, and Pop Pop would take us out on the boat he built (yes, the boat he BUILT), to see the islands off the coast and find coconuts with monkey faces on them. Arthur loved children, and told the best stories about Drifter, the tiny dog who lived on the pier and had his own tiny boat and his own tiny jacket and his own tiny house. He taught us to fish, and every lesson was about simple techniques and patient waiting. And when we were tired of it, we were always free jump in the water. We never had to love what he loved–he loved us, and he loved fishing enough for the whole boat, so if we didn’t want to, we didn’t have to. There was always snorkling or SCUBA (although I was never old enough to dive with my grandfather, a sadness I think of every time I am near the ocean), and plenty of tiny islands and keys to explore.
My grandfather joined the Navy during WWII. He was 17 and lied about his age in order to enlist. He drove landing boats in the Pacific theater, and at his 80th birthday party, told stories none of us had ever heard before about the things he saw there–stories of drinking beers and meeting women, while the fleet sailed off and left them behind, and of his scramble to invent “engine trouble” to explain their delay in joining the other vessels as they set out to sea–he hadn’t heard the radio call telling him it was time to sail, and looked up from his beer to see the stern ends of ships heading out to the open ocean, without him. And he told of friends mortared and limbs lost in front of his eyes, all while getting sailors to shore. I saw him cry that day. The only time I’ve ever seen him shed a tear. He came home after the war and took his rifle and his fishing pole into the Virginia woods for months, alone, to hunt and to return to center. He didn’t speak of the war for 60 years.
Miriam, unlike my grandfather, who chose the Navy because he would just as soon be on a boat as draw breath, didn’t love the water. She liked the beach, but she wasn’t a boat lover. She didn’t love to fish the way Pop Pop did. But she loved Pop Pop. A lot. So when he went out on the boat, she would go down to the beach, search for shells, find sand dollars and starfish in the shallows, and wait for him. Sometimes she’d go out on the boat, of course, because you can’t always stay on the beach–but that was the exception, and it was usually with their friends:
Nearly every fish I have ever caught was with my grandfather. And my grandmother cooked every single one for us to eat.
I knew from super young that it’s not always that you like the same things as the people you love, it’s that you give them room to like the things THEY like, and you like them even if the things they like aren’t things that interest you. Every afternoon, Miriam liked to watch her soaps–Pop Pop couldn’t bear them. She would take her needlepoint or her cross stitch into the TV room and that was the next two hours for her. As they got older and he was home more during the day, he would retreat to his garage workshop to carve duck decoys, and she would watch her shows. They would meet back up in the late afternoon and have supper and watch the sun go down. They weren’t touchy or openly lovey with one another, but their constant and unconditional devotion rubbed off.
My grandfather moved my mom and her sister and my grandmother down in the late 50s, when building was booming there, and built them a house. And later, another house–the same one where I spent summers with my sister nearly every year until we were in high school, when my grandparents moved back to Maryland to be nearer to their own siblings. It had a screened-in back porch (a Florida room, for those of you in the know, the kind with crank windows from floor to ceiling and an aluminum-frame back door that goes BAM! when you go outside) and the lushest St. Augustine grass lawn, complete with banana trees and hummingbird feeders. It was, truly, paradise.
From the time they moved to Florida, Miriam had her tennis ladies, and would play at the courts every week. The great thing about Arthur was that he loved kids and really enjoyed spending time with us; the great thing about Miriam was that she had her own plans and agenda, but you were always welcome to join her. My sister and I had our very own tiny rackets and Miriam would give us a set of tennis balls, and we would hit balls against the practice wall while she had her match. She played well into her 60s. That’s her, looking smoking hot at 57 years old in the blue top and tennis skirt.
Their house was always Just So, with Miriam’s Tervis cups with tennis rackets on the side set out by the kitchen sink, and no games or TV on Sundays–not even cards. But there was never a sense of being stifled there, there was never the sense of loss of movement. There was also never the sense of crazy wildness or permissive chaos. My grandparents had very specific expectations of our behavior when we visited, but within those boundaries we had total freedom. It’s liberating for a child to know that if they keep just a few simple rules, anything else is available to them. Even a Dunkin Donuts Munchkin–at least, if it’s Saturday.
When they were older, we would visit them in Maryland and head over to the boardwalk, for Dolle’s Salt Water Taffy and Thrasher’s fries–done properly, with vinegar that drips all the way to the bottom of that paper cup. Grandmom liked the caramel corn from Dolle’s, too, a reminder of their early years living in Delaware. Big tubs of it to take home. My grandparents were never wealthy, but they always had money set aside; they were frugal, but not skin-flinty. And there were always smiles and always hugs and always adventures and outings. There was always enough but never too much.
For their 60th wedding anniversary, my mother took them on a trip to New Orleans to celebrate. It was the last major trip they took together, but their photos look like nearly every other photo they took their entire marriage: his arm around her, smiles on both their faces. They weren’t sleeping in the same room by then–Arthur’s snoring was bad enough, but Miriam was up and down all night heading to the toilet (“Well, Debbie, I just can’t make it longer than a couple hours!”). They slept in separate rooms, and shared breakfast every morning. And they both got a better night’s sleep.
Pop Pop died six years ago, and is interred at the Naval cemetery near their home. Grandmom has gone to join him there, in the space they had saved for her. I like that they’re together. I know she missed him. I know because when I flew up and visited her in her senior facility about two years ago, when she was already suffering from dementia, she was really irritated with him. She said, “You know, I don’t even know where he is! He must be out on a job. I mean, Debbie, he should just live his life and I should live mine. For crying in a bucket!” (That phrase, “for crying in a bucket,” has no actual meaning as far as I know, but it was a recurring motif in my childhood, along with “tough toenails.” I also learned from Miriam that “a couple” is two and “a few” is three, in case you were wondering on the exact numeration of either of those two terms.)
I thought to myself, “Do I tell her that Pop Pop isn’t out on a job? Do I mention that he’s dead? You know what, I’m going to let this one slide.” All this as we drive to the Denny’s for lunch and she keeps remarking “this looks so familiar! I feel as though I’ve been here before!” Yep, Miriam. That would be because it’s (1) across the street from where you live and (2) it’s a Denny’s.
I think this could be a sad story, maybe, but it strikes me as really charming and sweet. After four years, she still loved and missed him so much that she was genuinely annoyed that she didn’t know where he was. I suspect they’re together again now, and he’s saying, “I can’t hear you, hon, you know that.” All is well where they are.
This summer, my sisters and my mother and my cousins and I, along with our spouses and children, will all head up to Delaware, where my grandfather and my mother were born, to spend a week. Miriam’s estate is covering the cost of renting a beach house in their tiny town so that we can all be there together. We’ll hit the beach, and the boardwalk. We’ll eat salt water taffy and Thrasher’s fries. We’ll take the ferry and walk to get ice cream in town. We’ll do all the things that remind us all of Grandmom and Pop Pop.
It’s the town where my mother came home from the hospital, to a house that my grandfather built–one of a whole host of homes he built there. It’s the town where Miriam and Arthur began their life together, and where both their daughters were born. It’s the place where my grandfather fell in love with the ocean, and my grandmother fell in love with him. Story I heard was that he had a friend who had a girl, and the girl had a friend. So his friend invites Arthur to double date with them, and Arthur isn’t sure. They head over to the girlfriend’s house in the friend’s car, and Arthur sits in the front seat and spots the girl’s friend through the screened-in porch, just a glimpse. He thinks, “Hey, she doesn’t look half bad!” and decides to go through with the date. The girlfriend’s friend, of course, was Miriam. I heard the whole thing straight from Arthur’s mouth, 65 years after it happened, and you’d have thought it was yesterday. He remembered every detail of the first moment he laid eyes on her, and it was fresh and sweet as the day it happened.
This photo was taken on the porch of the house my grandfather built, where my mother lived until she was 10 and they moved to Florida. It was actually two photos–one of my mother and her sister and my grandfather, and another with my grandmother and the girls. They’d taken turns holding the camera, and there wasn’t a photo with all four of them in the same shot. Years ago, when I was in graduate school and had that kind of discretionary time, I use a tragically rudimentary knowledge of Photoshop to join the two images into one, and printed copies to frame for my mother, my sisters, and me. This summer, I’ll take my children to this house and tell them that their great-grandfather built it, that their grandmother lived there, that I’ve been to visit it before, and now they get to have their photo taken with this very house in the background. Four generations, in an unbroken chain.
We’ll sit on the beach, we’ll take the ferry, we’ll eat ice cream. And we will tell stories. And we will all remember why and how these two people–who weren’t educated or politicians or powerful individuals–changed our lives and our family tree, by loving one another and by showing, quietly and consistently and prayerfully and patiently, what it means to love.