An added bonus to our Ohio trip was that my aunt and uncle from California were there for the first two days of our visit. We hadn't seen them in seven years. Seven! How that much time slipped by I couldn't possibly tell you.
Joe and Donna were The Cool Aunt and Uncle of my childhood. You know the kind? They were the anti-parents of my childhood, and every kid should have at least one. My parents' house was loving and fun, but with a definite overlay of rules and structure. Staying at Joe and Donna's meant a much looser regime. I remember once being scandalized out of my young mind to discover that my older male cousins wore only boxer shorts to bed. Mine was a pajama-wearing household, and it had never occurred to me that every single other human being on Earth didn't also wear pajamas to bed.
I once spent an entire week at their house when I was around seven. Donna took me to the base swimming pool every single day that week without complaint, let me brush her long hair endlessly, and bought me an ice-cream sundae one day for lunch. Joe called me "lady" and engaged in long, serious conversations with me about the Betsy-Tacy books I was reading. I was even allowed to sniff his after-dinner crème de menthe glass, which felt very glamorous at the time.
When I mentioned at the grocery store how pretty the multicolored mini marshmallows were, Donna tossed a sack into the cart. That evening, as a special treat for my parents' arrival to pick me up the next day, we crafted a God-awful, sickeningly sweet pie out of pudding, mini-marshmallows, and whipped cream. My 12-year-old cousin and I smashed the graham crackers for the crust using a ball peen hammer. I was divinely happy.
I was so glad that Bear and Bug got to spend some time with them on this trip. They were only three and six the last time we saw Joe and Donna.The main enticement for making this trip to Ohio when we did was that Joe and Donna brought with them from California my 92-year-old Mamaw. By far my closest grandparent, she and I have evolved from sleepovers (chocolate pudding for dessert, pancakes for breakfast) when I was tiny, to writing letters when my father joined the Air Force and we moved away from Pittsburgh, to phone calls in more recent years as my life became busy with marriage and children and her handwriting became shaky.
It was wonderful and difficult to see her. She is losing her memory, repeating things often, and easily confused. She seemed fragile to me, no longer the invincible and independent grandmother of my childhood. Widowed in her early fifties, she never remarried. She put herself through nursing school after my grandfather died, and eventually opened her own business (a wallpaper and paint store that she ran for many years). She has always been supremely independent, and I can tell how frustrated it makes her to have to ask for help.
Despite knowing that she was staying for a week at my parents' house while Joe and Donna went to his high school reunion in Pennsylvania, she woke up and stripped the sheets from her bed three mornings - convinced that she was leaving that day. When my mother helped her to unpack her suitcase and put her clothes in a chest of drawer, she was puzzled and upset to find her suitcase empty the next morning, thinking she'd run out of clean clothes.
The old stories she remembers faultlessly, and I never tire of hearing them. Growing up as one of three sisters (and two brothers), she told me how each of the girls were allowed to receive their beaux in a different room of the downstairs. Mamaw in the kitchen, Edith in the living room, and LaRay in the dining room. At the end of the evening, as a signal that it was time for the young men to leave, her father would start harrumphing and scuffing his feet upstairs. If they didn't heed the signal, a few minutes later he would come marching down the stairs in his red one-piece long underwear. "My, those boys would run out then!" she told me, "One of LaRay's suitors tried to leap over the front porch rail and wound up in the rosebushes with a broken leg."
On the morning Uncle Joe and Mamaw were leaving for the airport, we all got up early to say good-bye to them. Last thing, after we'd hugged and Mamaw was walking out the front door, she turned back and caught my hand, "Be sure to bring the girls to visit me. I just know they'd love Kennywood."
Kennywood is the amusement park in Pennsylvania where my father worked as a teenager. The amusement park that Mamaw has lived three thousand miles away from for more than twenty-five years. My heart snagged, but I smiled and told her I was sure the girls would love it, too.