Personal, Stories Told

We can learn what love is even from the imperfect people in our lives

My grandparents retired in about 1970 to an acre on a small lake in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa liked to watch the sun rise over the lake while he sipped his coffee. They wheeled a mobile home onto their lot and angled it so he could do just that from his breakfast table.

But this isn’t about my grandpa, it’s about my grandma. She was just the kind of woman to make sure Grandpa’s home was placed perfectly for Michigan lake sunrises. She bought his cars. She chose his clothes and laid them out every night so next morning he need only put them on. No matter how hung over Grandpa was she made sure he was up, fed, shaved, dressed, and to work on time.

She adored that man. She would have moved a mountain for him had she thought he might want it. If he were then to wrinkle up his face and say, “What did you do that for?” she’d move it right back.

I’m lucky to have made a few photos of her when I was young. I can thank my dad for it. The summer I turned 10 we went to visit and on the way we stopped at K-Mart for something. Dad dashed in and we waited in the car. It was very unlike my extremely frugal father, but he came back out with gifts for my brother and for me: an inexpensive 126 camera kit, one for each of us, complete with film and flash cubes.

Here’s a profile I made of Grandma that day. We were down by the shore, sitting around and talking. Yes, Grandma smoked. All of the adults in the family did.

My grandparents smoked too much. They also drank too much and swore too much. They were codependent with their youngest son, who was lost to alcoholism and drug abuse. In part because they kept paying to fix the messes that son made, they constantly robbed Peter to pay Paul to keep up with their bills. They vocally didn’t like Mexicans or African-Americans, although those would not have been the names they used for them.

But our time at the lake set the standard for me on how to be with your family, and how good simple family times can be. We often sat at the shore and talked for hours, we kids drinking pop and running around, and the adults drinking beer and wine.

They bought a pontoon boat so we could putter around the lake doing much the same, except with our fishing poles along, lines cast lazily into the water. The lake was full of bluegill and sunfish, easy to catch by the dozen.

In the evenings Grandma would make a big pot of something and we’d eat as we were hungry. We’d all squeeze in around their big dining room table and play penny-ante poker or Kismet, which is a dice game similar to Yahtzee. When the whole extended family was over we’d have ten or twelve people in each game, with other family members waiting for someone to be dealt out so they could be dealt in.

Grandma was up a lot filling everybody’s drinks. Some evenings she’d get out the hard liquor and make screwdrivers or Harvey Wallbangers. If she was really feeling it she’d get out the blender and make minty Grasshoppers. We kids would stick to pop, of course.

Then Grandma would be up with the sun to fillet the fish we caught and fry them all up for our breakfast. She always fried some potatoes too, and made toast, and served applesauce. We’d all sit around the table and eat until we were stuffed. To this day I sometimes crave fried fish for breakfast.

From about the time I made this photograph my brother and I spent a week or two at the lake each summer, just us with our grandparents. Grandpa had gone back to work as a draftsman for a small company in the nearest town. We’d all pile into their Bronco in the morning to drop Grandpa off, and then we’d go running around. We mostly did mundane things like shop for groceries or pick up mail at the post office, but Grandma liked the back roads and the long ways and these errands often filled our days. We usually stopped at some out-of-the-way tavern for lunch. Grandma knew all the taverns with good cheeseburgers in five counties.

After we picked Grandpa up we’d go back to the lake and Grandma would make dinner. As we sat around the table, Grandma and Grandpa would tell their stories of days gone by, often late into the evening. They told the same stories over and over again, sometimes adding new details of the 1950s when Grandpa was building his career and they were raising their family, and of tough times during the Great Depression. They lived in great fear of another depression, and were resolute that if another one came they would figure out how the whole family, all the sons and daughters and grandchildren, could live together on their acre at the lake and make it through.

My grandparents were far from perfect. But I felt deeply connected to my family through them. I belonged with them, I belonged at the lake. It created a foundational security in me that continues to serve me well.

Eventually childhood passed, I went off to college, and I saw my grandparents infrequently. Grandma wrote me from time to time and always slipped five or ten dollars into the envelope. Whenever I felt a little lost or lonely I’d call her. Long distance was expensive so we didn’t talk for more than a few minutes, but she was always so happy to hear from me and spoke to me as if nothing I wanted was beyond my grasp. It was like taking a long drink from a deep well.

I didn’t make it through college before both of my grandparents died, both in 1987, both aged just 71. Grandpa passed in January after a long illness and Grandma died suddenly in December. I still miss them both, but I especially miss Grandma.

When I had my own family, I tried to create good family times in the same ways my grandmother did: over food and conversation and simple shared experiences. As much as I could, I had my sons’ grandparents and their uncle over. We had no lake, no smoking, and far less alcohol — but, I hope, the same firm foundation of belonging and love and connection for my children.

I wrote a remembrance of my grandfather here.

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