Lavender Blues

Sometimes I hear Martha Stewart whispering in my ear. Then I hear Robin Williams in the other. Robin’s yelling, “Carpe Diem!”

Martha’s whispering insider-trading secrets to me. Or she’s reminding me that it’s time to clean and trim all holiday candlewicks to 1/4 inch lengths and individually wrap them (in silk bags?) for storage to ensure smokeless flames and longevity during future candlelight vigils.

(I suppose I should go see someone about these voices in my head, but I’m kind of enjoying the company.)

It’s easy to be derisive about Martha, but I need to come clean and admit that last year I signed up for a Pottery Barn decorating class. They emailed me about their free seminar on bedroom decorating tips, so I politely responded and brought along my friend Debbie.

There we were—more than 30 women—gathered around a fluffy bed in the pre-opening hours of the store. The key to those lovely display beds? The bedding is doubled over to enhance the heaping highness of the comforters in a short-sheeted bed. You can’t actually crawl into them.

Pottery Barn employees spent 20 minutes demonstrating proper bed-making techniques and debating with our assembled group whether military folds versus hospital-bed folds made for more perfect corners.

I whispered to Debbie that I hoped no one ever came over to my home and flipped up my comforter to check out my bed-making skills. I must have been a poor geometry student, because 90-degree angles mean little to me. Instead, a bed inspector would likely find a wadded-up pair of socks I kicked off in the middle of the night; possibly some dust bunnies reproducing beneath my bed.

Here we are, four decades past the women’s movement of the ‘60s, and the Sisterhood was gathered to discuss—not women suffering under Taliban rule; not the plight of young girls in Thailand or Russia—but the various lavender-scented oils that could be added into each laundry load of bed sheets?!

So that’s my confession. I spent my morning listening to discussions on thread count and Egyptian cotton and short-sheeted beds. I wondered what I was doing there the whole time. I happen to love beautifully packaged presents and lavish bows, and lovely, graceful homes. And hey, someone can scent my sheets with lavender any day! But fast forward to the ebbing days of my life, and I suspect I might look back and wonder why I spent even 20 minutes of my time contemplating hospital-bed corners.

Tonight, though, sleep eludes me, and I am thinking about hospital beds. Specifically, my thoughts are with my 97-year-old Grandpa who is occupying one. Grandpa who was admitted to the hospital a few days ago with severe pneumonia and other complications. Although he’s resting calmly this evening, one of his lungs is entirely collapsed; the other is functioning at 20 percent capacity.

His heart is tired from years of life and the present effort to move blood and oxygen through his body now. We’re expecting him to pass from us sometime tonight or on the ‘morrow.

On his 96th birthday last year, I wrote a bit about Grandpa with his strict adherence to the rules of English grammar, and the application of his red editing pen on my vacation postcards.

This weekend, so many other random memories of my Grandpa surfaced:

At least twice when I was young, Grandpa pulled his money out of one bank and opened a savings account in another to get me a stuffed toy: Crocker Bank’s Cocker Spaniel or Security Pacific’s circus animals. I remember delightedly showing my animals off to my dad (who promptly phoned Grandpa to lecture him about the losses he was incurring by moving his money around). Grandpa, famously frugal with his funds, seemed unperturbed by any losses. He just enjoyed watching me play with those stuffed toys.

A few days before my wedding, Grandpa came over to my parent’s house to ask how he and Grandma could help me. I thought a moment and then realized that in the frenzy of preparations, I hadn’t purchased cedar shavings for my hamster’s cage. I’d leave on my honeymoon, and Sebastian would be sitting in soiled sawdust! Grandpa climbed into his car and went in search of cage filler for my rodent.

Grandpa never won an Olympic medal or any trophies. He didn’t publish a best-selling novel. He didn’t distinguish himself by finding a cure for a dreaded disease. He didn’t paint a masterpiece or launch a multi-national, trillion-dollar company.

Instead, he took the time to double-knot my shoelaces and button my sweaters. My sister and I, sometimes our cousins, too, had sleepovers at our grandparents’ home. Grandpa fixed us hot cocoa at bedtime and added blankets to our beds in case we were cold in the night. Grandpa called chocolates “chocs,” and made root beer floats with 7-Up. We indulged in these treats with abandon when we were with Grandpa.

Maybe it’s the nature of being a grandparent and retired, but if Grandpa was parsimonious with his money, he was generous with his time. He’d shuttle us to the library when our parents were too busy. He’d swim with us when we couldn’t be in the pool alone and no other adult wanted to sit outside with us.

In the end, I can hardly conjure up with last night’s Grammy winners in each category. I definitely can’t name award winners from last year. But I vividly recall Grandpa helping me make hammocks for my stuffed animals on his backyard clothes lines.

The long rows of white sheets flapped in the breeze. Wooden clothespins held up our pillowcase hammocks. None of the laundry smelled of lavender. But when I remember Grandpa lifting me up to put my teddy bears to sleep in the pillowcases, the memories smell like love.


We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Grandpa turns 96 today. On their 72nd wedding anniversary last March, he woke up and asked my grandmother if they were married.

“No,” she told him. “We’ve just been living together all these years.”

Grandpa’s memory isn’t what it used to be. He searches my face and tries to remember who I am. He asks me how many children I have. And then he asks me again. (On the other hand, maybe his memory is fine, and he’s asking in rhetorical surprise that anyone would voluntarily choose to have four kids.)

During my visits with him, infrequent because he lives in California, I wondered if he remembers playing soccer with me in their backyard, the laundry line poles our goal posts. I think about the afternoons Grandpa met me when school let out, carried my lunch box and sweater for me, and walked me to their home a half mile away. He’d fix an after school snack for me of cheese toast—his own concoction of eggs beaten with grated cheese and toasted until it formed a golden puff on top of a slice of bread. It was either cheese toast or toast with Marmite, that salty spread Grandpa discovered while he studied in Australia for a period of time.

I wish I saved the postcards I used to send Grandpa as a child. I’d write my grandparents from our vacations to Hawaii asking about my dogs. Grandpa strongly disliked animals, but he dutifully cared for my beloved pets whenever we were away. Dad traveled frequently for business, so I’d mail postcards from whatever city we landed in—Denver, Boston, Atlanta.

Grandpa saved my notes. He’d mark up my postcards, noting my spelling errors and punctuation problems, and go over them with me when I got home. I don’t remember being bothered by his editing. It was our routine. I expected it, and from a child’s perspective, I guess I was just pleased he had taken the time to read my missives and respond!

Although he was two units shy of a college degree, (it was his lifelong lament that he hadn’t finished college) Grandpa taught high school English in Singapore. He was invaluable when I had to diagram sentences. He could readily spot a misplaced modifier or explain a hanging participle. And he loved the Bard.

My Grandma sighs in exasperation when she recounts how Grandpa insisted on shipping crates of books, mostly Shakespeare, from Singapore to the U.S. instead of the heirloom bone china dishes imprinted with our family’s name. When their goods arrived months later by boat, the books were a soggy mess from the voyage.

Grandpa got a part-time job at Loma Linda University’s library after he “retired” in the United States. When I started to write research papers, I’d spend my after school hours with Grandpa in the library where he’d help me find an article in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, track down the microfilm, and show me how to operate the microfiche machines. (Ahhh, for the love of Google!)

When I think about how and why I opted into a career in journalism, I’m pretty sure that some seeds were planted and watered by Grandpa’s own appreciation for language and syntax and verse. Or perhaps I wanted to wield my own red pen one day. Whatever the causal factors, I am indebted to the gifts of ancestors and others, who formed and shaped my world largely through their natural inclinations to instruct or through the gift of time to play.

I wade through my day of meetings and budget projections; story pitches and freelance contracts. At home there are bills to be paid, school lunches to be made, laundry and dishes. And kids. A gaggle of kids making special requests for dinner, sighing over what they didn’t want to eat. Squabbling over who gets to sit at my right hand. Fighting for air space to tell me about what they read, what their teacher said, or to ask me what something means. And sometimes I do think, What does this all mean!? This day-to-day crossing off of “to-dos.”

On Tuesday, I watched our nation swear in the 44th President—the first man of African-American descent to hold the highest office in the land. And I thought about the legions of people who came before this man. People who opted to sit when they were supposed to stand. People who marched while others merely watched. President Obama took an oath of office because others before him offered their own lives in order to see justice flow like a river. It strikes me that decades rolled by before some ever saw the evidence of their efforts. Others never witnessed change in their lifetime.

And I think it’s true that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We see further, we reach higher because of those who have gone before us and paved the way. We celebrate monumental sacrifices of lives lost for a grand cause. But just as significant are those who are just there on a daily basis to feed, clothe, and care for us as they leave indelible imprints on our lives.

Today is Grandpa’s birthday. His shoulders are not as square and strong as they used to be. But across the years and the miles, I celebrate him, grateful for the overlap of his lifetime with mine.

Tonight my kids will have cheese toast for supper.