My grandparents were magical.
My dad’s parents were old. They always looked old, but they didn’t really look old. They were active and vibrant people. They laughed and loved clear down to their bones. When my grandpa walked into a room, grandma’s face lit up. When grandpa teased grandma, his eyes sparkled, and she swatted his arm and let out a little snorty chuckle.
At one point, when I was much too old to really believe it, I decided that my grandparents were going to live forever. They had already lived through some Big Things. As young people, they experienced the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl on their farms in eastern North Dakota. They got married, lived through World War II, raised three children, and got them all grown and educated without much fanfare. They were an unstoppable force together. Grandma survived breast cancer. Twice. Grandpa made it through his own cancer. When my aunt had Parkinson’s Disease, they were by her side for twenty-five years, praying, cleaning, helping with laundry, and praying some more. Nothing kept them down for long.
My grandparents did Little Things, too. They babysat the grandkids, and accepted names like Crappa and Kiddo. They welcomed the step-grandkids and never used the word “step.” They cherished their great-grandchildren, and eagerly accepted names like Tall Papa and Bacca Ila. They handed out fruit on Halloween. They taught us to play cards. Three generations of farm kids played with the same toys, and it was wonderful.
My grandparents did Big Things like they were Little Things, just encounters along the way to be met with grace and love. And they tackled the Little Things as though they were Big, because every moment is important. If the Big Things my grandparents accomplished were superhuman–and living into their 90s after three collective bouts with cancer certainly seemed superhuman to me–then it’s the Little Things that took on a magical aura of charm and mystery.
My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all attended the same Lutheran church. And, as Lutherans, we celebrated three sacraments: baptism, communion, and potluck. Potluck dinners were a chance for everyone to share food and fellowship, which is another way of saying that we talked with our mouths full. My mother typically contributed a cold, Cool-Whip- or canned-fruit-based salad. The more ambitious Church Ladies–my grandmother among them–brought a hotdish and a salad and a plate of sandwiches. And it was Grammy’s sandwiches that I snatched up at every potluck.
They were the best cheese sandwiches I’d ever eaten. A slice of butter-top wheat bread, a little dab of butter, and a slice of American cheese, cut in rectangle halves (not triangles!). I ate several, and each one was as perfect as it could be. I was in college before I learned that my sister Katrina was obsessed with them, too, and had named them Grammy’s Magical Cheese Sandwiches. I quit eating American cheese when I discovered real cheese, but I still ate Grammy’s cheese sandwiches any time I came home to visit.
We lived a mile from my grandparents. Well, it was a mile as the crow flies. Or, rather, across the section, if you were a farmer. It took about five minutes to drive there. It took about fifteen minutes on a ten-speed bike. It took about an hour on a single-speed bicycle in hot weather when the keys got locked in the house and they had the spare key and cell phones didn’t exist yet.
My sister and I spent a lot of time with our grandparents. They were convenient and free babysitters. And they adored having us. Grammy cut our bangs and painted our fingernails bright-grandma-pink. She made us wear “bedroom slippers” (always both words) to keep our socks clean. We had “breakfast cereal” (always both words!) and grapefruit in the mornings. Grandpa drank coffee and Grammy had tea, both sweetened with liquid nutrasweet, during post-nap afternoon Coffee. We ate breakfast-for-dinner in the evenings: scrambled eggs, bacon, and toaster waffles with Mrs. Buttersworth. We sat at the counter and watched Wheel of Fortune on the thirteen-inch kitchen television with the long antenna.
We had a bedtime ritual at their house. It involved changing into our jammies, brushing our teeth, and washing our faces. After we crawled into the bed covered with the hand-stitched quilt my great-grandmother had made, Grammy picked a story from the children’s bible story book that had belonged to our dad.
Between jammies and storytime was my favorite part of the ritual: smooches from Gramps.
Grammy’s treats were stored in a white, plastic Tupperware, her name written on a piece of masking tape permanently adhered to the side. Sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper or washed-and-reused chip bags separated the layers of cookies and bars. Grammy used a similar receptacle for transporting sandwiches to church, also clearly labeled with her name. That is something to know about every Old Church Lady: her name is on every food-carrying dish she owns. Cake pans, Tupperware, and Jell-o bowls were easily switched around in a church basement, and it wouldn’t do if someone else got your lidded green bowl.
While I appreciated the practicality of masking-tape-and-sharpie labels for sending the correct container home with the correct Church Lady, I liked the labels even before I could read cursive writing. I couldn’t read the names, but I recognized my Grammy’s signature. If I found her signature, I found the right sandwiches. If I found her sandwiches, it didn’t matter if the red Jell-o with bananas was gone or my favorite potatoes had run out. I had what I needed.
Grandpa had the same brown recliner for as long as I could remember. Situated in the corner, with the davenport to the left, and two more 70s-era chairs to his right, he could see the whole living room and part of the dining room, too.
The television was viewable from all seating positions, but surely Gramps had the prime seat. He could watch a ballgame and play solitaire on the TV tray, as long as he moved the day’s newspaper out of the way, all while observing the general action of the rest of the house. Gramps was the King of solitaire. He was the King of Cards. He and Grammy taught all of us how to play Kings in the Corner, Whist, Casino, and a half-dozen incarnations of solitaire. Katrina was the reigning solitaire champion by age three, and she learned to shuffle a deck of cards in ways I didn’t master until I was twenty.
After the usual bedtime preparations, our freshly-washed cheeks required good-night smooches. Grammy ushered us out to Gramps. There he sat, in his brown velour recliner, playing cards and watching television, his post-supper toothpick still dangling from his lips. As we walked in, he set down his cards and moved the TV tray to the side. He opened his arms and smiled, and we jumped –gently–into his lap. We watched the toothpick disappear into this mouth, centimeter by centimeter as he scooted it between his lips. The toothpick gone, we each planted a pint-sized kiss on his lips and hugged him around the neck. Kisses delivered, the toothpick reappeared. The disappearance and re-emergence of that toothpick was the single greatest magic trick we ever witnessed.
Dying is Big Thing. Our King of Hearts passed away on an early morning in April. The Church Ladies prepared enough food for our family to last a week. There were no cheese sandwiches, but there were hotdishes, salads, and all manner of bars. I mowed down an entire row of rice krispie bars within two hours of arriving home.
I stood in front of a church full of family and friends and told the story of the magic toothpick. I was almost thirty, and had never figured out how he did it. Katrina and I had checked several times during our childhood; Grandpa acquiesced to each inspection with a glint in his eye. We never found it.
Grammy never revealed the secret to a perfect cheese sandwich, insisting that it was just a sandwich. Gramps never showed us how to hide a toothpick in plain sight. The best magicians never reveal their secrets.