Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Summer of '78

I’m continually amused and surprised by the vast array of scents, experiences, and sights that can trigger a memory. Whether it’s the oily-carbony smell emanating from railroad tracks that flashes me to a London Underground moment or a fragrant whiff of lilacs that remind me of my maternal grandparent’s home along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin, I’m transported.

Monday as I was working on finishing up some paperwork and just generally picking up around the flat, I had a similar flash of memory. You see, I had As The World Turns on television in the background as I was doing things in the other room. For those of you who have better things to do during the day, ATWT is going off the air this fall, just as Guiding Light did last fall, so they are working up to this finale with a lot of flashbacks and guest cameos. Monday they happened to bring back Julianne Moore who enjoyed a good run in a meaty dual role on the soap before her big move to motion pictures. For the record, Meg Ryan also had her early days on ATWT as Betsy Stewart Andropolous.

While I’m a little sad to see the two soaps I’ve followed (sporadically and rarely, to be fair) go the way of all flesh, this isn’t a eulogy to either program. It’s instead a loving memory of my paternal grandmother, who was a great devotee of both shows.

In July of 1978, when I was but a wee young thing, my home was devastated by a flash flood. We were evacuated and I was taken out of my bed in the middle of the night, with our Calico cat, Mittens, and my Dutch rabbits and bundled off to my Grandma A’s house. For a child of tender years, it was a cross between and major nightmare and an adventure. I would find out the extent of damage to our home by accident—seeing it on the national evening news—as my parents had wisely not been explicit with me as to the level of loss and mess.  It quickly became clear that we’d be spending the summer living with Grandma A until our house could be repaired and made livable again.

While my parents sweated and swore through mud and summer heat and battled the red tape of HUD (FEMA’s unwieldy and mostly useless predecessor) and flood insurance issues, I spent a delightful summer with my grandmother.

Grandma A, the Galloping Grandma as a family friend called her, or even the Galavanting Grandma, was a wonderful companion. We’d go on bike rides around her circle and she’d take me with her when she went to the driving range to practice her golf shots. I still, to this day, play with many of her clubs. I have a few of my own modern clubs, but I love using her fairway woods and wooden driver.  The thwack of a wooden club is so much more aurally pleasing than the hollow ting of a Big Bertha type driver.

Now and then we’d go and get a donut at The Donut Hut and stop by to see how work was going at our house and to see if mom and dad needed anything. We'd listen to Herb Carneal doing the Twins games on WCCO radio in the car--sometimes accompanied by a Dairy Queen. And we’d talk, she’d take me to tennis lessons or to the swimming pool to meet my school friends…she put a lot of her life on hold to see to our needs that summer. She also put up with a kid, a cranky cat, and a few rabbits that she’d never planned on—some of those bunnies ended up with names like Slingshot Sam, so dubbed in honor of his projectile pooping abilities.

On the nights when I’d be anxious about an impending rainstorm (I was a little gun-shy when it came to heavy rain for a year or two post-flood) she’d sing to me—You Are My Sunshine or The Moon Shines Tonight on Pretty Red Wing—until I fell asleep. And if she didn’t sing, she’d recite the poems of Robert Service…The Shooting of Dan McGrew or The Cremation of Sam McGee.

And she liked her stories (both ATWT and Guiding Light—I assume she’d probably listened to them both on the radio and transitioned with them to television) and explained what she could to a young thing like I was. A lot of the drama was beyond me at that age, but I got the gist of it and we’d watch quietly together.

I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but my grandmother slyly imparted a good deal of wisdom that summer. She’d been a bloomer-wearing girl basketball player back in the early teens and 20s. Her formative years were spent in Red Wing, Wabasha, and Lake City, Minnesota--river towns where swimming and boating were part of daily life. (Lake City, Minnesota, claims itself to be the birthplace of waterskiing.) As a teen herself my grandmother would swim across the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin. Those were the days of ferries between Minnesota and Wisconsin and excursion boats for young ladies and gentleman.

You’d be safe in saying that for most of her life, my Grandma A swam against the current. She liked to do things her way and she always felt more than equal to any man in any room. In her mind there was no reason a girl/woman couldn’t do anything a boy/man could do. I always envision her young self as a cross between Kate Hepburn and Jean Arthur…self assured, athletic, resilient, mouthy when need be, silly, and above all, someone with a huge heart. She was definitely an advocate of just get out there and do it. A good role model in so many ways for a young girl.

We never get enough time with the people we love…and I’d have less than a decade with my grandmother after that summer of 1978, but we packed a lot into those few years. I’ve a mental scrapbook packed to overflowing of moments shared with her.  I smile at the thought of her running into Jack Dempsey and Randolph Scott in the subways of the Mayo Clinic complex where she worked. I mentally wonder how she found the strength to divorce my grandfather as his political career was on the rise. She was a great storyteller with a quick wit and a sharp tongue at times, but she was fiercely loyal as an advocate and a remarkable woman.

As ATWT winds down and fades away, I’m sure I’ll occasionally think of my grandmother and that summer of 1978. I know she’d be watching this last season and she’d probably be surprised at some of the storylines that are featured, but she’d also enjoy seeing the old characters whom I expect she saw a little as old friends.

As she used to toast, in her best Irish brogue…”May you be in heaven and hour before the devil knows you’ve gone!”

Sláinte mhaith, Norma, and thanks for everything, always.

(from the collection of the MN Historical Society: Maiden Rock, Lake Pepin.

Photographer: Martin's Gallery 
Photograph Collection, Carte-de-visite ca. 1865 
Location no. MW1.1L r37 
Negative no. 55668)

Now the Moon shines tonight on pretty Red Wing,
the breeze is sighing, the night birds crying,
for a far'neath his star her brave is sleeping,
while Red Wing's weeping her heart away.”

1 comment:

Sid Fernando said...

Was it this Grandma's dad who used "Godfrey" coz his wife wouldn't have approved of anything else? Coz, the Galavanting G sounds like she'd have used something stronger than Godfrey!! She reminds me of Kate H. and also a bit of my aunty Dora---who we went to live with when I was 8 after a family tragedy, too. The story reminded me of her and took me back as you took us all down through a stroll through your youth. Thanks for sharing that.