When I was a child, the men in my family would often go on fishing and hunting trips. I don’t remember how old I was when I was allowed to join these, but I would guess 8, maybe 9. While these were strictly “man trips”, for as long as I can remember, my grandmother attended them. On fishing trips she would stay behind at camp while we were out, having a warm dinner waiting us when we dragged ourselves back in. But on hunting trips, she would often go out with us, rifle slung on her back. My grandma had hunted most of her life. She was a good shot and wasn’t timid when dealing with blood and viscera. There is a famous story in my family of my grandma and grandpa, when they were younger, out hunting white-tail deer. My grandma shot one and then systematically began to clean and dress the deer. Shortly after this, my grandpa shot one himself not too far away. Whether he drug the deer to where she was, or she walked over to him, upon seeing his deer she said, “Well, I’m already a mess; I might as well just clean yours.” So she began to gut and clean the deer while my grandfather leaned back against a tree, rolling a cigarette. Maybe it is just grandpa’s penchant for embellishing stories, but he explained that as he sat there smoking two other hunters came into the clearing and saw him smoking while his wife cleaned his deer. Grandpa just nodded at them, and they said, “Wow.”
I was thrilled to get to take on a right of passage, becoming a man by going on these man trips. But, of course, I was not ready to walk through the mountain wild by myself. So, grandma would walk along with me. And, frankly, I was probably a pretty terrible hunting companion. My excitement quickly evaporated into grumbling once I realized that “hunting” meant waking up early, going out into the cold, walking for miles, and then sitting in silence for hours. I whined, I trudged my feet, I asked how long we were going to sit and watch some valley. The noise of my clumsy footsteps alone insured that no wildlife of any kind would come within a few hundred yards of us. But grandma knew how to keep me going. She kept her pockets filled with peanut M&M’s and would promise to give me some once we made it to the next ridge or down the hill. She pointed out the simple, quiet beauties of the forest that a whiny 10 year old is likely to ignore: a bushel of mushrooms growing at the bottom of a tree, the trickling of a stream, the woodpecker busily drilling. And she also chided me, “Marc, if you don’t pick up your feet when you walk, then I swear I will find a switch and whip your ass.” I was confident she would never actually do this, but still it would incentivize me to pick my feet up more carefully…for awhile at least. We never saw any deer those first few years and I knew that I was likely to blame, but I loved that time with my grandmother. I can still remember the feel of reaching into the wooly pocket of her red and black hunter’s coat to fish out a few more M&M’s, her smiling down at me and kissing the top of my head.
Getting to stay the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s was always a treat when I was younger. When I was very young my family lived in a small trailer, a hallway of a home on a very small strip of land. My grandparent’s modest home may as well have been a mansion to us. The eye of childhood always enlarges things, but I remember feeling that there was no end to things to explore there. There was a tire-swing on an old shade tree in their backyard, grandpa’s large garden, and their massive juniper bushes in the front that we would tunnel into. They had a garage that smelled like car oil and old tools, and was stacked high with boxes, bins, and shelves. They had two refrigerators (a sure sign of opulence and wealth to me), one in the kitchen and one in the garage. The garage fridge always had diet soda in it and (though I thought it tasted strange), I would indulge in many a Diet Pepsi while there. In the garage they kept a large garbage can to recycle soda cans in. Directly above it they mounted a lever-operated can crusher. When you are six-years-old, crushing a soda can down to the size of an Oreo feels like a display of Herculean strength. When my grandma knew we were coming over, she would stop crushing the cans and tell me she needed help. I would excitedly rush to the garage and spend the next 45 minutes just flattening can after can after can. Once I had thoroughly dug through the entire garbage can, elbow deep, and was sure that no can remained whole, I would proudly saunter inside to let grandma know. “Oh, thank you bud; so glad to have a big strong man around the house.”
If my memory serves me rightly, I think we had tater-tots served with every dinner we had there and always got a bowl of ice cream for dessert (grandma had a sweet tooth). Grandpa usually had the Discovery channel turned on and we would spend part of the evening watching some special on elephant migrations or aboriginal tribes while my fingers would trace the edges of their polished, live-edge wood-slab coffee table. We always took a bath the nights we stayed there and grandma would show me how to use a fine-tooth comb to make myself “look presentable.” I thought it made my hair look like a wave on the beach. She would tuck us into their guest bed, click on the metal-golden lamps with a forest-green glass shade, and kneel down to pray with us before we slept. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
I wonder what my grandparents remember of those stays? I don’t know if they were exhausting, frustrating, boring, or fun to them. Probably a mixture of all of the above. I don’t remember doing anything spectacular there, but I remember loving being there. The smell of my grandpa’s aftershave, hauling watermelon rinds out to the compost heap, playing mahjong on Grandma’s computer. The quiet, the order was wonderful, like I stepped inside some grand old clock with a hundred cogs meshing together in sync and, for a moment, I got to be a part of that harmony.
My grandmother is about to go meet the Lord. Doctors told the family yesterday that she wouldn’t make it through the night, but she has held on. Likely not for much longer, though. She has suffered greatly in these last ten years; we have all received a phone call on several situations that “this might be it.” But, alas, it looks like it really is it this time; her body is just worn out and is ready to rest.
In so many ways, my grandmother did nothing sensational or dramatic in my life. She just performed simple acts of kindness, consideration, and patience. She was also strict and expected obedience from us, but as a grandparent she never took the role of disciplinarian. She also lost her temper from time to time. But on the whole, my grandparents filled a slot in my life that I did not realize I needed, performed a duty that was modest at first glance, but grew in influence with time. I needed that in a way I could not articulate fully, not even now. And I am saddened in a way that I don’t think I can fully comprehend. But in a day where we only want sensational acts, immediate results, and headline-worthy deeds, I think the ordinary, quiet virtues my grandma blessed me with are worthy of honor. Dare I say, more honor. Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to take a whiny kid hunting.
I love my grandmother and pray, Lord willing, we may meet again someday on the other side of the Resurrection.
UPDATE: Grandma has now passed. Now that she lay down to sleep, I pray the Lord her soul to keep.