Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A great woman

My Grandma Thole passed away last week at the age of 97. She was sharp right up until the end, and went in her sleep, per her request.

At her visitation, countless people said to me, "She was a great woman."

And they meant it, delivering it in a straightforward manner that let you know this was not just what they say at every funeral, or that grandma was just your average woman. They thought of her as a great woman, and wanted to make sure her granddaughter knew it as well.

At her funeral mass, my dad gave a eulogy that included the key moments of her life and served as a stunning tribute to the wonderful woman I was proud to call grandma for 39 years.

The oldest of five girls and raised on a farm, my grandma's education ended at seventh grade. But you never really would have known it. She read the paper every day, front to back, and always knew what was going in the world, the state and most certainly her small hometown of St. Rose, Illinois. She was, after all, the one who told me that a high school classmate of mine was "on the dope."

After 20 years of marriage, she was widowed when my grandfather had a massive heart attack, left to raise three children under the age of 15 and run a 300-acre dairy farm. Surely it was hard, but my dad said she never complained. She taught my dad and his siblings the importance of hard work, passed along her inquisitive nature and, by her example, showed them that there is absolutely nothing they could not do without some focus and determination.

As her granddaughter, I remember rearranging the conch shell, rocks and potted geraniums on her astroturf-covered steps. Her refrigerator was always stocked with soda, and I enjoyed countless bright pink cream sodas while stretched out on her ivory carpet beneath the canopy of her always present quilt frame. A talented quilt maker, it was, in fact, a rarity to visit her home and not see a quilt frame occupying the majority of her small living room. We used to visit on weekend nights, and before we left, we sat down in her kitchen for a bedtime snack of cake or cookies, canned peach halves and glasses of milk. While my parents and grandma lingered over dessert, Sherri and I would poke at the wax fruit in the depression glass bowl she used as a centerpiece.

My sister and I would spend short stretches of time with grandma in the summer, and in addition to riding our bikes up and down her secluded road, throwing yard darts and playing with my aunt's old dolls and toys (this is where I first developed my love for ironing), I would spend hours drawing quilt layouts, hoping that one would be good enough for her to add to her book of designs. I don't think any made the book, and while it probably frustrated me at the time, I think that is one of the very reasons I love and admire my grandmother so much. Grandma was a straight shooter and never sugarcoated anything, no matter how young or old you might be, or even if you just so happened to be one of her youngest grandchildren.

Now that I am older and understand the magnitude of the experiences that shaped her life—being widowed at a relatively young age, raising small children as a single mother, running a farm with 15-, 11- and 6-year-old children to help, seeing two sons off to war and being completely self sufficient and independent, essentially up to the very end—I understand why she was not always the most sympathetic or demonstrative in her affections. And yet, I never, ever, for one minute questioned how much she loved me—as well as all of her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. She may not have ever said it, but she loved us and was proud of us.

And I am so proud to have had her as my grandmother. How could I not be? She was strong, practical, independent, intelligent, and selfless. She never wished for material items or pitied herself, and she always showed others such remarkable kindness and generosity. At one point in college, I remember visiting during a break and apologizing for not being able to visit that much. "Don't worry about me," she said. "You just visit your other grandparents. They need you more than I do."

At the end, she finally needed us—my dad, my uncle, my aunt and their spouses, specifically—and while, even in her weakest moments, no one was going to tell her what to do, I believe she was relieved and comforted to be in the care of the children who loved her and who learned how to be great parents and grandparents by following her example.

I will miss hearing my grandma's stories, her delivery of "oh, for heaven's sake" and her distinctive belly-shaking chortle of a laugh. And I will forever cherish my memories of her and the lessons she taught me. She truly was a great woman.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Charlie, four years

Oh, Charlie, life with you is so very fun. Actually, life with you is very everything — big, fun, fast, important and loud. So loud. You live life as if every action, statement and expression is followed by an exclamation point.

You are inquisitive, imaginative, funny and surprisingly sensitive. You are also quite the charmer, and frequently respond to my requests to clean up or calm down with a compliment. While I appreciate that you like my dress, my bracelet and/or my choice of nail polish color, that doesn't change the fact that sometimes I just need you to listen. And oh, those dimples and twinkling blues eyes. They will be your saving grace and the death of me.

You are in a constant state of motion, and have grown quite coordinated in the past year. You can swing with the best of them, handle a soccer ball fairly well,  and are slowly mastering all of our wheeled toys. When confined to the indoors, you are prone to leaping from the furnishings, climbing on counter tops and generally doing things that frighten yet impress us.

As I mentioned, your attention span can sometimes leave a bit to be desired, but yet you are continuing to hit all of the necessary academic milestones, and can write your name, spell your name (ad nauseum), recite the alphabet, count and correctly identify shapes and other items.

Even on your worst day, Mary Clare would agree that you are a pretty great little brother, always game for Legos, Playmobil and pretend. The stories Mary Clare makes up for the two of you an get pretty involved, and you not only keep up, but add your own creative touch to the mayhem.

Basically, you are the best little guy and we are so very proud. We love you, Charlie Bird, and can't wait to see what you do next.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

All the love

Last week I may or may not have turned rage eyes on Chip and threatened, "If you do not handle these kids right now, I am going to lock them outside and go upstairs." 


Rage eyes and threats aside, lately when it comes to the kids, I have been filled with ALL THE LOVE. Maybe it's just me, but parenthood seems to be comprised of peaks and valleys—often in the same week, day or hour—and right now Mary Clare and Charlie are perched up on top of a mountaintop, gracing us with their beatific smiles. They are constantly making my heart explode with pride and love. Each day they blow me away with what they know, what they do and how they interact with one another. I'm telling you, the cockles of my heart, they are warm. 

Mary Clare is just so grown up. It saddens and excites me all at once. She nailed the end of Kindergarten, is reading like a pro and is ready to be a first grader. The books she creates will make you cry, they are so heartfelt and clever and cute. And funny. She is funny. But now she's using not just words, but expressions and gestures to make her point and make us laugh, and it works. The girl has good delivery. She is as genuine as ever, and so, so brave. This week she is at an all-day gymnastics camp, and leading up to it she did not ask me if her friends would be there, much less how the days would go. It turns out she didn't know a soul there, but that did not bother her in the slightest. She made friends and is having an outright ball. I continually marvel at her flexibility, independence and desire for new adventures. 

Charlie is equally excited about everything. Everything. There is nothing he does not like. His demands are endless, but delivered in such a way that you cannot help but be charmed. He just wants to do all the things. Preferably now. While his energy level is seemingly at an all-time high, he can rally and deliver some patience and good behavior when it matters most. He loves to be outdoors and is getting to be quite the coordinated little guy. He mastered the swing and is getting quite comfortable on the next-step-up scooter and his bike with training wheels. And oh! The looks he gives upon mastering a new feat. They will melt even the coldest heart. "Are you so proud of me, mama?" he frequently asks. And not one to be outdone by his sister, he has taken to approaching Chip or I, board book in hand, and asking, "Would you like me to read this book to you?" Trust me, you want him to read you the book. And you most definitely want one of his tighter-than-tight hugs.

I am so proud. Of both of them. And so in love. So very in love*.

*At least until the witching hour rolls around and all hell breaks loose. Then Buddy is back to being my favorite.