Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Lessons From My Grandparents (The Happiness Challenge Day 28)

Jim and Virginia Rogers
I've been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately.

When I started The Happiness Challenge March 1, I knew I wanted to write something about her sometime this month. Tina even suggested one day that I write about my grandmother and how we used to yell out the wrong answers while my grandmother watched Wheel of Fortune. Frankly, I don't know what Tina is talking about. I only ever yell out the right answers.

When it comes to grandparents, I have been incredibly blessed. My dad's parents were amazing people, loving and kind and devoted to one another for more than 50 years. I hope in some ways that I am like them, that I offer the people important to me the same sort of unconditional love and understanding that Wes and Carlene Bickers offered all those who came into their lives. I wrote this essay about them: The Luckiest - A Love Story.

I also hope I am like my mother's mother, Virginia Rogers. My grandmother is 98 years old. For years, we have joked that she will outlive us all. I think we even started to believe it. This past week we have been reminded that it doesn't matter what we believe. It is not true. My grandmother, who has been in a nursing home for eight years, was moved into hospice care over the weekend.

When I was little and my grandfather was alive, I used to be afraid of his deep, booming voice. He was tall and strong and, when he spoke, the ground practically rumbled beneath your feet. If you know my brother, then you have a hint of just how deep that voice was. If you look at this photo of my grandfather as a young man and this photo of my brother, you will see why there was a day, many years after my grandfather's death, when my grandmother looked at my brother as if she was seeing a vision from the past.
Note: That chick is not my grandmother.
He ain't heavy. He's my brother.

At some point, I came to the conclusion that it was my grandmother who was the scary one, the one you absolutely didn't want to scold you. I think I based this solely on the time she yelled at us cousins to stop sliding down the basement stairs in sleeping bags, a practice that left us shrieking and giggling convulsively.

I always thought it was fitting that I called one set of grandparents the more casual "Grandma and Granddad" and the other set was the more formal "Grandmother and Grandfather." Grandma and Granddad let us play soda shop with ice cream and Coke. They bought us marshmallow cookies. They listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Neil Diamond and Abba. They were only 40 and 41 when I was born.

Grandmother and Grandfather were of a different time. They were in their 60s when I was born. My grandmother wouldn't let us in the kitchen between meals. You want a snack? Have this stick of chewing gum. They listened to NPR and watched PBS.

Eventually, I understood that my grandmother was not scary either. I figured this out when I was in high school, but when did I know this for sure?

When I was 22 years old, I got pregnant. Charles and I lived together but we weren't married. I called my mom and told her. She yelled at me. (She called me back the next morning and said, "Well, we can't be anything but happy about it so let's be happy.") I called my dad and told him. Then, days later, I drove to my grandmother's townhouse to tell her. I was scared out of my mind.

I didn't want to disappoint her. I didn't want to face her harsh judgment. I'm not sure what I thought she would do exactly.

When I told her, what she did was this: She said, "Oh baby" and she pulled me into a hug.

My view of her as "scary" was never based on anything other than my enormous desire to please her, to have her admiration, to be seen by her as someone who does the right thing. Not just the right thing - the SMART thing. I like to joke that, in the Rogers family, we won't judge you based on money but we will totally judge you if you're stupid.

Not so long ago I had a couple of friends tell me that, upon first meeting me, I was intimidating. I laughed at this because, in my mind, I'm friendly and easy to please. One of them said, "When I met you, I knew this is someone who has it all together, who knows who she is." If this is at all true (it's not), it is only because I learned how to present myself by watching my mother and my grandmother. I cannot find one memory of my grandmother when she seemed insecure, uncertain, or unsure in what she believed and who she was.

James G Rogers Jr
There came a point in my life when my grandmother became like a friend to me, much as my mother has. I have always wished my grandfather had lived to see us as adults. I would have liked to have known him in the same way I have known my grandmother.

Grandfather died when I was in seventh grade so my memories of him are all from the perspective of someone small, looking up at an impressive vision of a grown man. He was retired from dentistry and the Navy and I remember how he would wear work pants and dirty boots and work on their property all day. He would come in around noon and my grandmother would fix him lunch, a sandwich cut in half diagonally, a pickle spear, a tall glass of cold beer. He let us drive his tractor around the property and I've always thought grandfathers are supposed to have tractors and pick-up trucks, button-down shirts and work pants, scuffed boots and wide grins. They should have deep baritones and sing, to the tune of Strangers in the Night, the word "Sagabagabu." Pictures of them when they're young should be black and white and look like images of movie legends.

Grandmother, Richard, David, and Grandfather
In the evening, after he had cleaned up, Grandfather would sit in his leather chair and watch the news and Wheel of Fortune. I remember one time he said I was beautiful. He might have said it more than that one time, but for some reason that moment stands out to me. I'm so grateful he could look past all those horrible haircuts my mother gave me when I was a child.

I remember the last time I saw him, he and Grandmother had come to our house for a short visit and they each signed my yearbook. It was sometime during the summer after sixth grade. And by Labor Day weekend, Grandfather was gone.

When I was at Southern Living, I wrote an essay titled "15 Ways to Charm Her" and it included this line:  "Let's keep some things old-school. My late grandfather -- he of the East Texas upbringing, U.S. Navy captain status, and Cary Grant good looks -- would never have allowed a woman to stand while he sat. And if you want a Southern woman to love you, neither will you."
Grandmother, Grandfather, the cousins, Aunt Joann and Uncle James

After he died, my grandmother moved from Center, Texas to Shreveport, Louisiana, where we lived, so we saw her a lot more often. She took me and my brother to Leavenworth, Washington the summer after my grandfather died. Later, she couldn't remember what we'd done during those few weeks. She didn't remember that when her brother, our Uncle Hunt, would insist on a post-lunch nap, she would come up to the room we were staying in and urge us out the back door.

"Let's go for a walk and let the elderly people nap," she'd say. And we would walk along the road that wound up and down the mountain. Tim and I linked arms and walked like The Monkees and sang, "Hey, hey, we're the Bickers and people say we bicker around but we're too busy bickering to put anybody down."

Grandmother didn't remember any of that because it happened during the year after Grandfather died. I understand now how that sort of amnesia works.

Adele, Anne, Amy and Tim in Washington, 1991
After I graduated from high school, Tim and I went to Leavenworth again for the entire summer and stayed with Grandmother in her condo there. I went again a few years later and, this time, my best friend Tina came. We worked the first part of the day, she at her job at my uncle's hotel and me at my job at my uncle's bed and breakfast.

And, each evening, we yelled out the answers to Wheel of Fortune, answers I'm quite sure my grandmother already knew.

When I was in college, I lived with her for awhile in Shreveport. Here is what I learned:

She ate half a grapefruit for breakfast everyday.

She worked the crossword puzzle, the Cryptoquote, and the Jumble in the daily paper. She never left them incomplete. When I worked at the newspaper in Shreveport, it somehow became known that my grandmother had all the answers. One time a co-worker said, "Call your grandmother and see what this Cryptoquote is."

She clipped out stories she found interesting or comic strips she found funny and placed them in a photo album or set them aside to give to one of her children or grandchildren.

She always had crisp $20 bills in her wallet. If I asked to "borrow" $5, she'd give me $20.

She read a lot of mysteries.

She made the world's most delicious oatmeal cookies. When I was 21 and worked at Broadmoor Drugstore in Shreveport, a coworker bet me that her grandmother made better oatmeal cookies. She brought a batch of them to work one day. Grandmother came to the store and dropped off her batch. I won the bet.

She had long white hair that she always wore twisted up and pinned, but sometimes you could catch her in the morning brushing it out and it hung down past her shoulders. It was always a shock to see her hair down, like a glimpse into a parallel universe.

She had a cocktail every evening at 5 on the dot, not one minute earlier.

At 9 pm every evening, her phone would ring. She still had rotary-dial phones throughout the house and the ring tone was harsh and jangly. Many evenings I would pick up the phone, even though I knew who it was and who it was for, and my grandmother's friend, Mrs. Nance, in a deep and formal voice, would say, "Good evening." I learned that it is crucial to have a friend like this, someone who checks in to say "Good evening, how are you, how was your day" and then calls you again the next evening.

When I was 8 or 9 and visiting her in Center, she'd taught me to needlepoint. My first project was a small red heart. When I was an adult, Grandmother taught my good friend Gretchen how to needlepoint. Gretchen would come to the townhouse for lessons. Later, Gretchen and I would have "stitch and bitch" sessions at her house or mine.

When Grandmother came home from a trip to Europe or anywhere else, she'd tell you the bad stuff first, but she'd eventually get to the good stuff.

Grandmother also taught me these important lessons:

Do not drink anything you can not taste the alcohol in.

If you are gambling, put the money you are willing to lose in your left pocket and put your winnings in your right pocket. When your left pocket is empty, leave.
Family reunion, Center, Texas, 2005
Grandmother taught me that puzzles aren't difficult to figure out once you recognize that the same small clues appear every day. Fill in the easy answers first. Never give up before you've tackled the big problems.

She taught me that life is long and that it must go on, even after you lose the people you love way too soon.

She taught me that, no matter when you lose the people you love, it's always going to be way too soon.

Note: Virginia Boyd Rogers passed away March 31, 2012. 


  1. I absolutely love these memories and this history. She is without a doubt one of the most elegant, proper, intelligent, interesting people I have ever met. I am truly blessed to have spent some time with her when I did. She'll be missed when shes gone but I have a feeling you'll still feel her presence. Love this.

    That picture of you and Tim is an absolute fave!

  2. Your grandmother sounds like an amazing woman; I'm particularly impressed by the lessons she taught you. Your timing is perfect; my sister lost her grandmother the day you wrote this post. How wonderful to have so many memories to look back on. (Do you happen to have her oatmeal cookie recipe?)

  3. I love you Amy. Thanks for the memories.

  4. Beautifully written, of course. I love hearing the stories of your grandparents, and your words here shine a light even more on how wonderful they all are. You carry their spirit and lessons with you, and we're all better for it. Your words memorialize each of them like no one else's could. Thinking of you and your family as you remember your sweet grandmother -- she is most certainly proud of you.

  5. What a heartwarming story you got here, Amy. How nice of you to look at your grandparents as inspirations to your every life. On my part, I'm a big fan of my Grandpa, who passed away just 2 months ago due to Colon Cancer - he fought until his last breath. How is Miss Virginia Rogers doing now? With an age like 90+, every birthday should be a blast for her!

    Cara Larose

    1. You have to make the best out of it, Amy. :) You and your grandma look so cute in the picture, by the way. :P I feel sorry for what happened to Cara's grandpa. Fighting against cancer is hard - her grandpa must be really strong.


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