Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Luckiest - A Love Story

Saturday, I received a package from my dad and stepmother. My family in Indiana has been cleaning out my grandparents' house to prepare it for sale and the box contained items my dad thought I might want: a photo album full of baby photos of me, another album full of photos of my children, and - tucked in the box below these things - a thick binder and two manila envelopes. 


Inside the binder and envelopes were hundreds of stories printed out from the Web site for The Times in Shreveport, where I worked for seven years. My granddad had printed out every story I'd written in my time there. Every single one. 


I cried while I flipped through them. Even though my grandparents are no longer with us, I can still feel their love for me. That's what happens when people give you love that is incredible and true - it lives on inside you even after they are gone. 


Below is an essay I wrote about my grandparents in 2009 a few months after my Grandma passed away. I updated it after my Granddad died last year. What hasn't changed is how lucky I feel to have had such amazing people in my life. I hope their story inspires you to love someone...and love them well.
------
My great-grandmother named each of her daughters after the season in which they were born. My grandma was born on April 10 so her name was Esther Carlene, Esther being really close to Easter. This beautiful woman, however, went by Carlene and eventually relegated Esther to middle name status. She was always Carlene to her friends. She was “Grandma” to me and my siblings and cousins.

In our family, we like to talk about how beautiful she was. That’s easy to see in photographs. This isn’t family bias. This is truth. She had dark hair and green eyes. She had olive skin that made her a tiny bit exotic. When my cousins and I tan, even knowing it’s bad for us, it is because we are trying to look like this gorgeous creature. She had the softest skin I have ever felt. I’ve never forgotten the silkiness of her skin when I would snuggle up against her. 
She and my Granddad owned a pontoon with seats covered in bright orange fabric and we spent our summer days floating on Geist Lake in Indiana. We ate O’Malia’s fried chicken and Mike-Sell’s Old Fashioned Potato Chips. At the end of the day, when the sun was setting and the temperature dipped, I always wanted to sit next to Grandma, wrapped in a beach towel and in her arms. My younger brother Tim would “drive” the boat with my Granddad and I would sit close to Grandma. She was soft and always warm. We would listen to Abba and Neil Diamond cassettes as we crossed the lake to the boat dock. When I hear Neil Diamond songs now, I cry. My grandma loved him. His voice is part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

Seeing she was beautiful was never difficult. Anyone with eyes could see that. My granddad at 15 saw a photo of her, a girl of 14 looking back over her shoulder with a wink and a smile, and I imagine he knew then that she was just about the loveliest thing he would ever find. Why would he look for anything more? He snatched her up and married her when she was 16 and he was 17. He did more than that. He loved her every day of his life. After she died, he didn't say much. He didn't leave the house. If you’d known him back when you’d know this is not the man he was. Wes and Carlene had “happiness” parties. They drank. They smoked. They laughed and loved. And loved and loved.

What my Granddad learned so many years ago and what we all were blessed with knowing is that Carlene was lovely inside, too. She was the kindest woman I have ever known. I felt loved when I was with my grandparents. I felt unbelievably special. I’m sure my cousins, my brothers, and my sister would all say the same. My dad said when my brother and I visited Indiana, we were “rock stars.”

Unlike the rest of my cousins, my brother Tim and I lived in Louisiana, a long day’s drive from Indiana where the Bickers lived. Each June, my mother would drive us to Jackson, Tennessee and we’d meet my dad at the Shoney’s Big Boy. My dad would then take us to Carmel, Indiana for the summer. It’s a suburb of Indianapolis and it’s not pronounced like the city by the sea in California. It’s pronounced Carmel, simple and sweet. My brother and I spent our summers there. Because our dad and stepmother worked, we spent a lot of our time with Grandma and Granddad.

My heart aches remembering it because it was so beautiful. I’m pretty sure I recognized how wonderful it was even then. I knew how lucky we were.

My brother and I spent hours playing “pretend” at my grandparents’ house. Our favorite game was “detective.” I wore my Grandma’s sundress and played the part of the femme fatale. I don’t think we knew what a femme fatale was then but I was glamorous and I needed a crime solved. The dress I wore was white with black polka dots and red trim. It wasn’t the kind of dress grandmas wore. But then my Grandma wasn’t your typical Grandma. She was the stuff of movies. She was a film noir star. She let me wear her jewelry. All of her necklaces hung from a hook in the bathroom. I remember a red bead necklace. I remember a gold necklace with a butterfly hanging from it. I remember a gold locket with a tiny Olan Mills portrait of me tucked inside. 

We would run around that tri-level house and make up mysteries and then solve them.
When we weren’t playing “detective” we played soda shop. My grandparents’ family room had a bar and we would serve up vanilla ice cream in glasses and pour root beer, foaming and fizzing with abandon, on top of it. When it was time for lunch, my Grandma would indulge my preference for cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches. Afterward we would eat marshmallow cookies.

I remember one night, sitting on the porch swing, when my Grandma talked to me about what it felt like to have parents who were divorced. No one had ever really talked to me about how it felt before. I remember the dark night, the porch lit softly from the glow of the living room lamps beyond the windows. There is something about sitting in the half light, the mix of inside and out, that makes it easier to say exactly how something feels.

When I was in college, my mother, stepfather, and I decided to drive to Indiana to visit my brother who had moved there the year before, wanting to be near our dad and figure out the kind of man he wanted to be after years of living with me and my mom.

My mother met my dad when she was in high school in Shreveport, Louisiana. She’d become a part of the Bickers family at a young age and, even after a divorce, still called my Grandma and Granddad “Mom and Dad.” That’s just the kind of people they were. When they loved you, they loved you forever. When we showed up, years and years after my parents’ divorce, with my stepdad in tow, they welcomed him with open arms. They were generous with their love. They were amazing. My mom and stepdad brought my Grandma a Creedence Clearwater Revival CD knowing she loved their music. When my grandparents said they didn’t own a CD player, my mom and stepdad went out that day and bought them one.

If you had the chance to be with these people, to be loved by them, you would buy them a CD player, too. You would buy a CD player and play them a hundred songs they loved.

In my mind, my grandparents always look the same. My Granddad looks at my Grandma with an expression I’m not sure I’ve ever seen outside movies. On their 50th wedding anniversary, she wore a pale yellow suit and he looked at her in adoration. He gazed at her like he was IN LOVE with her. I don’t say this lightly because I don’t see it often. I see people who think they love each other and then a year later they love someone else. Here was a man who loved a woman for 50 years and then some. Fifty years. And then some.

A few years ago, my granddad was in a hospital across town. My grandma was at home, unable to make the trip to visit him. As her grown children left the house to see their father, my grandma said, "Tell him I adore him." It was her last message to him. Within days, my grandma would be in another hospital and my granddad would leave his own hospital bed to go to his one true love and hold her hand as she slipped out of this world. 


On the day of my Grandma’s funeral, as I followed my dad’s Cadillac to the cemetery, I played a Ben Folds’ song for my brother. I’d had it on my iPod for awhile and it seemed perfect and beautiful. It makes me think of my grandparents whenever I hear it. It’s called "The Luckiest."



My granddad, Wes Bickers Sr., passed away Monday, August 17, 2010, the day after the 62nd anniversary of the day he married my grandma. I imagine she was waiting for him as he left this world and entered the next, her arms wide open to welcome him back to her. Hello again, she might have said.


“Hello, my friend, hello.

It’s good to need you so,

It’s good to love you like I do,

And to feel this way,

When I hear you say:

Hello.”


Note: A version of this essay was posted as a guest blog on the Gold Shoe Blog, www.erinstreet.com. Visit her blog. Erin is amazing and has much to say about parenting, writing, Elvis, and the power of gold shoes. 

3 comments:

  1. This makes me smile, laugh, chokes me up, and gives me chills. You have captured it all so well. I love you!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I can never repay them for the lessons in love they taught me. Mom is one of the most influential women in my life. Dad's unselfishness at every turn was a lesson in how to show Christ to the world. Can't wait to see them both again someday.

    ReplyDelete
  3. They sound like they had the love that everyone writes songs and poems about :) This really made me miss the good old days ... my parents were quite a bit like that. Such beautiful memories, thanks for sharing them with us :)

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.