August 10, 2005

Tour of Duty

The family went up to Myerstown, PA this weekend to visit Grandma Kern. It's 14 hours by car, most of it consisting of 4 lanes of divided highway snaking diagonally through the mountains of Virginia.

On the last stretch before her house, we were passing through the Pennsylvania Dutch country and passed an Amish horse carriage on the road. Melissa thinks they're so cute, and wanted to stop them for a picture last time.

"Chris, can you imagine if we had horse carriages back in Atlanta?"
"If we did, they'd be pulled by horses with their legs lowered and had spinning hooves."
"And the fringe on the dashboard?"
"And 'GONZALES' in an arc across the back window."

Saturday, we went to the famous chocolate factory in nearby Hershey, PA. We didn't realize the significance of this at first, but little Matthew HAD just seen "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" twice in the theaters, and sings the songs incessantly, so he thought we were going to Wonka HQ. Well, as parents, we didn't outright LIE to him, but we didn't correct him either. He was excited and had a blast there, so no harm done.

Grandma Kern is 90 years old, and she still has her wits about her. She still walks around freely, keeps the most impressive flower garden in the neighborhood, and lives by herself in a cottage on the outskirts of the retirement home. It's frankly amazing to me, but I hope to God I don't live that long.

But along with the age comes the self-centered reality of retirement. All that matters is what she thinks matters. Everything she thinks is the way it IS. She didn't like one waiter's hair, but Melissa offered that it was the fashion these days for high school boys to have longer hair. Instantly, Grandma bristled and snapped back "It certainly is NOT the fashion! I know, I watch TV, and that certainly is not the fashion."

Exhibit B:
"Christopher, now park up over there. No, over THERE, right by the entrance."
"Grandma, there's no parking spaces here."
"Don't worry about that. You see that spot right up by the bench?"
"Where it says 'FIRE LANE'?"
"Yeah, park right there and cover that up."
"I'm NOT going to park in a fire lane!! I'll drop you off and park around the corner."
"Come on, I do this every week and nothing ever happens."

She's outlived her husband and all but one of her sisters. As her social circle closed, she has found herself more and more alone, a product of her own selective ideas about who is "proper." That was always her word. Dad would spout a constant stream of instructions to my brother and I on the drive to visit Grandma & Grandpa Kern for the holidays. Between my brother and I, she was known as "The Drill Sergeant", and our little song went "Elbows off the table! Sit up Straight! You're in the ARMY Now!"

Grandma was born into a farming family in a coal-mining town in central Pennsylvania. Grandpa sold heavy trucks for the local Ford dealership, and he worked until he was 78. They were never rich by any means, but they had a nice house in one of the cleaner parts of town. But among the people that she knew, Grandma kept a running tally of the "proper" people, which meant people that had money, or people who acted like they had it. Every story she tells us introduces people as "ordinary" or "proper", and if they had money or not. No one escaped her keen eye of judgment.

Today, she's alone in a retirement community, save for her sister, Ada. Most of the people she's ever considered proper are dead, and she's not likely to make any new friends. Over dinner, she told us about a new couple that moved into a cottage down the street. Her first impression was that they weren't proper because the man was about 10 or 15 years younger than his wife. Also, the wife wore her hair long, tied in the back, and that was just not right or fashionable. And with grandma, the first impression is all you get.

As we drove away, Melissa and I were relieved to be out from under her microscope. I wanted Matthew to know something of his great-grandma, but the weekend was devoid of any of the cute, photogenic moments that should have been there. Even three year-olds know the people that are genuinely kind and warm, and those who are not.

It may be lonely for grandma living all by herself up there, but it's the only place for her. Her cottage is the last outpost of the world that she deems acceptable. She's the only person left in the world that she really agrees with. And someday, there won't even be that.

1 comment:

  1. I think you were a little hard on grandma dude. Grandma's issues with propriety had to do with living in a coal town, where the one true difference between the people of the town was whether you acted with class or without it. She is most certainly obsessed with form and propriety, but she is a good and warm-hearted person, even if her idiosyncrasies shade it more and more often.