The pastor had said his final words, and there was that awkward silence that tends to follow a service for a rather old man. The man everyone had gathered around was Nelson Hoover, a war veteran, grandfather, father, and fan of fighter jets and the tan recliner that sat in the corner of his living room. I had never met my father’s father, and had only known Nelson in his place. He and Grandma had married after the death of her first husband, Ray Manning. In a way, it seemed like two old friends pairing off to keep each other company in their later years. But now Nelson had died, and people weren’t sure if they were ready to leave the service or if they were going to stay a few minutes and chat.
Grandma looked at the casket and sighed. “Well, that does it,” she said. “I’m never getting married again.”
Back at the house, she spent the next few hours fretting over what she had said. It had been a joke, but she wasn’t sure it came across as one. As if everyone in attendance wasn’t aware of her wry sense of humor. As if anyone had the right to be offended by a grieving widow. We reassured her that no one thought less of her, and she went about the chores of the day, red-eyed and quiet.
|Grandma with my daughter, Lillian in 2012.|
* * * * *
That’s how I knew Grandma. Quiet in her way, and ornery when she decided to break that silence. She was witty, a hard worker, and not the least bit as frail as a 90-year-old woman was supposed to be. Up until the last decade, her kids would still catch her doing chores around the house, lifting things that had no business being lifted, rooting through an attic accessed by ridiculously steep stairs that were a challenge to someone half her age. She was a hearty woman, up until a year ago. In comic book talk, she was a living, breathing Ma Hunkel. A pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps tough old gal.
While her determination and stubbornness never left her, her hearing didn’t feel the same sense of commitment. She couldn’t hear much of what was going on around her, even with the help of her often-whining hearing aids and the occasional shout in her direction. She’d catch a word or two from someone, and have a genuinely funny comeback to it, but the rest to her was background noise. She was content to just sit back in her favorite easy chair, and watch the chaos of a Manning family Christmas unfold. It was just enough to be in a room with these people who had spread out all over the country for one reason or another. She never said that, of course. She never said anything to me that resembled sentiment or revealed her emotions. But when the house was packed, you could see it on her face.
That’s as much as we got from Grandma. When I talked to her this past Christmas, I had ended the conversation with, “I love you, Grandma.”
She had replied, “You too, dear.”
|Ma Hunkel, the golden age Red Tornado.|
* * * * *
Grandma always answered the phone with a color rather than a greeting. That was the old-fashioned Ohio in her. She was the mother of four kids, only one of them a girl. She and Grandpa Ray raised them in a quintessential American small town, population 700 on a good day when everyone was back for the holidays. The house was much too little for three boys who had inherited their mother’s tendency to get into trouble. The kids shared a bedroom upstairs, ducking slanted ceilings, and living through summers so hot they fled to the yard to get a decent night’s sleep. I image boys with slicked hair and white T-shirts, and a young Virginia Manning sitting in her easy chair, smiling at them. And then, from what I’ve been told, one kid would hit another with a hammer and it would be off to the emergency room.
There wasn’t much money to go around, but the kids never wanted for toys. Grandpa and Grandma both had a way with do-it-yourself projects, and the kids benefited from sturdy rocking horses and even a toy meat shop complete with wooden steaks and blocks of cheese. Grandma knew the importance of toys, and there was a steady supply for her kids, as well as for her grand kids. I personally spent many summer afternoons driving up and down her sidewalk in a big wheel, or in the fabled Green Machine.
Sundays for my dad meant popcorn dinners. That’s literally all that was on the menu. Popcorn in front of the TV. And it was a celebrated event, not one that anyone dreaded. I remember feeling the same way about that burnt popcorn during sleepovers at Grandma's where we’d watch I Love Lucy or her favorite Disney movie, So Dear to My Heart. To us, it was exciting. A night at Grandma’s.
|The best thing to ever happen to the world of Big Wheels.|
* * * * *
Grandma visited us in New York exactly once. She had been to Boston in the past, so she wasn’t exactly bothered by the idea of a big city. But that didn’t stop her tensing up as dad drove her from my brother’s place on 190th street in upper Manhattan all the way to my apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn. She had been holding a baggie of cookies when we left my brother’s apartment. By the time we got to mine, they had been squeezed to crumbles.
We took her to a Russian restaurant that week. An upscale place near my house where a friend of mine worked.
“What do you have that’s most like a hamburger?” she had asked the waiter.
She nodded, and then made a face at the garlic butter on the table. She wasn’t about to touch that. It was green. Butter wasn’t supposed to be green.
Grandma’s diet was a thing to envy. Here was a woman who lived off nothing but meat, potatoes, and chocolate, with an occasional pizza or bowl of popcorn in between. The closest thing she got to a vegetable in 90 years were peppers stuffed with meatloaf. And even that was a rarity.
She had learned I loved her scalloped potatoes (which I thought were called “scalped” until way too late in life to be socially acceptable), and whenever she heard I was coming home for a family meal, she would cook an entire extra tray of the stuff. That forced me to go back for seconds or thirds just to keep a smile on her face. I learned to skip breakfast on those days early on.
|Grandma with Gwen and Lilly from 2014.|
* * * * *
Grandma’s youngest son was named Tom. He died suddenly last year from a heart attack. It was one of those deaths no one was expecting. The next time I visited Grandma, she was notably different. She wasn’t the hearty woman I expected. She was smaller, thinner, and had more trouble getting in and out of her favorite chair. A few months later, she fell. Then came the assisted living. The latest in her series of annoying Chihuahuas was adopted by a family with a fondness for annoying Chihuahuas, and the much-too-small house seemed big all the sudden and was put up for sale.
Grandma died last Friday night, surrounded by her children. She passed away quietly, and in her sleep.
* * * * *
The city of Casstown, Ohio has a Memorial Day parade that is easily their number one tourist attraction. There are no floats or local celebrities. Just a bunch of kids on decorated bikes driving at an extremely slow pace and crashing into one another as a result. There’s also a fire truck. It’s really a thrilling occasion.
Grandma never missed the parade, and set up her lawn chair along the street that stretched from the volunteer firehouse to the cemetery. At the graveyard, a few poems were read and a trumpet or two sounded from over a hill. Then the Manning family would march back to Grandma’s yard for a picnic. Picnics were Grandma’s thing. Probably because of the abundance of meat and chocolate. There was also homemade ice cream. Which is everyone’s thing.
There isn’t going to be a service for Grandma Hoover. Not in the traditional sense, at least. I’m told her kids and grandkids will all get together this summer for a picnic in her honor and to bury her ashes. I doubt it will be too solemn of an event. I’m sure there will be jokes that people can’t make now, stories remembered after a few month’s reflection. It should feel a bit different than the funeral we’d held nearly twenty-five years ago, for my mother’s mother. That was more of a traditional service, complete with funeral home and a tear-filled viewing. But Grandma Hoover hadn’t wanted that. She had said she didn’t want people gawking at her when she was dead.
This July, all of the grandkids have been asked to give a speech at the picnic. To share a memory about Grandma with the rest of the family. I’m not sure which one I’m going to choose, but I already know what I’ll be saying in my head. I’ll be thinking, “Well that does it. I’m done with having Grandmas.”
But unlike Virginia Hoover, I won’t actually have the nerve to say it out loud.