A care package, of sorts – part two

For part one of this story, go here.

The thing about getting a package from Grandma was that I never had a clue what would turn up inside, but I knew it would be odd – something neither I nor any other person on the planet would buy.  Clothes were never her strong suit, but on the off chance she sent me something I might wear, I could count on a note safety-pinned to the garment if she hadn’t yet washed it.  And not just any note, mind you.  Sometimes she ran the sticky note through her typewriter instead of writing on it by hand.  When I called to  thank her for a crazy T-shirt that hung down below my knees (I think maybe it was meant to be a sleep shirt), that came with no note, she explained on the phone that she’d already washed it, but she assumed I knew that since she didn’t pin a type-written sticky note on the front.

As a small kid, 4 or 5 years old, I went with my mom to bars now and then.  I entertained myself by playing dice with the bartender.  Family legend has it I was pretty good.  A couple of years ago, my grandma sent me an antique dice cup, to commemorate my young passion for playing Liars’ Dice and her passion for antiques.  The hand-made cup is dark brown leather, slightly misshapen, a bit weak at the seam stitched up the side.  The leather, though smooth, is hard as tack, but a simple wavy pattern circles the center of the cup where the maker likely used a sewing machine to punch a bit of decoration into it.  An old yellowed newspaper clipping is curled up inside that tells the story of the demise of the bar from which the cup apparently came.  The clipping was from a 1981 newspaper – one of those ’50 Years Ago Today’ bits.  It reads:

50 YEARS AGO TODAY – FEB. 12, 1931

With the interests of the old people at the Reiss Home for the Aged and the future expansion of St. Nicholas Hospital in mind, Hospital Sisters of St. Francis have acquired the Acker property at the southeast corner of the intersection of N. Tenth Street and Superior Avenue.  The Acker site is 120 feet square. On it is a double two-story building occupied by the Joe Acker saloon and boarding house, and a barn (ausspannung). Part of the main building was formerly occupied by the Bruder Radio Company. … With the purchase of the Acker real estate, the Hospital Sisters now own all the land in the block in which the hospital is located except a small house and lot in the southwest corner.

I like that the paper tossed in just a single German word in that little article.  Weirdly, though, the translation seems to be ‘relaxation.’  It’s unclear whether one would seek relaxation in the boarding house or in the barn.

Check out the dice – I love that they are stamped like playing cards, not the boring old pips I expected to see when I tossed them out of the cup.  There’s no way to know if this cup actually came from the Joe Acker saloon, but Grandma is convinced, and old objects always seem cooler when they come with a story, so I’ll stick with it.

A care package, of sorts – part one

I recently got a package in the mail from my grandmother.  It was actually just an envelope, but it was stuffed with so many things I feel justified in calling it a package.  The contents aren’t what you might expect when you think “care package” and “grandma” in the same sentence, though.  I tore into the envelope as soon as I saw it because there is no mail I like getting better than mail from my grandma.  When I was younger, she sent me things a bit more frequently, but she doesn’t get out as much these days, so there are fewer opportunities for her to find the oddities she used to.

I’ve lived in California since 1995, and even after just a year here, I can say with conviction that I did not feel like a tourist.  For some reason that isn’t totally clear to me, my grandmother began to send me anything that had anything to do with California after I moved here.  I have probably received a dozen cookbooks that had some kind of California theme – the best are those from the 60s and 70s, complete with handwritten notes in the margins from whomever tried to tweak that recipe for Peach Waldorf Salad.

If it said San Francisco, there was no chance she would pass it up.  My grandma is a thrift store shopper.  If there were thrift store shopper jobs, she’d have made a very successful career of it.  Before she retired, she worked in Downtown Sheboygan, within walking distance of three different thrift stores.  She visited each one weekly during her lunch hour – St. Vincent’s on Monday, Goodwill on Tuesday, and so on.  Between the downtown stores and a couple she’d hit on her way home after work, she went to one thrift store a day, every day of every week.  When I was a kid, we occasionally donated clothes to Goodwill.  We soon realized we needed to tell Grandma ahead of time, though, or she would buy back the things we’d just donated and they’d be waiting for us the next time we visited her.

I had a small ceramic planter in the shape of a cable car, a book or two about Alcatraz (in fact, if I remember right, even an Alcatraz cookbook), a set of coasters with pictures of famous San Francisco scenes – Lombard Street, The Painted Ladies, the Golden Gate Bridge.  She sent small wooden cable car Christmas ornaments painted garish shades of red and green, a copy of Tales of the City, and the occasional San Francisco or Yosemite calendar, and a cribbage board with a picture of the Golden Gate.

In the past few years, I’ve also started to receive obituaries – a zillion of them.  The genealogy bug bit me a couple of years ago, and Grandma is the biggest fan of my detective work.  I have traced her ancestors that emigrated from Germany to Wisconsin, and found her 3rd great-grandfather living in an insane asylum in the 1910 census.  She is always eager to hear any random tidbit of news I find, and I just wish I had more time to spend on research now that I know how much she enjoys it.

The latest package, which prompted this post, was all about my genealogy research – well, almost.  First was an article about an upcoming PBS series about genealogy, then came two horrific stories from the local paper about a relative that attacked his wife because she wouldn’t give him cigarettes and the garage door remote control.  As I said, not your typical care package from Grandma, but since I started all the genealogy work – the family dirty laundry is no longer left hidden…  Finally, there were four obituaries, each with a hand-written sticky note attached.

Any key points of interest in the obits are highlighted in yellow to aid me in following who these people might be.  The note attached to one obituary for a woman whose last name I didn’t recognize, read “Louis is brother to Grandma Emma.”  It took me a second to find Louis highlighted in the newspaper clipping and then I recognized his last name as the maiden name of my grandma’s maternal grandmother.  Another obituary was for someone who was related by marriage, and the note read, “Robert – Married to cousin of Grandpa – Jake & Clara daughter.”  Another was for the wife of a cousin to my great-grandmother.  The one I like the best, though, is for a woman whose married name appears heavily in our ancestry.  The note reads “Don’t know if Walter is family.”

Oh, I almost forgot – she also slipped in a recipe for crab-stuffed portobello mushrooms.

Gratitude

I titled this post Gratitude because I’m truly grateful for having been recognized with some more blogger awards from a fellow writer, Julie Farrar, who writes at Traveling Through.  I’ve been doing this for just over a month, and loving it the whole time, due in large part to the people that I’ve connected with through my writing and theirs.  Julie tagged me with two awards, The Stylish Blogger, and the Versatile Blogger.  Julie’s comments about my writing put a smile on my face, and I’m thankful that she shared them.

“It’s an anonymous blog, with language and stories I envy to no end.”

In keeping with the spirit of the awards, here are seven more random things about me:

1 – Stylish is another term those that know me would never use to describe me (though, again, I appreciate the shout-out from Julie, regardless of the name of the award!).  I am the kind of person that buys 8 of the same shirt in different colors.  6 or 8 short-sleeve T-shirts, 6 or 8 long-sleeve T-shirts, 2 pairs of jeans in slightly different washes.  I can never manage to have more than two pairs of jeans at a time.  I generally wear one pair of shoes until they wear out so badly I really can’t wear them anymore.  As the shoes or jeans approach this point of disrepair, I panic a little at the thought of having to find a new pair.

2 – A few years ago, I found myself at the end of a 9-year relationship, and though I wanted to get out and meet new people, I had pretty much forgotten how.  Actually, I never really knew how.  A great friend told me, though, that all I needed was a haircut and a new pair of shoes.  I had been wearing sort of outdoorsy shoes because I have the flattest feet ever recorded in the history of flat feet, and I need really wide shoes.  I was informed that these shoes would completely impede my ability to get a date, so with the help of another good friend who is fanatical about shoes, I started buying tennis shoes that apparently have some style to them.  A few weeks after I bought my first pair, I was out for drinks with the friend who had coached me into this pair, and a random stranger on the street stopped and said, “Oh my god!  Where did you get those awesome retro shoes?!”  My shoe coach (a.k.a. grass-phobia girl), was prouder than a peacock, and could barely wait until the stranger was out of earshot to proclaim her brilliance.  In the end, my current mate wouldn’t have cared whether I wore the geeky outdoorsy shoes or these new retro-ish sneakers, but the coaching of my friends gave me a new confidence I sorely needed at the time, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

3 – When I was a kid, my favorite food was mashed potatoes.  Luckily, I grew up in the Midwest, where potatoes are part of practically every meal, but I even loved the sticky, gloppy, made-from-dehydrated-flakes-in-the-school-cafeteria mashed potatoes.  The stickier, the better.  I have a vivid memory from 4th grade, going through the lunch line at school.  The woman whose job it was to dish out the mashed potatoes asked me if I wanted butter or gravy on them.  I was paralyzed with trying to decide.  They were both so enticing!  I held up the line forever, deep in thought about which I might like more, and she finally just gave me both so she could get me out of her hair.  Today I still have a horrible time deciding what to eat at restaurants.  I have to imagine – visually picture – myself eating each thing under consideration, and even then I sometimes hold up the ordering for a long time.  Unless I’m at a restaurant that serves tapas or small plates – then I just order a little of everything.

4 – When I was fifteen, I wanted to be a cowboy.  I was already a tomboy, so it wouldn’t have been too great a leap.  My grandfather took me to Wyoming on a hunting trip.  It was my first foray out of corn and dairy country, and the second I saw the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota, I developed my own weird version of the romantic West.  When we got to Wyoming and met the people that lived there, I only got sucked in further.  We first stayed in a seedy motel near the ranch of a couple named Everett and Fredda Lou, around Lusk, Wyoming.  There were few paved roads in their neck of the woods, and they managed over 100,000 acres of cattle ranch.  Later, we stayed at my grandpa’s long-time friend, Melvin’s.  Melvin was a big, stocky guy, with a mustache that trailed down past the corners of his mouth to his chin.  He always wore a light-colored cowboy hat with a dark sweat-stained band just above the brim of the hat.  He taught me how to properly shape a cowboy hat over steaming water so you could take the “new” out of it right away.  It was very important that a cowboy hat be original, yours, and never look new.  He let me ride his ATV, and I couldn’t stop myself from going faster and faster, even as I started to lose control now and then.  Once, a tire jumped out of the rut on a dry dirt rode, changed my course, and I drove straight through a wire fence at high speed.  Probably lucky I didn’t kill myself.  I sometimes wonder whether it was really some primal draw to the rough and tumble area of the West we were in that made me love it so much, or whether I’d have had the same reaction to any place I might have gone outside the Midwest.  Regardless, those are memories I treasure, even if they expose my inner dork.

5 – I moved out at 18, and after two not-so-great roommate experiences, I finally got an apartment with a guy who is still one of my best friends.  We were really broke, though.  We could barely pay our rent, often had to have friends bring us leftover food from the restaurants they worked at, and never had cash to spare to go out and do much of anything.  We did one of three things.  If we could spare a couple dollars, we would sit at IHOP, sometimes for 8 or 10 hours at a time with random friends dropping in and out, drinking that never-ending-cup-of-coffee or bottomless-pot-of-coffee, or whatever it was they called it, and reading Trivial Pursuit cards to entertain each other.  If our cable wasn’t turned off, we watched lots of talk shows – Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer – you know – the classics.  We tried to come up with ideas that might get us on those shows.  When we missed the talk shows themselves, we watched Talk Soup late at night to get the lowdown on what we missed.  Finally, when neither of those were options, and I’d managed to convince my grandparents to let me borrow their car, we’d sit in the parking lot of our apartment building in the car, listening to a very cheesy love songs station on the radio, singing sappy songs, laughing, and lamenting about our poor lives.  I often miss those days.

6 – Before my first car ( a 1980 Mazda 626) ended up in a metal graveyard, which precipitated the borrowing of my grandparents car mentioned above, it had some unusual behavior.  The car either had issues with the electrical wiring, or was possessed by the ghost of a gremlin.  I could turn the car off, take the key out of the ignition, get out, walk ten feet or more away, and then the doors would lock and unlock themselves in a frequent stuttering rhythm.  It was like watching popcorn pop.  My sister’s boyfriend once offered to fix the car for me when something went wrong – a bad starter or cylinoid, or something – I don’t quite remember what.  When he gave it back to me, the car would no longer go in reverse.  My roommate and I often had to sit in our seats with the doors open, each pushing with one leg hanging outside the car to back out of our parking spot.

7 – I think I’ve made clear by now that I am not a girly kind of girl – I grew up complete tomboy-style, loved to knock down boys, am a pretty good shot with a rifle or a shotgun – you get the picture.  That is why I find it particularly odd that the first thing I ever stole as a little kid was candy lipstick.  I don’t think I meant to steal it, but perhaps I’ve fooled myself into thinking that because I just can’t handle the shame of it all (the lipstick part, not the stealing part).  I was five, and when we got home and my mother realized I had the candy lipstick, which she had not paid for, she screamed at me, tossed me back in the car, drove back to the store, and made me go in with my tear-streaked face and my barely audible shy kid voice to apologize and pay for my pinched lipstick.

Now, to pass on the recognition to some fellow bloggers…  Enjoy!

Bottlecaps and Broken Bits – Besides having a great title for his blog, this guy writes some awesome stuff about food, drink, and travel, accompanied by his photography.  He is currently recording his travels in Thailand, a place I have visited twice, and would highly recommend to anyone.

The Wandering Atavist – Check out this blog whenever you need a good laugh.  The Atavist describes himself as a “fish out of water,” and you will likely agree as you read his hilarious posts about trying to be a normal functioning member of society, especially when he’s around anyone of the female persuasion.

Grammar Divas – This blog is great at dispelling grammatical myths and giving practical pointers on writing.  I check it regularly and you should, too.

bassasblog – This is a highly entertaining blog from the perspective of a shepherd dog.  I have to admit I found this blog from someone else’s listing of blogs they love, but since then, I’ve enjoyed every single post, so I’m going to share it again.

Dick Bishop’s Blog – This is a new find for me, but after reading just a few posts, I am enamored with Dick’s writing.  He offers a unique perspective, and posts that have some meat on their bones.  Lots of “tip” stories about blog writing say you shouldn’t write posts that are too long because people will get bored and skip them – I think Dick’s blog proves why you should not censor yourself to any given length, but you should write what you want to write and end it when it ends.

Genealogy and Family Secrets

Depression is one of those plagues that weaves its’ way through generations in families, sort of like alcoholism.  My mom was depressed, her mom was depressed before her, and my sister struggled with depression even as a teenager.  I was depressed in my early twenties, and it hit me hard again when I began to have anxiety attacks in my late thirties. When I began researching my family’s history, I found there was some serious depression that ran in my family in earlier generations, too.

Some of these stories had been whispered about in my family for years, but if I openly asked about them, I was shut down in a second.  My grandparents are still from a generation where family secrets are just that – secrets.  Nonetheless, I set out to validate each taboo story and try to learn more about the details of each situation.  My  grandma’s mother, or my great-grandmother, was born in 1915, the youngest of three children.  Her oldest brother I’ll call Max and the middle child, Eric.  Their father died when they were all young, which would be only the beginning of a great deal of suffering and tragedy for the family.

As an adult, Max left Kiel, where they had grown up, and went to Milwaukee.  He worked as an auditor, and seemed to enjoy city life.  He wrote his mother regularly, and occasionally his little sister, too.  He told stories of the people he met in the city, described his efforts at finding a job, and one of his letters to his sister described a girl was quite smitten with.

Dear Sister,
I still have 20 some dollars in the bank.  If you can get it, I will send home the checkbook and you can withdraw it and pay your debts.  And, for God’s sake, have your tooth fixed.  I will send home some money if I can.
Give [Eric] the flannels, I don’t care.
[H] and I have been out all last week.  We have put in about 20 applications.  We are going out tomorrow again.
Well, sister, last Friday I had my first date.  I took her to the Wisconsin.  She is from Tomahawk, Wisconsin.  Her dad is mayor, vice president of a bank, and he owns a construction company.  He also has something in a paper mill.  She is the nicest girl I have ever met and she likes black wavy hair.  So, there you have it.
Write as soon as you get this so that I can send the book home.

Max

P.S.  I tried to have her teach me how to dance, but she can’t because she stays with 4 aunts and 4 cousins.  If you can get the money, pay my insurance.

Max had black, wavy hair.  At some point, he ended up in the service – the Army, I think.  No one in my family is sure why he joined, how long he served, or what he did, but he hated the experience.  He complained in his letters home to his mother.

Fort Sheridan, Il.
August 16, 1938

Dear Mother,
Monday and Tuesday we were at the rifle range, but I did not make marksmanship.  My shoulder was blue a little from shooting.  Next Monday and Tuesday we hike to the Great Lakes Naval Station, a distance of about ten miles, coming one day and going back the next.  We have to carry thirty-pound packs, rifle, mess outfits, and cartridge belts on the way.
Please write soon! Tell [G] and [E] to write too.  I have only gotten one letter so far from [S]. That’s a heck of a business. Some men are getting as many as three letters a day and I just have to sit there.  This is the address.  Don’t forget some of it as they get letters up here without even names on them or without the company.

Yours,
Max
C.M.T.C.  Co. F
Fort Sheridan, Illinois

He was discharged at the age of 29, near the end of 1941.  In early 1942, right after he turned 30, he received a telegram instructing him to report again for duty immediately.  He hung himself instead.

Although I didn’t doubt the truth of this story, I found newspaper articles that confirm the details.  In my grandma’s stack of papers, I found a Western Union telegram that was sent by the authorities in Milwaukee to the authorities in Kiel, giving them the details to pass onto his mother.  The family was devastated.

From the Milwaukee Journal:

Former Kiel Man is Found Dead

Milwaukee (AP).  [Max], age 30, an auditor, was released from the army last November because he was over 28. Wednesday he received notice to report immediately for further military service.  Yesterday his body was found hanging in his rooming house.  Police said he formerly lived in Kiel, Wis.

Death Notice by Telegram

This sad story makes me grateful for my life – grateful that in my many periods of darkness, I have never wanted to end my own life.  It also makes me grateful that those close to me in my family who have battled with depression never went so far as to write their own endings.  My grandma remembers little about her uncle, except that he was a sweet man.  She was eight when he took his life.  Whenever he came home to visit, he always had a small present for her.  Unfortunately, after his death, he became a family secret.  No one discussed him or his life any longer.  Perhaps it was because they felt shame about what he’d chosen to do when faced with a major obstacle in his life.  Perhaps it was because the pain of losing him was so deep.  Perhaps it was because they understood the temptation themselves, and knew it was best to keep it at bay by refusing to acknowledge it.

Quotes from my crazy great-grandmother

This weekend, I went through my box of stuff. That box of letters, random medals I got in high school band, newspaper clippings about me or someone in my family – the stuff you keep because it seems important. I came across seven letters from my great-grandmother. I was never actually very close to her. She lived in Illinois, while the rest of my family lived in Wisconsin. We saw her once a year at Christmas, or at big events, like my confirmation, and it was always awkward because no one was close to her. She drove my grandma nuts, and she always made pointed statements that someone would take offense at.

When I was in my mid-twenties, though, I started writing to her. It began because I was planning my first international trip, to Thailand, and my great-grandmother had traveled extensively in Southeastern Asia, which was odd for anyone in my family, but doubly odd given her generation. She traveled before travel was so easy as it is today, and at a time when it was common to hire guides in foreign countries. She was the only person I knew who had traveled internationally, though, and I was curious about her experiences. She was 82 at the time I started this little communication stint, and her mind had already begun to decline some, so all I got from her was this:

“Our guide in Thailand was not one of our favorites. All he knew was about the film made there of The King & I. He also had his girlfriend along which I’m sure he wasn’t supposed to have done. Our guide in Hong Kong told us his name was Charlie Chang, but of course, it wasn’t.”

That was it. I would have loved to learn more, but she was a woman of few words. I’ve been meaning to talk to some relatives so I can capture some examples of the statements she used to make that offended people. I look back at these stories as amusing, but if I ever write about her, I want to be able to include some specifics. I will still have those conversations with family members that knew her better than I, but I found some gems in the letters she sent me. Below are a few.

“Don’t ever say anything, but [My uncle’s wife] always sends me a birthday card and says they will be up to take me to lunch, but never come here.  [A different grandson and his wife] are the only grand-kids that come to see me. they usually go home with a few treasures.”

She loved her “treasures,” random antiques and knick knacks she often bragged about, and dangled like bait  for those who did come to visit.  Then even when my uncle referred to above did visit, she said…

“[My aunt and uncle] stopped by for a day while they were with their golf group.  Haven’t seen the kids since a year ago X-mas and they sure have grown. [My cousin] isn’t quite the cry baby he used to be.”

That was her way of making a compliment.  She probably didn’t say that directly to my uncle, but even her compliments were thinly veiled judgments of one sort or another.  Another excerpt…

“Your grandmother ([Grandma’s name inserted here, as though I don’t know who she is]), is unhappy with me as I called [Grandma’s husband] early in June and told him I had a bladder infection, so she told me she wasn’t going to call me unless I call her. [My name], she never calls me anyway. I could lie here dead for a month and she wouldn’t know the difference. (Don’t say anything to her.)”

The underline in her letter was a bit squiggly, but it was there.  She loved to speak her mind, but always commanded me not to tell anyone what she said.  I’m positive she made random negative comments about me to others as well.  None of us was immune, which was probably the primary reason no one was every very close to her.  She was certainly a character, though.

“Went to a pig roast yesterday with my friend Ruth.  Farmers in her area have that each year.  I haven’t used salt for about 30 years, but they sure had enough on the meal yesterday.  Love, Grandma V.”

She spent her last ten years or so in a nursing home as her dementia escalated to the point where she didn’t really recognize anyone except possibly her own kids.  Her son had been working on getting her to move back to Wisconsin so she was near family as she aged, but she didn’t want to.

“He thinks I should probably move back to Wisc., but I have friends here and I like my Mobile Home.  Don’t want to live with a bunch of old ladies who want to know all your business.”

I love it that she always capitalized “Mobile Home.”  In the nursing home, she quickly developed a reputation as someone who spouted out insults to those around her.  Despite her biting remarks, I have respect for how she lived.  She got divorced after 40 years of marriage because she’d had enough of her husband’s drinking.  That takes a different kind of strength for someone that grew up in the 1920s than it does for people of more recent generations.  She was probably around 60, and she lived on her own after that, supporting herself, and doing things she enjoyed.  Her travels fascinated me, given how uncommon it is for people from my neck of the woods, and even more so for that travel to have occurred when it did.  I don’t know the exact dates, but it was definitely before 1970.  She passed away last December at the age of 95, and although we were never close, I’m glad to have known her.

Las Vegas

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.  That’s the party line, but some of my random trips to Sin City were in my mind lately, so I thought I’d toss a few thoughts out here.  I’ve been to Vegas a number of times, for a number of different reasons.  Conferences, work assignments, pleasure trips with friends, and an odd semi-family reunion with my grandparents and mother.  Each experience was quite different.  Don’t worry, they’re all tame stories.

At a developers’ conference, I spent more time than I like to admit actually attending the conference sessions.  There are only two things I remember that weren’t work related.  One, I dragged an Indian co-worker to the Star Trek casino at the Las Vegas Hilton.  Sadly, the Star Trek experience is no longer, but I thought it was the best thing ever when I first visited.  Who can resist the slot machines activated by hand motions or the soothing blue and purple haze that defied the standard casino assault of horrific bright white lights everywhere?  My Indian friend indulged me, but being from India, Star Trek wasn’t to him what it was to me, having grown up with Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Two, I went on a helicopter ride with another co-worker at night where we cruised at such a slow speed I was convinced we’d simply drop out of the sky any moment.  I’m not a fan of flying in general, and the two times I have been in helicopters, I’d have tried to climb up to the ceiling if I weren’t buckled in, just to be a slight bit further from the point of impact if we crashed.

Many years ago, I went to Vegas because my grandparents and my mother and then step-dad were going to be there.  My grandpa used to go to Vegas every year for a sportsman’s show.  It was a business related trip, so they got to write off practically everything they did.  For years, my grandparents had a big glass vase on a shelf that was full of quarters.  Every quarter they got back in change from some random purchase went into the jar – it was their gambling money jar.  My grandparents are thrifty.  They never had much money to spare, but I think Las Vegas was my grandma’s favorite place to go.  I don’t know if she actually went anywhere else outside the immediate Midwest, now that I think about it.  She loved the slots.  She generally stuck to the penny and nickel slots, and she was disapproving as slot machines became more modernized and you could spin by simply pressing a button.  Pulling the handle was what it was all about, and she thought the buttons took the fun out of it.  More than once, she won enough at the slots to practically pay for their entire trip.

It was on this trip that I found what is still my favorite casino.  Slots-O-Fun.  The name alone gets it points in my book.  This place is a complete dive of a casino situated next to Circus Circus and across the street from The Riviera, which is where my grandparents always stayed, even as it declined and became a pretty crummy hotel.  I’m a fan of most things dive-y, except, of course, hotels.  Dive bars and dive diners rank high on my list, as does this dive casino.  Slots-O-Fun is particularly great on weeknights because it’s not so busy and all the table games are much cheaper than anywhere else on the strip.  Who can argue with quarter roulette?  I spent hours and hours at a roulette table with my mother one night, and walked away a few hundred dollars ahead.  Not bad for a quarter table.

A few years ago, I went with my partner to Las Vegas for a weekend, ahead of a work assignment I had for the following week.  It was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable weekends I’ve had, even surrounded by the steady bombardment of screeching slot machines.  We saw Love, the Cirque de Soleil show set to Beatles music, and it was amazing.  I highly recommend it to anyone who is even slightly a Beatles fan.  My uncle turned me into a die-hard when I was only a kid, so it was heaven to me.  We rode the roller coaster at New York, New York.  We went to the Fine Art Gallery at the Bellagio.  We stayed until closing at a Piano Bar where we had to pay $20 apiece just to get a seat.  I blew $20 more bribing the piano guy to sing Bon Jovi so I could scream it at the top of my drunken lungs.  I hadn’t been dating my partner for very long yet, and she had to head back home before I did.  She left me a note scribbled on tiny pieces of paper from the hotel’s notepad telling me how much fun she’d had – it was during that trip that we both stepped over the line from dating to being unable to bear time apart from each other.  I still carry that note in my computer bag.

Anyone else have some Vegas stories to share?

A funeral in winter

A more somber post today. The writing prompt that struck me in Old Friend from Far Away was “Tell me about a funeral you attended in winter,” so I went for it. For those of you who have read my previous post, Memories with my grandmother, this story is not about her – it’s about my other grandmother, my father’s mother.

My grandma died in 2004, in January, just days after the New Year. Few of us had come home for the holidays that year. Not me or my cousins; not my sister, her kids, or my uncle. It was a smaller gathering than normal at Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think she minded. She was proud of all of us for the lives we lived in faraway places she’d never seen, doing complicated jobs she never understood. She’d lived through The Great Depression, some of her childhood spent in an orphanage when her widowed mother couldn’t raise enough money to provide for her and her brother. She understood that people didn’t always have money to spare, and never wanted us to feel badly on those years we didn’t make the trek back to Wisconsin.

We minded, though. We minded a lot. We had been too busy or too broke to come home just a week and a half earlier, yet here we all were, travelling for a funeral instead of a holiday. It seemed fitting punishment that we experience her death in the darkest, windiest and most wickedly cold days of the year.

In the first couple days after her death, my aunt was a wreck, unable to decide what to put in Grandma’s obituary, afraid she’d left someone out of the “survived by” list, but by the time we got to the wake, she’d stopped torturing herself and decided she’d done the best she could.  The mood at the wake was somber, but not excessively so. She was 90, had lived a long life, and she was ready to go. In many ways, she had been ready since the day her husband died thirteen years earlier. We were sad, but we knew her last days had been full of joy, despite some of us missing the festivities.

I remember being astonished at the vigor in her voice when I called her on Christmas Eve. We talked for a half hour, about everything and nothing. She told me about the latest electronics my aunt bought her, laughing her infectious golden laugh at how she’d never be able to figure out how to use them. She chuckled that still no one visiting could outlast her in the evening.  For years, she’d kept late hours, watching TV and doing crossword puzzles until 4am, sleeping into the afternoon.  She was eager to hear anything I could think of to tell her. I spoke with my dad after we finished. “She sounds great, Dad! It’s like she’s ten years younger! She hasn’t sounded so good in such a long time. I just can’t get over it!” He agreed, with a smile in his voice, and I hung up a minute later to sounds of laughter and music in the background. They say that happens for some people right before they die – they feel wonderful and alive and healthy for no reason anyone can point to. It’s the body’s way of sending you off with a parting gift. I hope that happens to me.

The day after the wake, we held her funeral. We drove in a few cars to the cemetery and gathered in the snow next to a dark and frozen hole in the ground. Everything was gray that day. The sky, the bare trees, the casket, the light, my father’s face. I don’t remember what words were said. I don’t remember who stood where. In those moments, in the punishing cold, surrounded by my family, I was alone with only my thoughts, and even they were fleeting. I simply stood and existed in the whipping wind and desperate cold for what seemed like both an instant and a day all at once.  The wind went through me and I didn’t fight it.  I just felt it in every bone in my body.

After the funeral and lunch at a nearby restaurant, we all gathered at Grandma’s house, determined to deal with her things as a family, as a team, so my aunt wouldn’t have to handle it all alone.  Everyone was encouraged to find something of Grandma’s they wanted to keep, whether for practical or sentimental reasons.  We packed boxes of bedding and dishes, marking them with the name of whoever it was that would take them home.  Her furniture and jewelry was split among family members, and her clothes packed away to give to Goodwill.  After everyone else had claimed what they wanted, I chose a print that I’d always admired.  It was a Picasso print, something that stood out in my mind when I thought of her house.  It hangs on my dining room wall now, a happy reminder of my grandmother that I look at every day.

Piles of papers had to be reviewed and lists made of who needed to be contacted with the news that she was no longer with us.  Social security, a realtor to list the house, her credit card company. As I rummaged through odd notes and papers in Grandma’s bedroom, I found an obituary she’d written for herself.  When I realized what it was, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.  I couldn’t comprehend writing my own obituary.  I read it a few times, slowly, imagining her lying in bed in the wee hours of the morning, jotting a few paragraphs in a pocket-sized notebook, writing her own brief summary of her life.  It was simple, not very wordy, written with pride about those she would be leaving behind, and focused mostly on the idea that she’d gone to be with her husband.  Though I don’t believe in heaven, when I read her handwritten notes, I sincerely hoped I was wrong, and that she had found Grandpa again.