1942. Valentine's Day. My grandparents were married.
Having both grown up in difficult situations, I always thought it was so sweet that they chose this day to marry.
They had one son.
They ran a cotton farm and later lost it. They moved to town and my grandfather ran service stations up until he had a stroke, losing the use of half his body and slurring his speech. He was often frustrated that he couldn’t communicate with us or move easily. I remember that this made me uneasy and often scared. His frustrations interpreted by a child seemed mean and angry and I, at times, avoided communicating with him. My grandmother continued to care for him, even returning to work at any local place that was hiring, like KFC and Walmart.
They sat up late watching "Matlock" and "In the Heat of the Night." They sat on the front porch and watched the cars ride past. Granny loved flowers and Papa loved trees and their yard was full of both.
Their home was warm and loving and kind. My grandparents had two grandchildren and we were their world. They bought us anything we wanted, always took our side with my parents but, most importantly, they bonded with us. You can love your relatives, of course you do! You can love, appreciate and respect all the adults in your life who took care of you and loved you along the way. But a bond, that's different. That's work. It takes work on the adults part to bond with the children in their lives. It takes effort and love and time and it's something that is worked on over and over. It's created over snapping green beans and getting your hair brushed on the front porch. It's created when we make chicken and dumplings together and you take an interest in my interests. It's not just there because we are related. It's there and it exists because the adult took the lead and created a loving and caring relationship with a child. Bonds aren't given away to people who share common blood; they are awarded to those who put in the effort. Period.
They loved me, unconditionally, and were the few people in my 41 years who have done so. But I was a kid and I was stupid and I never appreciated the effort and the love that I received from them. I was bored at their house. I wanted to be at home with my stuff, my video games and other toys. And as I got older, the games and toys turned into friends and parties. I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my classmates because we would be graduating in a few years and wouldn't see each other much anymore. I would tell them this anytime my grandparents asked me to spend the night. We understand Al, they would say, go have fun. When I was a child I spent every Saturday night at their home. As I grew older that became less and less frequent, until they just stopped asking. I was too busy for them now.
You see, when kids are young and even into the teenage years, they have a sense of immortality. The thought of dying is so far removed from your daily life it seems like something that only happens to old folks or sick people. This transcends into how we view those closest to us as well. We know they will someday leave us but it seems so far away, like it won't ever really happen. Will it? We put off visits and saying what we need because we have all the time in the world. Don't we?
When my papa passed, the preacher asked my grandmother what she would miss about him most. She replied, tying his shoes for him.
During one of the last conversations I had with my grandmother, I was lying on the couch and we were watching TV. She was talking about my grandfather who had passed a year earlier and how much she missed him. She wasn't scared of dying and was ready to go anytime the Lord was ready to take her home. I began to cry. I was maybe in my mid-twenties then. She apologized for upsetting me and I apologized for being upset. It was the first time adult me realized she wasn't going to be here forever and how much time I had wasted not being with her and my grandfather. She was the best person I knew and she loved me so much and I was too busy, always too busy.
And then she was gone.
I still have dreams, you know. Dreams where they are both still alive and I am on the couch. My grandfather is smoking a cigar in the recliner and I can smell lunch cooking. She speaks to me so clearly and calls me Al in her sweet, Southern voice as she asks me if I would like some sweet tea or if I want to go for a walk around the neighborhood. I miss my grandparents so much. I miss the couch and the yard, the smells and the sounds. All of it, I miss all of it. And now, at 41 years old, not being there more with them, for them, is my biggest life regret. What I wouldn't give for one more meal, one more hug, one more anything.
My granny and papa showed us unconditional love, strength and grit and that no matter how hard it gets, you never, ever quit. I will forever be grateful for that.
I just wish that I knew then what I know now. Don't we all?
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