My namesake grandma, Louise Riley, (I was born Theresa Louise) passed on February 6th of this year and I’ve been keeping a list on my iPhone of memories of her. I didn’t grow up seeing my grandma often. Living in Alaska, I never traveled to Illinois to visit. It was just too far and much too expensive. The first time I met her and Grandpa was in 1991, the summer between my 2nd and 3rd grades. They traveled from Illinois to Alaska to see us. It was mind-blowingly exciting to finally meet the grandparents I had previously only known through birthday cards, packages and telephone conversations.
On my list, is “care packages with a grid of electrical tape.” Ask my mom or one of my siblings and they should remember the brown boxes meticulously sealed with electrical tape –going around each side a few times for security. It was through these boxes that I was introduced to the likes of sugar-coated Peep bunnies and chicks, which to this day, were only delicious because Grandma had sent them. Many bootleg copies of Disney movies would arrive to our house in this fashion. Grandma’s iconic handwriting adorned the labels of once-blank VHS tapes that had The Fox and the Hound or Mulan recorded onto them.
Her handwriting is the second memory I wrote down. Not only did it address these care packages, but it signed birthday cards that carried checks written out for five dollars. (A little aside: Before you go thinking that it’s weird to write a check for a seemingly small sum of five dollars, you must know that Mom wouldn’t let us cash the check. No, we had to deposit it into our bank accounts. The whole process felt very grown-up—endorsing the check and making a trip to the bank. And, I’m pretty sure that my annual gift of $5, along with its accrued interest, paid for a portion of my college tuition. Thank you Grandma and Mom for this early lesson in financial responsibility!) Her handwriting also listed out the songs on the copied—ahem, bootlegged—“Christmas Through the Years” cassette tapes 1 and 2 that were the soundtrack to our holidays. We played them so often that in the seconds of silence at the end of a song, we could predict the next one from memory.
During her and Grandpa’s visit to Alaska, there was a lot of pre-work: the usual stuff like cleaning the house, but mostly we were warned to be on our best behavior. We were told not to cuss (and it’s only now that I want to be a smart aleck and ask, “Then was it okay for us to swear when they were not visiting?” Ha!) And, we were told of Grandma’s middle finger. Her pointer finger had been broken many years before in a garbage disposal accident and it was no longer good for pointing. So, she pointed with her middle finger. Do not think or insinuate that she is flipping the bird, we were urged.
Their two weeks in Alaska were spent traveling the state, camping and doing touristy things. In between outings, Grandma taught me to crochet a potholder. To this day, it is one of the only things I know how to crochet and I am a potholder snob. They have to be crocheted. They simply work the best. Proud of my new skill, I made her a set or two.
I was 22 years old when I first went to Grandma’s house. A few years prior, Grandpa had passed, so to me, when I finally got a chance to visit, it was just “Grandma’s house.” Being there was like visiting a monument like Mount Rushmore. You’ve grown up seeing images of this site on television and in books and then it’s absolutely surreal to see it in real life. That’s how it felt being in Grandma’s house in September of 2005. Recliners, the kitchen table, the cement goose on her front porch—all of which I had seen in pictures—were there. On the walls were 8” x 10” school pictures of me and my siblings from 1991. Her Mary Moo Moos were crowded on display. As promised by Mom, the house was huge. And, there in Grandma’s kitchen were the potholders I had made her.
It was during one of my visits to Grandma’s that she unintentionally taught me the word “davenport.” I was spending the night and she kept telling me that we’d just make up the davenport for me to sleep on. I was clueless, thinking she was referring to the backroom where her computer was. But I didn’t want to ruin the surprise by asking her what exactly she meant. Ends up, I slept on the sofa bed (in that back room). Now, for as much as I love to call my screened-in porch a “lanai,” I love calling my couches “davenports.”
Some random memories: she would affectionately call her dog Angel a “little stinker.” She was Belgian—first generation American, making me ¼ Belgian. (This is why I always did school reports on Belgium. Let’s talk about lace, waffles, chocolate and begonias.) She loved camping and didn’t let anything stop her from taking her camper out—even when she began to depend on my uncles’ and fellow campers’ help. She regularly went to gym classes at her community center. Once, at her house, as we climbed the stairs, she commented on how sore she was. She told me that the exercises didn’t look too difficult, but they sure were tough.
At her surprise 85th birthday party just last October, she happily hugged family and friends. Everyone ended up back at her house after the party and the next morning the out-of-towners gathered there for breakfast. It was my last visit to Grandma’s house and seeing Grandma. Before our departure, Mom and I posed for a picture with Grandma—two younger generations flanking her. She wrapped her arms around our waists and proceeded to tickle us!
When you see someone reach that milestone age with so much vigor—the camping, the exercise, the teasing—you can only be inspired. A rainy day no longer seems a good enough reason not to workout. The loss of a job or a minor health setback doesn’t mean you have to give up favorite activities.
Growing up I remember Mom telling me that Grandma would say, “life is what you make it.” I attempted to confirm this with Mom, but she didn’t remember it. She said maybe it was a variation of Grandma’s belief that “if you think something is going to be bad, it’ll be bad. If you think it’s going to be good, it’ll be good.” Regardless, “life is what you make it” stands out in my mind as Grandma’s motto. And why shouldn’t it be? For all that she did, for the icon she is in my memory, she had made quite the life.