Friday, about 5 p.m. I spooned freshly pan-fried slices of chicken, still hot, into plastic, pink dishes for Grace and Anna. I added another spoonful, this time of four-cheese macaroni and cheese, into each dish.
“Girls!” I called. “Dinner’s ready!”
The girls burst into the kitchen, and I ushered them into the breakfast nook to eat. From the basement, I heard the dryer beeeeep. Before I could run downstairs to grab our clean clothes, the front door creaked open.
“Dad!” Anna said, in between a mouthful of mac and cheese.
Grace ran to greet him. “You made it home just in time!”
Stanton hugged her. “Just in time for what?”
“And it’s good!” Anna yelled.
“Figure out what you’d like to eat”—my greeting to Stanton. “We’re almost ready to go.”
My maternal grandmother had just turned 90, and that weekend, my three siblings and I were gathering at my parents’ house to celebrate this milestone birthday. Stanton, the girls and I would make the drive that evening, about a three-hour trip south from our home. A manageable excursion, although traveling with kids is never easy, per se.
“Can we get McFlurrys before we go?”
“Honey, you and Anna just had ice cream.”
“Mommy, can I have more ice cream?”
“Mom! Anna just spilled her water, again!”
“Stanton! Where did you go?”
Traveling with kids. (And we were still in the house at this point.)
About an hour later, the four of us were on the road to my Pennsylvania hometown. The drive through the Hudson Valley and Catskills is panoramically beautiful; we watched the sun set, softening from orange to yellow, near the New York/Pennsylvania border. In between the girls’ eventual snoring in the backseat and Ed Sheeran’s bring-you-to-your-knees voice on the radio (“And darling I will be loving you ’til we’re 70”), the thought that runs through all moms’ heads mid-road trip ran through mine: Did I forget anything important?
The next morning, Saturday, Stanton and I went for a rare walk together while my parents, brothers and sister entertained the girls. We took a route of back roads that my childhood best friend and I called “the monster walk” years ago.
“This is the monster walk?” Stanton asked, holding my hand as we trekked down a hill. (Kate, if you’re reading this, we were on Church Street at the time.)
“This is it,” I said.
Later, back in my parents’ kitchen, I told my family that I wanted to write a blog post (this is that post, friends) based on Grace’s quote from the evening before. “I love the idea of making it home just in time,” I said. Then someone said something witty, and I noted that that quote would make for a good post too.
My sister raised her eyebrows. “You’re just sitting here, waiting around for us to say something to inspire you.”
“That’s not…completely true,” I told Jenna.
Jenna and I began looking through a box of our Grandma’s mementos, which our mom had brought out of storage. Grandma had saved a drawing of a teddy bear I made for her when I was 6 or 7. “Awww.”
Jenna showed me some old family photos. We both agreed I had had some awkward years. I texted snapshots of some of the photos to family who weren’t able to be with us that weekend; we all shared some laughs (or, more accurately, LOL’s and smiley-face emojis).
Despite some cringe-worthy blasts from the past, I really appreciated having someone to share these memories with. I hoped, not for the first time, that my own daughters would stay close all their lives too.
On the subject of memories, my siblings and I had each come up with five memories of Grandma, that Josh typed up and then collected into a keepsake box—a “memory box” of sorts for our grandmother. One of Josh’s memories made us smile: When we were little, on half days from school, Grandma would pick all of us up (our parents would be working) and take us to Burger King for lunch. And every time, on our way out, Grandma would say, “Refill your cup before you go.” I’m not sure if Burger King still offers free refills (I haven’t been there since those half days from school with Grandma), but “Refill your cup before you go” isn’t bad advice, would you agree? 🙂
Jared remembered needing a ride to his after-school job at the Y. He was running late, and he called Grandma. “You got me there in 5 minutes,” he wrote for the memory box—and it should have been more than a 5-minute drive. (Grandma had a bit of a lead foot, back in her driving days.)
Despite some cringe-worthy blasts from the past, I really appreciated having someone to share these memories with.
Jenna had a sweet memory of coffee breaks with Grandma, going up to Grandma’s house (she lived just one block from us) for regular afternoon caffeine fixes and chitchat.
I remembered calling Grandma to tell her I was expecting Grace, and she would be a great-grandmother. Then I said, over the phone line from San Antonio to Northeastern Pennsylvania at the time, “Thank you for everything you did for Josh, Jared, Jenna and me,” to which Grandma replied, “You kids were my life.”
I remember that phone call, that conversation, where I was that day, and that was exactly what my grandmother said: “You kids were my life.”
When I was growing up, my family went to a local Italian restaurant, Perugino’s, for special occasions. We did not branch out; we went there all the time. Stanton’s parents also hosted our wedding rehearsal dinner there, which I may have shared here before. Perugino’s is very special to my family. Thus, we had to have Perugino’s for Grandma’s 90th birthday celebration.
We did not branch out; we went there all the time.
We got takeout this time—easier to eat at home. My mom ordered our old favorite, Chicken a la Andy, along with manicotti and pasta e fagioli. (Side note: If you go through life without trying Perugino’s Chicken a la Andy at least once, then I’m sorry to say, you have missed out just a bit, friends. 😉 )
Finally, we all sat down—my parents, my three siblings, Stanton, the girls, myself, and the guest of honor, my Grandma. My dad said grace, and then he and my brothers encouraged Grandma to say something. “Speech, speech!”
Grandma looked up from her spot next to Jenna. She has thin, gray hair now, and soft, wrinkled skin. She looked around. She isn’t used to being the center of attention, at least not these days. But she smiled and said, “It’s great to see everyone, and I’m happy to be here.”
Her words touched my heart.
My grandmother grew up humbly, the daughter of Southern Italian immigrants. Her life isn’t my story to tell, and I want to respect her privacy. But I will share that, like all of us, she had moments of sorrow and struggle, as well as those of joy.
So for her to say, very simply, that she was “happy to be here”—that was beautiful to hear.
What Grandma said also made me think about the journey we all travel. Life.
“It’s great to see everyone, and I’m happy to be here.”
The truth is, many of us (most of us?) will live fairly ordinary lives. When we reach age 90, if we’re lucky enough to do so, whatever big box of mementos we have probably will hold keepsakes of fairly ordinary moments: family dinners, high school and college reunions, weekend soccer and softball games, summer vacations at the beach, the occasional red-carpet night out memorialized with a tattered ticket stub. We won’t actually have walked that many red carpets ourselves.
And as the recent sad news about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain has showed us, even years of red-carpet walks doesn’t promise contentment or fulfillment. (For those who may need it, the number for the national lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.)
Rod Stewart, himself a living rock legend, noted, “You go through life wondering what it’s all about, and at the end of the day, it’s all about family.”
There’s a lot of beauty in living a fairly ordinary life, I think.
In looking around a table when you’re 90, seeing people you love and lived for, and being happy to be there.
In having a big box of tattered ticket stubs, old family photos and drawings your grandchildren made you—in finding joy and meaning in those seemingly simple things.
In taking a walk, watching a sunset, walking in a front door and getting a hero’s welcome home.
You made it.
You made it home.
Photo credit: Pixabay
Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.