Today is Willie Nelson's birthday, and I've been feeling sad all day.
My Grandma Lola passed away almost two months ago. She was, is, my mom's mom. When I was in middle school I gave her the nickname Hot Lot. Otherwise I called her Lola, or later on, g-ma.
Here are some random stories about me, about Grandma, and about me and Grandma.
Hot Lot and my Papa George were divorced many years before I was born, so I always knew her as a single woman. She used to run the kitchen at a high-rise retirement building in Long Beach, CA. We would visit her often, and though I can't remember her apartment there, I can remember that dining room with the decorative iron table legs painted white, and the big, industrial can opener in the kitchen. There was a giant pantry filled with #10 cans of lima beans and corn, and a big industrial mixer.
I remember one day we were all walking to the car after our visit was over. It was my mom, my sisters and I, just the girls. My mom was hanging back and talking to my grandma, and I raced ahead to where we always parked our blue Buick station wagon on the curb. While I waited for my mom to catch up, I decided to skip or run or dance around in the concrete courtyard near the street. I think there were square holes cut out of the concrete where plants and flowers grew.
At one point I looked up at her tall, tall building to try and find my grandma's apartment all the way at the top. This was part of our departing ritual each time we visited. As I bent back and tried to count up from the bottom to my grandma's floor, a lightly falling thought settled on my young, open mind. It wasn't a thought with specific words, more like a drawing sketched with impressions and heavenly knowledge that gave form to something far off in the future. The thought was, 'You will be like your Grandma. You will need to work to support yourself. You will be single longer than you'd like.' I was stunned for a second because I knew enough about life and expectations to know this wasn't optimal. Then I went back to being however age young I was.
That is what you would call a formative experience. Though I've never spoken or written about it before, it's always been there in my mind, whether I realized it or not. It's a feeling I've spent many years fighting against, and many previous years feeling sad, and angry, and hurt about. It made me feel different at church, and different as I moved through Young Women's, and later BYU, and later through those awkward single, post-graduate years. I don't feel guilty about those sad and tender years anymore. Life is designed to teach us it's most important lessons through hard and painful trials. Everybody has something, don't they? If it's not one thing, it's another, and once we know better, we do better. That's all that's asked of us.
Now about my grandma. Some of my favorite and most vivid remembrances of her.
She had this wrinkly skin on her arms and face that we called chicken skin. Like all the women in her family she knew how to cook well, and could more easily feed 100 than she could feed 4. She knew how to sew and would make us clothes. One time she made me a twirling skirt made out of white cotton fabric with red flowers printed on it just to wear for rollerskating. I wore it with a red t-shirt and felt so fantastic in it as I skated down our inclined driveway in the back of the house around to our front sidewalk so everyone driving by could see me twirl and twirl in it.
When I was very little she drove a Pinto, then a Taurus. The Taurus was grey with a thin blue accent stripe.
She grew up in South Dakota and her life was not easy. She married my Papa George and her life was not easy. But that's all bygones now and in the Lord's hands.
When she was a little girl she made dolls out of corn cobs and was afraid of chickens. In her heyday she was a fox who dressed to knock people's socks off. She worked, hard, her entire life. She supported her family. She made impossible ends meet.
She worked at the Disneyland Hotel and served Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. She and my Grandpa were avid bowlers and card players. Almost every year they took their kids on long driving trips from California to South Dakota. My mom said that during one trip she woke up late at night to find the car parked outside a diner and no parents immediately visible. Then she looked through the diner window directly in front of the car sand saw my grandparents sitting at a table eating pie. I love that so much. It always makes me laugh when my mom tells that story.
Hot Lot's heart was in the West. She loved Country and Western music. She had a framed picture of Willie Nelson in her apartment that I loved to look at. I thought it was so cool that my grandma had a crush on someone even though she was an old lady. Hot Lot never lost her spice.
She used an old brand of soap called Tone. She hung her ironing board on the back of her bedroom door. She collected bells and teaspoons, but mostly bells. She had a tiny, pull-out sofa that was purely magical to me.
She would have the radio tuned to an old country station more often than having the tv on, and I thought that was nuts. She lived alone and could have complete control over her tv, but her she was listening to music of all things!
Now about Hot Lot and me.
When she moved to another tall building in Garden Grove I used to spend the night with her on occasion. We would walk to the Circle K convenience store next to her building and she would buy my a big can of Chef Boyardee Beef Raviolis for dinner, and a Big Stick popsicle or Haagen-Daz ice cream bar for dessert.
When I was little she would let me have her old checkbooks from closed accounts so I could write checks for absurd amounts of money and feel grown-up and fancy. She had a roll-top desk. She had a gold pencil cup that she kept felt-tipped markers in near her telephone outside her kitchenette. She had a painted green parasol by her front door. She had salt dough magnets on her refrigerator that we had made her. She had a toaster oven that she used instead of her microwave, and I thought that was so marvelous.
Of all the country artists, Hot Lot loved George Straight the most. One time when I was a teenager she called our house and asked me to go online and look up information about tickets to one of his concerts. I was a brat about it, and like President Faust and the firewood, I will take that shame to my grave.
When we were done with a visit she would walk us to our car, then before we would pull out of the parking lot she would go back upstairs to her apartment at the very top and waive to us from her balcony. One time I forgot my coat upstairs, so she put it in a plastic grocery bag and threw it off the balcony to me. Fourteen stories! It came down like a heat seeking missile and hit the ground with stunning force that popped the tied-up grocery bag. We laughed and laughed. The next day in biology class I was wearing that coat when I put my hand in my pocket and felt shards of glass plastered to the pocket lining with something that felt like an abundance of dried paint. Then I remembered that I had put a bottle of blue fingernail polish in my pocket the day before, and it must have shattered when Hot Lot threw my coat down to me. I laughed and laughed again, then we called her later that night to tell her about it, and she laughed too.
Her apartment in Garden Grove was right next to the freeway on the way to Disneyland, so we would call and have her listen for our honk as we passed her building. We did this into my teen years, and she would always say that she could see our car, see us waiving, and hear us honk. Only now, as I type this, do I realize that she was more than likely lying. Hot Lot!
I get almost every ounce of my sass and sarcasm and sense of humor from Hot Lot. Through accident, of course, she taught me my first curse words.
One year she drove with my mom and I up to Utah to drop me off at EFY. I was about to have my gallbladder out, and she was having some of her chronic stomach pains, so we both ate cottage cheese and ramen noodles made in motel room coffee pots for every meal.
I've been to two family reunions in South Dakota, which was the place her family was from and the place that always had a hold on her, like Utah does for me. She and my mom and my aunt showed us the Black Hills, the swimming pool they went to as children that was fed by the local hot springs, and all the streets and turns and places that held memories for them. I like seeing them like that. They were just like carefree girls fishing through a thousand memories to find the best and happiest parts of their lifetimes together.
Because of my grandma I have a deep and abiding love for the American West. For never ending prairies and quite summer nights where you can't hear a thing at all except for all the stars and planets in the universe blowing by. The prairie brings up stalwart people. They survive by building themselves up with a heavy strength that is tough enough to withstand the unrelenting dwarfing of big, eternal skies and the constant beatings by racing, searching winds. But I know that this tough, outer strength also lends to a calm, inner peace born from knowing that no matter what blows through, you can take it. Like generations of your people have always done, you can take it. With time and some prairie ingenuity, you can get yourself and your family through, over, or around anything. I know Hot Lot had that peace within her heart all the way to the end.
Last Fall my sister Sarah moved Grandma down here to a home in Texas so she could keep a closer eye on her. Grandma had moved back to South Dakota a few years early, and while we have cousins there who took good care of her, it was getting to be about that time, and she needed someone to watch over her and manage her medical care on a daily basis. I went to her home to visit her, but not as often as someone else might have visited eldery grandparent. It was hard for me to see her that way. She didn't always remember who I was, and I didn't always know what to say. And though I will always feel bad about those George Straight concert tickets, I feel at peace with this. I think she knew it was hard for me, and I think she always wanted me to be the comic relief, the fun one, so I didn't need to be involved in the day-to-day. We never talked about serious things, we would just shoot the breeze about the same old thing at each visit. We always made each other laugh. Hot Lot and I got each other, and loved to tease in friendly ways. She would always say, 'Oh, you little stinker!' Or, 'You little brat!' For Christmas last year I gave her pairs of mismatched, neon socks from Target. She loved them. A quintessential Lola and Rebekah gift.
The weekend my grandma died my sister called me and my mom and told us the doctor said she didn't have much longer. I picked up my mom late Saturday night from the airport and we went to the hospital in McKinney. It was a beautiful hospital, and I'm glad my she spent her last days someplace so nice.
We stayed with her until the early morning, then I came home because I couldn't handle being there straight through. She had been having trouble breathing and was coming in and out of sleep long enough to say hello and point her crooked, arthritic finger at her nurses in a playful jab as they came in. A classic Lola move that she had been doing for many years. Even in her waning strength she would also raise her hand and jab that crooked finger at each person who came in.
On Sunday morning after a short but important, serious but heart warming talk at my grandma's bedside with her wonderful doctor, he reached over and removed her oxygen, then ordered an increase in her dose of painkillers. I only met him that one time, but I will always love that doctor for being matter of fact with us about what was happening, while still being kind and compassionate and reaffirming. I have never feared death or doubted that it was part of the plan for us, but in that moment I think we each needed someone who knew more to remind us that the death is as natural and blessed as birth. Death is just as right as birth is.
After spending the day in the hospital, I took my mom to my sister's house then came back to my apartment. I didn't want to be there for the passing, and we thought it would be best for my mom to leave as well. On my way out I kissed the top of her gray head and said goodbye, even though she had been in a deep, peaceful sleep for many hours. I knew I wouldn't see her again, and it felt beautifully calm and serene.
In the early morning hours on Monday, Sarah let us know that Grandma had passed as she was rubbing her feet and singing her Primary songs. The best way to describe the way I felt is, okay. As soon as I heard the news I felt okay. I felt the Spirit say, 'Okay,' and I heard Hot Lot, somewhere in my consciousness, say, 'Okay.' For years now I have wanted nothing more for my grandma than for her to be happy and at peace, and just okay. I couldn't have asked for more from that moment.
Hot Lot was met on the other side by most of her siblings and cousins, two of her children who passed away shortly after she gave birth to them, her mother who died when she was a small, small girl, and my son-of-a-gun Papa George. The next day my mom said that the predominate thought that kept playing through her mind was a moving vision of her mom and her dad, smiling ear-to-ear as they drove together down a long Western highway in a top-down old convertible. I believe, somehow in the expansive workings of the universe, that this thought was more than a phantom wish, and somewhere George met Lola and they found a peace that they had missed out on in this life. And I know that in that moment, most of all, they wanted their little girl to know that somehow everything was okay, and everyone was going to be happy at last.
While I was at home that Sunday morning and my mom and sister were spending some of my grandma's last waking hours with her, her closest living family members called to say their goodbyes. My mom and my sister held my sister's phone up to her ear and so she could listen as they told her their happiest stories from the old days. Then they kept the phone by her ear, and played her some of her favorite country songs, including Amarillo By Morning by the great George Straight.
I hope Hot Lot got to hear some Willie too before she died. Because of her, he has always been one of my absolute favorites. So today, on Willie's birthday, I have cried, and cried and cried and cried for the first time since my grandma passed. I still feel okay, but I know it's okay to just cry and cry for the ones you are temporarily separated from.
Hot Lot, I wouldn't have you anywhere else right now, but I miss you. I know at times life made you feel tired the same way it makes me feel tired, but I know you want me to keep going. Down, but never out,
always on our own two feet.