Sunday, July 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Grandma!

Since my Mom and Dad divorced when I was three-years old, I don’t have any tangible memories what it was like to grow up in a stable, two-parent household. Heck, had my parents stayed together, it’s possible the home would not have been all that stable anyhow. But that’s an aside.

Grandma at my Mom and Dad's wedding (Oct. 1964)

Grandma and me (July 1970)

With my Mom being a single parent (as well as the sole breadwinner in the family, supplemented by scant child support payments sent sporadically), times were pretty tight when my brother and I were kids. Week-long vacations were a non-entity in our family as a result. However, we always looked forward to that one weekend per month when we would travel thirty miles east to see my maternal Grandmother, who was living in River Falls, WI. To this day, I can still smell the homemade meal Grandma had cooking the minute we walked into the front door of her home. I can also imagine the Archway molasses cookies she had waiting in that same drawer in the kitchen as well as Tab cola in the fridge.

Given my Mom worked long hours during the week, she looked at this one weekend per month as an opportunity to not only visit her mother but also meet up with old high school friends for an evening out while someone she trusts watched her children. Meanwhile, my brother and I would keep ourselves occupied by racing matchbox cars in the basement, going with neighborhood families to a movie at the Falls Theater or playing catch in the back alley.

As a pre-teen, all I wanted was someone with whom I could carry on a conversation and they would listen to every word. To this day, I can recall a significant number of times where I would just start talking to Grandma about random events in my life, whether it had to do with friends, extracurricular activities, matchbox cars, comic books, etc. Inevitably, I would start spouting the random monologues while Grandma was in the middle of a book (she was an avid reader). To this day, I’ll always remember how she immediately placed her finger at the point of the book she was on when I began babbling. She would then look me directly in the eye, hanging on every word I was saying (despite the topics being things in which she had little to no interest). Although I was much too young to appreciate the gesture, I have since realized she was telling me that anything her grandchildren had to say was far more important than the book she was reading.

When it was time to leave Grandma’s house on Sunday afternoon, we would extend the goodbye as long as possible. My brother and I would literally be waving to Grandma for however long it took to back out of the driveway, put the car in drive and then drive up the street. And the whole time she’d be waving from the front porch until we were out of sight.

When it came time to choose a college, I selected the university right in Grandma’s neighborhood: UW-River Falls. From the Fall of 1987 thru the Spring of 1992, I got to see Grandma on a regular basis, like when I had a 1 or 2 hour break between courses, or if I needed a place to crash after a long day of classes and a late night of studying in the library. But as always, Grandma’s most important role was giving me that unconditional love and support. While I was overwhelmed at times with the workload that came with being a full-time college student, I could always count on a word of encouragement from Grandma.

Celebrating my college graduation with Grandma and my bro Eric (May 1992)

In the mid-1950s, after having worked in the corporate world for a number of years, Grandma and Grandpa decided to open their own supper club near Prescott, WI. “The Virginian” became a well-known establishment in that region for many years to come. Despite my Grandpa passing away in 1960, Grandma continued her tireless efforts to run the restaurant until selling it in the early 1970s. Nevertheless, The Virginian remained a big part of our lives as Grandma, Mom, my brother and I would visit there three times per year (typically Easter, Mother’s Day and Grandma’s birthday). Inevitably, there would be someone either dining or working there who would recognize Grandma. Within minutes, several people would stop by our table to say hello to the woman for whom the supper club was named. And the people stopping by either knew Grandma personally from her days owning the restaurant or had a relative who worked for her. Others just wanted to acknowledge what The Virginian meant to them. I was proud of the fact the Grandma was a bona fide celeb in that region!

In late 1998, at the age of 87, Grandma had deteriorated physically to the point where she needed constant care. Thankfully there was a nursing home right in River Falls (The Lutheran Home) where she would reside. It was also serendipitous that some of her friends were already living there. With myself, my brother and Mom all living within an hour of RF, we were able to visit Grandma on a regular basis. The visits were always very pleasant in that even though she had a hard time getting around physically, she was still sharp as a tack mentally.

Grandma with Jen & I on our wedding day (July 2000)

Wedding reception

But I believe Grandma really began to wind down her life on July 24, 2001, the day she turned 90-years old. We had a party for her and it was announced all throughout the region that there would be a big celebration in her honor at The Lutheran Home. Sadly, many of her close friends (as well as her husband and one of her three daughters) had passed on before her. The fact there was such a minuscule turnout on this day really resonated with Grandma that life had, for the most part, passed her by.

Within two-and-a-half years of her 90th birthday, Grandma one day called my Aunt Susan in Colorado expressing how incredibly bored she had become with her life. In so many words, she was ready to move on to the final chapter.

Sure enough, on February 16, 2004 (about a month after that call to my Aunt), my dear Grandmother Virginia G. Johnson passed away at the age of 92.

So in honor of Grandma’s 100th birthday today, several of us family members will be traveling to the location where The Virginian used to be (a sports bar has been there for the past 5 years or so). Even though it’s been 7 ½ years since Grandma passed away, rarely does a day go by where I don’t think of her or recount a heart-warming anecdote about my life with her.

I wonder if there’s any chance this sports bar serves Tab or molasses cookies.



Gino said...

awesome tribute, brad. you do Grandma proud.

Brad Carlson said...

Thanks, Gino.

Considering our family situation, Grandma was in many ways the proverbial centerboard as well as being steady as a rock.