“Is the Pope a Catholic?” replies my husband’s mother, smiling up at Anna, who has at least a half a foot on her now.
Short but feisty. Born of Irish heritage. Humbly brought up in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Married fifty-three years to a quintessential Italian. Raised five children. Hates housework and cooking. Loves her twelve grandchildren.
Digging through her cupboards, Grams is surprised by what she has stockpiled. “Jesus, Mary and Good Saint Joseph, here’s some coconut — ever made Girdle Stretchers, Anna? Oh, and I’ve got a bunch of cake mixes, and here’s raisins, and a helluva lot of chocolate chips . . ..”
Anna removes a baking pan, inadvertently causing a small but noisy avalanche, sending Grams’ Westies, Patty and Murphy, scrambling into the dining room. Grams laughs, assuring her granddaughter that there’s nothing she’ll ever do to make her angry.
Anna and her sister transform the cozy blue kitchen into a science lab, eventually producing a batch of triple chocolate peanut butter chip cupcakes, in which Grams happily indulges, despite her diabetes.
A few days later, we are back in Grams’ kitchen, saying goodbye.
The Beltway and I-270 lead us out of urban sprawl and into pastoral hills and forested mountains. Three hours into our drive, signs of civilization dwindle to tiny towns, coal trucks, and soft serve ice cream joints, as our minivan rolls deeper into rural Western Pennsylvania.
While the kids snooze, I make a mental “To Do” list of the things I need to do when we arrive at our final destination. Thankfully, our ninth military move from Mayport, Florida to Newport, Rhode Island has made our summer visits with the grandmothers a bit easier, since they both live on the way.
“Kids, wake up! We’re almost at Grammy’s house!” I say, peering into the rear view mirror at open mouths, drooping heads, and sprawled legs.
Once in the driveway, the girls run giggling from the minivan, sneaking up to Grammy’s kitchen window to scare her. Mercifully, their plan is foiled by Oscar, the stereotypically Napoleonic dachshund, whose sharp bark is as good as any home security system.
Grammy appears at the side door, miniature Cujo at her feet, forcing the girls to settle for a lame “Boo!” from the shrubs.
“Wait! Go back!” Grammy pleads, “You have to come through the Secret Garden!”
My mother was a first grade teacher for thirty years. Despite retirement, it’s still in her blood. Sticking to the schedule, Grammy leads us back to the driveway so that we must walk through the trees that she had carefully pruned and adorned with lanterns and birdhouses.
With Step 1 of her plan complete, we finally hug and kiss hello.
Much like Grams’ house, we congregate in the kitchen. With us seated at the booth she painted with red apples so many years ago, Grammy seizes the opportunity to have our undivided attention. She reaches into a kitchen drawer, retrieving four typed handouts; each colorfully highlighted and decorated with sparkly smiley face stickers.
“Kids, during your stay here at ‘Grammy Camp,’ there are some rules which must be followed,” she says only half-seriously.
“Seriously?” Anna replies, only half-seriously.
The girls look at each other and smile. They know how Grammy is. A mix of Romper Room’s corny but nurturing Miss Patty, Hodgepodge Lodge’s nature-loving Miss Jean, and Magic School Bus’ scatter-brained Miss Frizzle.
She goes over her “Camper’s Guide to Health & Happiness,” explaining the finicky plumbing which still uses well water, and upcoming “mandatory” participation in creative activities like making gourd birdhouses.
In the days to follow, we follow her plan. Before we know it, we are back in Grammy’s kitchen, saying goodbye.
As my minivan heads northward again to our next home in Rhode Island, I wonder what it would be like if we weren’t in the Navy and lived closer to family. Between the exits I realize: the rarity of our time with Grams and Grammy is precisely what makes it so precious.