A Visit to My Grandmother’s House
Let’s eat on the back porch. It was a hot summer night—July or August and I had stopped in after work to visit my grandmother. The evening air was still and sultry as she steered me toward the screened in porch at the back of her house. This was unusual, as we always dined at the cracked yellow Formica table in her kitchen. I remember waiting for her, looking out over the cool green grass in her shady backyard with the evening sunlight filtering through.
In front of me, she placed a cool crisp iceberg lettuce leaf with a scoop of tuna salad on top. Next to the salad sat several ripe tomato slices that a neighbor had contributed from his garden. The unexpected light dish and the back porch made the meal feel surprising and different. My grandmother’s superpower was turning a small moment into something special.
As a Depression-era bride, my grandmother’s simple cooking never quite caught up with the times. For casseroles she used Campbell’s soup and whatever was in her pantry. Her iced tea and coffee were transparent. She made sure her dishes had just enough flavor but no more than necessary.
So much of the food she served in her kitchen was homemade, not because it was trendy, but because it was all she knew. Her chocolate pudding came from a saucepan, not a box, developing a thick skin as it sat cooling on the stove. Making popcorn was an adventure waiting for those few kernels to burst then furiously shaking the old pot until the popping sounds subsided.
When I visited her during my childhood, a quick card game decided who would do the dishes—the loser washed: The winner dried. After dinner we’d sit on her wide front porch and read books or work on jigsaw puzzles until twilight drove us inside. I do not remember the TV being on during my visits, even though she watched a soap opera every afternoon. Sometimes my grandparents had friends over for a bridge game, and I was instructed to find something to do while the grownups played cards. In all my time spent outside, picking berries in the field behind the house or poking around the musty garage, I was never bored. These quiet hours still hold magic in my memory. And I know now that my grandmother’s love and attention made those times so special.
When my grandmother died, I visited her house after the funeral. Walking through the kitchen, I realized that I much preferred her house with her in it. She helped me stay connected to the quiet simple joys that make the busyness of life bearable. In her presence I never had to tell myself to stop and breathe. It happened automatically. To this day, when I dream, I only dream of one house—my grandmother’s. Her home was a touchstone, a constant in my life as I grew up and everything around me changed.
My grandmother’s simple cooking and our afternoons together in her kitchen speak of simple times.
And when I use the word “simple,” I do so with purpose and intention. In her quiet way, with her humble dishes, my grandmother taught me how perfect life can be when you slow down to enjoy simple pleasures, like a cold plate on a hot summer night.
Lizzie & Tom
Her name was Elizabeth, after the Queen. But her parents and everybody else called her Lizzie. As a child, she tolerated the name, but when she went to high school, she listed her name as Elizabeth and made sure every student in every grade knew that if they called her Lizzie, they were in trouble. She possessed a hot temper and had been known to take a flyswatter to those who disobeyed.
One of the things she loved was running track. She became quite good at it, and won first place at several track meets. That’s where she met Tom. She found herself standing on her tippy toes to communicate with this 6 foot 2 skinny, charming, track star. And he never called her Lizzie. Even when she was introduced to him as Lizzie, he said, “Oh, you’re the girl named after the Queen.” Several months later, they were going steady. She took him home to meet her parents who were also smitten with him and on several occasions invited him to dinner. She thought it was strange that she was never invited home with him. But she never had courage enough to ask why. On Valentine’s Day of their senior year, he said, “I’d like to marry you when we graduate. I think we’d make a fine couple.” She cried and hugged him. “I think that’s a wonderful idea.”
It was New Year’s Eve of their senior year. They attended a bash at the home of one of the other track guys. His parents had gone out with friends. A bunch of the kids started drinking bourbon and coke. She’d never drunk anything stronger than a Coors Light. Other girls encouraged her to try the bourbon. Mixed with coke, it tasted great. She had three of them before she started to feel the effects. She began giggling and couldn’t stop. She ran outside quickly followed by Tom. Outside she threw up several times. She turned to Tom for sympathy, but he suddenly looked stone-faced.
“I don’t want to marry you anymore,” he shouted at her. “You’d turn into an alcoholic just like my mother.” His shouting started to draw a crowd. “Didn’t you wonder why I never invited you to my house?” She tried to reply, but he was beside himself with anger. “My mother has been an alcoholic ever since I can remember. She drinks constantly. By 2 in the afternoon, she’s passed out. Then she wakes up after dark and starts drinking again. It’s never ending.”
Each time Elizabeth tried to speak, he’d shout. “I don’t want to become my father. I don’t want an alcoholic for a wife. I SEE THE SIGNS! NO! NO! NO! Get away from me! I never want to see you again.”
He began to sob and then suddenly ran out the door. She didn’t know what happened. She was frantic. Plus, he’d left her there without a ride home. She was so upset she started sobbing. Her perfect partner had just told her to go away. She had never seen the angry side of him. She didn’t know what to do, and she couldn’t tell her parents. They’d be mad about it too.
She called Tom at least 10 times that night and several times the following day. He never answered. When she went to school the following Monday, he wasn’t there. She wrote him letters every day, saying how sorry she was for the incident. He never answered. One of her mother’s friends told her parents what had happened. Seems the day after the incident Tom left home and started living with his grandmother in another state. He registered for school there.
It took Elizabeth a couple of years to get over the hurt in her heart. She finally gave up trying to reach Tom. After four years at the University, she got a wonderful job teaching math. It included coaching the track team. She married another teacher and they had two children.
Tom never communicated with her. Every so often, she’d talk to her mom’s friend who kept up on the family. He had graduated from college, took a job as an engineer, married and had one child.
But WAIT! The story isn’t over. Fast forward 15 years. Lizzie and her husband got a divorce. Tom’s wife developed cancer and passed away. Lizzie recognized that she’d always loved Tom, and decided to find him. Through friends who knew the grandmother, she tracked him down. His mother had passed away in a drunken stupor. His Dad had found another woman who was kind and considerate, but they never got married. It took Lizzie more than three months to work up the courage to contact him. Finally, she wrote him a long letter which ended with, “I have always loved you. I still love you. If you’ll forgive me, I’d like to see you again.”
In the letter, she told him about her marriage, her children and her life without him, why the divorce happened and all the gory details. It included her address, phone number and Gmail address. The letter sat next to her bed for six long days before she mailed it. As she dropped it in the mail chute, she took a deep breath and prepared for rejection.
Four days later, she got a call. She started crying immediately after recognizing his voice. He was crying too. After that call, it happened quickly. They married, combined families, and moved to Arizona, a state they knew absolutely nothing about, and made a new life.
Elephant researchers have discovered what Kipling wrote about so long ago: Elephants gather at night in hidden open spaces in the jungle. These gatherings are opportunities to socialize. Sure, they always walk and feed as a group, but to mingle socially, it is in these hidden, safe places. The low, subdued tones used by elephants to communicate are heard only in this social setting. But you have to be at the right place at the right time in the jungle to observe this secret society.
I recently went to a jungle open space here in Chandler, Arizona. It was 8 a.m. in the morning; the sun had risen just 30 minutes prior, and it was 35 degrees outside. I observed car after car pulling into the parking lot. I watched closely; each person was dressed warmly and wearing tennis shoes. And each person, without exception, was carrying an athletic bag. I was curious why so many people would gather so early in the morning. What could be so important that they would be out in the cold? I continued to watch, looking for answers.
Everyone exited their car and came to a single destination. Their coats were removed, and paddles were taken from their athletic bags. Then pairs of people walked to either side of a court with a net. At first, they hit the bright yellow wiffle ball easily and slowly. Then the dance and the game changed. The ball was hit hard and quickly at the opposing team. If it were not for the cheers and laughter, I would have thought the dance was a dance of anger.
It occurred to me, I had discovered a secret society much like the structure and norms of elephants. You would not know this social gathering and its frolic if you were not in the right jungle clearing. I was drawn in, trying to understand this activity, which was clearly a social gathering. To begin, they used long ground strokes to hit the ball. But after two ground strokes, everyone rushed to the net, followed by a fury of rapid volleys until the ball was missed.
One side would scream or growl, while the other would not. As this promenade continued, you could see the ball being hit harder and harder. Communication between team members seemed to rise and fall as the ball was missed. However, the overall tone was eagerness and laughter.
Elephants have a highly structured community. The females band together based on family, including mom, grandma, and aunt. They tend to be a group of 15 to 30 elephants. The oldest female, being the matriarch, commands the group. Underneath her, there is a clearly defined rating or rank structure.
The males also gather in groups, but in a much different way. They leave their mothers’ extended family between the ages of 12 and 15. They band together in boys’ clubs, jockeying for favor with the highest-ranking male.
Today, as I observed this urban group of elephants, I mean people, I quickly saw that there were groups, leaders, and rankings. I could see the leader in each small group. I could see the grouping of like-ranked players.
So if you want to see the secret society of elephants gathered to socialize, you would need to listen for low tones being communicated from clearings in the jungle. You should do this and be amazed.
If you want to see the secret society of pickleball players, go to a jungle clearing and listen for the sound of horse hooves on a road, or someone chopping down a tree, or perhaps the sound of a giant woodpecker diligently working to build a new home. You should do this and be amazed.
Need a friend, need to connect socially, or just enjoy the thought of swatting a yellow wiffle ball? Go find an open space in the jungle, and join the fun. Arrive early.