There’s No Place Like Home
People used to ask me what I was running away from, as I am always either overseas or in the process of going overseas.
Even if I was running away from something, it would be futile. You can take yourself out of your routine, but it will continue without you.
Last week, I was reminded once again that you can’t avoid reality; life happens to everyone you know, no matter where you are.
My grandmother’s official title in our house was ‘Gramma on the Farm.’ This was technically to distinguish her from my grandparents on my mother’s side (the cleverly named ‘Grandmother and Pop-pop in Florida’), but really managed to sum her up entirely.
Gramma was the farm. She was an institution, and she came with the territory. She inherently knew the rules of how to be a good grandmother: bake, play, laugh, and, most importantly, always keep things the same – just how your grandkids like it.
The inside of her house was awesomely brown, yellow and orange, with a coveted lime green turtle footstool, perfect for sitting on while playing Guess Who with Gramma, your sisters and assorted cousins.
The back room had a never-used front door and rarely-used television. What it did have was an assortment of black and white family photos on the wall, and a big cabinet full of children’s books. One of my must-do farm activities was to yank open the bottom cupboards of the cabinet and empty its contents all over the floor. Gramma would come in and see me surrounded by the Berenstein Bears, Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose, but she never scolded me for the mess, only laughed.
She had a spoon collection that I wanted to look at every time we stayed – miniature spoons from countries all over the world, countries that I didn’t imagine I would one day visit. She had a collection of games to rival Toys R’ Us, all stored in the bathroom cabinet. CandyLand and Guess Who when we were young, eventually graduating to Old Maid, Rummikube and Yahtzee as we inevitably grew up.
She let us get dirty, she let us squeeze into what I now think might have been a chickenless chicken coop, she let us climb around in the barn and play with the kittens and explore the cellar under the house, the one that looked like something out of the Wizard of Oz.
She had stories that no one else could tell in the same way. Because of her, I know that my father “was like a Greek god when he was young.” She was also clairvoyant, making an accurate prediction when my sister was born – “that one’s going to give you trouble.” She taught me the only thing she could remember in Czech – Nazdar, which I later learned means something akin to ‘Ahoy.’
She had rules, too – particularly when it concerned toilet paper. “Three sheets for the big jobs,” she barked. “Drip dry for the little ones.”
She also doled out unsolicited, yet wise advice: “Don’t eat too many blueberries! They’ll give you the squirts.”
Gramma was totally unrestricted in what she said and did not believe in subtlety. “You better get married before I die,” she used to tell me.
She was sarcastic, whip-smart and stubborn to a fault. Once she made a stand, she did not back down.
I wish I would have asked her more – more about the grandfather who died before we were born, more about our Czechoslovakian/Bohemian background. I wish I could have told her in person how proud I was to have her maiden name, Vlach, as my middle name. I’m sure she would have enjoyed hearing about how the woman at passport control in Prague informed me that ‘Vlach’ actually means ‘Mister.’ Gramma never missed a joke.
It feels callous to admit, but I have been expecting this news for a while now. Gramma was, after all, 93 years old. What I didn’t expect were random memories coming out of the blue to wallop me with vivid images, smells and emotions that have been buried over the past fifteen years.
If I sit for just a second and indulge my memory, I am there again – cooped up in the boxy blue volkswagen van, bursting with excitement as we round onto ‘the bumpy road’ (also an official title – Fitzpatricks call it as they see it) that marked the last stretch to Gramma’s. I am fully and instantly transported to a little white house surrounded by cornfields, silos and a rickety red barn. I am never wearing shoes; sometimes wearing clothes; always happy and never bored. I charge across the hot, rocky driveway (the faster you go, the faster the pain subsides) and roll around in the sandbox, muddy clumps of sand sagging in my bathing suit. Gramma sticks me in the tub next to a cousin or sister, cleans us all off, pulls a homemade juice pop from the old-fashioned freezer chest, and plays games with us all night.
I forgot how good life was on the farm, and I thank Gramma for teaching me just how good it can be to be a kid.