Last Parent Standing

I was twenty years old when my father died unexpectedly. If you know me, or if you’ve read my début novel, you know the story. At the time, I was kind of a rarity – a young woman bereft of a parent at twenty. Most of my friends hadn’t experienced that loss. Yet.

Although I missed the rituals associated with death, wake, funeral, burial, I did fly home for a week to see my mother, my sisters, and my maternal grandparents. But those days were surreal; everyone kept asking me about my time abroad, and at the end of a week, I flew back. For the next two and a half months, I tried to block out the loss, tried to go on as if nothing had changed, because in Fribourg, Switzerland, nothing had changed. I even got into an argument with my best friend, telling him, “You don’t understand!” when he tried to elicit some emotion from me about my dad.

Then, that same year, his father died on Christmas Eve. We were back at college in Rhode Island, but in the late 70’s, no one had instant communication. No email, no cell phones, and I didn’t learn of the death until we’d all returned to college after the Christmas break.  Finally, I saw my friend, and ran to him. After we embraced, he pulled back, looked me in the eyes, and said quietly, “Now I understand.”

And here we are, more than halfway through our lives, and I have but a few friends who haven’t lost at least one parent to death. My mother passed away over five years ago, after progressive dementia stole everything from her. My husband’s mother died of cancer a year before we met. His father is our “last parent standing,” and will turn 81 on Wednesday. Sometimes Jim and I shake our heads in wonderment that he’s lived this long. Oh sure, he’s tethered to an oxygen tank and takes about twenty pills a day, but he’s pretty sharp, and we’re grateful that he’s still here, to tell stupid jokes and make inane commentary on life around him.

I have another friend, whose only child was lucky enough to grow up with two sets of grandparents. I remarked to her once that it was truly a blessing for her daughter to know the love and devotion of four elders, and my friend nodded and smiled, but her eyes filled. When pressed, she admitted that the gift of their presence would only make losing them that much sadder. No matter how old you are, it’s difficult to say a final goodbye to your mother or father. And it’s a reminder of our own mortality.

Happy Birthday to you, Ray. You are one of a kind.

photo by M Reynolds
photo by M Reynolds

Into the Woods to Grandparents’ House

Today I took a shortcut to get to the post office in East Greenwich (eBay shipments – are you following my other blog, ‘From Splurge to Purge’ ?). From Division Street, I turned right onto Howland Road and took it to the end, where Howland meets Middle Road. As I was stopped, I was looking at one of the houses my grandparents lived in. Yes, one of – from the time I was a child, there were, oh, at least four. Five? All in and around East Greenwich, Cowesett, Coventry, all after the magical house on Hemlock Hill. It’s pictured here, as a copy of a painting that was made.

Most of us have fond memories of our grandparents, if we were lucky enough to have them. I had only my mother’s parents (my dad’s mother died when he was 18, his father died before my first birthday), but they were superlative grandparents. We would drive to visit them, either from our house in Connecticut or, after 1963, our house in Johnston. The drive to Hemlock Hill in Perryville was via Route 1A, the old Post Road that runs along the southern coast of Rhode Island, where beaches have names like Matunuck, Weekapaug, and Quonochontaug. Perryville, named after Cmdr. Oliver Hazard Perry, is really a village within the town of South Kingstown.

My younger sister was too small to remember, but Ann and I, sitting in the back seat, would strain to see the familiar landmarks as we approached. Invariably, Ann would call out, “I see the white church!” and “I see the red house!” before I did, as she was not saddled with vision problems until she hit her 40s.  The red house (pictured at left) marked the entrance to, well, to Red House Road, a dirt road with no lights and plenty of animals in the woods. A quarter-mile drive or so, past Dr. Gee’s little yellow cottage on the right, nestled behind trees and tall shrubs, brought us to Hemlock Hill. A two-car garage sat at the bottom of what to me seemed like an insurmountable driveway up to the house. Most times, my grandparents parked the car in the garage and walked, with bags of food or other necessities, up the hill to the house.

And the house! With wooden Adirondack chairs on the wide front porch and the smells of molasses cookies or beef stew filling the cabin (because it was built as a cabin, and had bedrooms and a bathroom added later), it was a comforting place full of love. My cousin Cindy remembers sleeping over when it was just the cabin, with an outhouse down in back and a chamber-pot for use during the night. A tick-tocking clock on the rough-hewn mantle marked each quarter-hour with soft Westminster chimes; a bird that had flown into the picture window was preserved and mounted on a branch (fascinating to us kids, and my first and only up-close experience with taxidermy), and the big heavy oak rocking chair waited to be occupied, by grandfather and grandchild. On a very clear day, you could see the ocean from that high vantage point. My grandfather built a fish pond in the front, and farther down the grass, a stone fireplace for cooking outdoors in warmer weather. He blazed a trail through the acres of woods behind the house, and each of us begged to be taken for a walk along the “bunny trail.”

My grandparents sold the house in the 70’s, and although my grandfather was still hiking, it was better for them to be closer to their children and grandchildren. My mother always said she didn’t know how her mother could live in such isolation. Around ten years ago, my sister noticed the house was for sale, but the picture accompanying the real estate notice showed a different house, now two levels. Everything changes – that’s why memory is so cherished.