This is a long one folks, so settle in, or scroll on.
Several months ago, my cousin, Julie Longwell , asked me to write a piece about my grandparents, Fletcher and Erma Cumbey, for a book she was producing; a family history based on my grandmother's maiden lineage, the Fliss family.
She did a fantastic and thorough job of researching and documenting the family history, far back into the middle ages, and I can't wait to read it all of the way through.
I figured, though, that I'd share my contribution to it, now that it's been published. My recollections aren't based on any research; this is simply my memories, tinted by my emotions.
When Julie first asked me to write something, I figured it'd be no big deal; jot down a few memories about Grandma and Grandpa and what they meant to me. Simple. Easy.
But, as I approached the project, I kept feeling it overwhelm me. Not in size or scope, but in being able to properly convey what their memories and legacies mean to me.
Many beloved people have played very important roles in my life, but at the risk of inferring that their importance is demeaned, diminished, or lessened in the presence of Fletcher and Erma Cumbey's memories, none, excepting my own parents, has had a greater impact on shaping and molding the man I've become today. If tasked to do so, I might even argue that their influence on me paralleled (perhaps, even, exceeded) that of my father and mother and both step-parents. Certainly, in many aspects, that could certainly be the case.
Sadly, as I grow older, my memories fade and coalesce, becoming indistinct and vague. Yet, many things remain vivid; flashbacks to certain instances that have become the markers for certain points in my life. Not so much milestones as points of access; doorways that, upon scrutiny, open up and reveal a simpler time in life.
There's Grandpa, standing at the sink in the morning, shaving with his electric razor. There's Grandma, apron tied around her waist, preparing something on the stove. There's Grandpa, driving his riding mower around the yard, with me happily bouncing along on his knee. There's Grandma, giving her home phone number to the operator (it was a rural party-line, so Grandma had to tell the operator which number the call was being billed to) to make the long distance call to my mom in Detroit. I can still hear her, and I'll never forget the pleasant and efficient cadence of her voice when she recited that number; "2-1-9... 6-7-2... 3-1-Oh-4".
It was a time that was hallmarked and bordered by a complete sense of loving and being loved; a time of being with purpose, yet being carefree to explore the world; a time of childhood wonder being fulfilled beyond all expectation....
My earliest complete memory of Grandma is one of those still vivid instances in my mind. I was four years old. Exactly. I don't remember if I'd slept in the family room (or was it the living room? I always get the two mixed up. In this case, it's the room that sat past their kitchen and the basement entrance, with a door that led to the backyard), or if I'd awoken earlier and made my way in there.
I remember that room well, though. The sturdy and expandable dining table that sat on the woven rug. The sewing machine that sat in the back, towards the far wall that separated the house from the carport/garage. The Davenport sofa that pulled out into bed. The bookshelves on the far wall that held books and knickknacks and family portraits. On the walls were pictures of Grandma and Grandpa, but a younger version of them that I didn't know and only vaguely recognized; Uncle Tom in his Navy dress uniform, a high school picture of my dad that everyone said I looked just like, even though I couldn't see the resemblance at all; Uncle Pat and Aunt Margie; Tom and Jan's wedding photo; Uncle Bob; and a scattering of other relatives that I only knew by their faces in the photos.
There, in a wide closet-space in the corner, by the backdoor, sat what I believed to be was the biggest freezer in the world. I imagined that it could hold an entire cow, and it seemingly contained every cut of meat, fish, and fowl known to man. And, ice cream. It was a huge, magical, lift-top box. On the shelves above it, sat glass jars full of canning; jellies and jams and berries and tomatoes and a myriad of other homegrown delicacies, all waiting to be opened and infused into breakfasts and dinners and pies and all sorts of dishes of endless variety.
On the back wall (the side of the house facing the barnyard) was another closet, full of boardgames and clothes that I never saw anyone wear. I remember that closet door becoming a makeshift home for a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game during one of my birthday parties... Which brings me back to that day.
My fourth birthday. I'd been laying on the floor, playing with some now-forgotten toy, when Grandma came walking into the room from the kitchen. She looked down on me with the same face she always looked at me with: a face filled with unconditional love and pride and warmth and welcoming. I looked up and saw her face and exclaimed with a proud excitement: "I'm four years old today!"
Grandma said "Why, yes! Yes, you are! Happy birthday, Stephen!" And with that, I jumped up, ran over to her, and gave her the biggest hug I could manage, not being able to even reach her waist then. She hugged me back, and guided me into the kitchen for breakfast.
The memory of that moment has never faded, and I pray it never will. There are thousands of moments with Grandma, just like that, emblazoned in my mind; with Grandpa, too. I remember him taking me out back, and setting up cans on a block in the middle of the brick-surrounded burn pile. He brought out a small rifle (a .22, I imagine, though I can't swear to it) and taught me to shoot. I don't remember how old I was then, but I know that I simultaneously felt very young and very grown-up, and I knew I didn't want to disappoint Grandpa with my attempts. I don't remember whether I hit my marks that day or not, though Grandpa said I did very good.
What I do remember was Grandpa patiently showing me how to hold the rifle still, and how to position it so that the recoil wouldn't kick back at my face. I remember him leaning in close to sight the target with me, the smell of his Old Spice aftershave merging with the smell of gun oil and gunpowder and all of the scents of the barnyard around us. He made sure my grip on the gun was correct and firm, then stepped back, telling me to remember to blink before I shot so that my eyes would stay focused on the target, and to breathe. "Take a deep breath" he said, "then slowly let it out. That's when you squeeze the trigger."
I remember climbing up on the roof with Grandpa, watching him as he replaced some shingles. An occasional inaccurate swing of the hammer, in that summer afternoon's sun, elicited the only swear words I'd ever heard Grandpa utter: "Goddamn sonuvabitch." He didn't say it often, and he never said it loud. It was always under his breath; a barely heard muttering. But, you knew when he said it, he meant it. Two words. Six syllables. And, never followed by anything more severe. It stayed with me, though, and I often echo it, even to this day. I wish I could claim the restraint that Grandpa showed with not further expanding my vocabulary, but my own lexicon has grown much more colorful.
Grandpa's influence isn't defined by those brief moments of frustration, though; they're simply warming reminders that he was fallible, like us all, and that his exemplified stature as a man is not an unattainable goal.
I remember Grandpa kissing Grandma good morning every morning, and kissing her goodnight every night. I remember a man that never talked down to his wife; a man that valued her opinion above all others. I remember the man that loved his siblings. I remember the man that had a love for travel; a trait in myself that I can trace directly and squarely back to him. I remember a man that dutifully left for work every morning, lunchbox in hand, and returned every evening with a smile; never with a tired grimace or a cross word. I remember a man that worked hard to provide his wife with everything she wanted; not because he had to, but because he wanted to.
It's impossible to think about them as individuals, though, without invariably remembering them as the couple. It seemed that they approached everything together, as partners, as a team. It seemed as if all of their friends were other couples. Grandpa, to my memory, never left to hang out with "the guys". They visited friends together. They hosted parties together. Grandpa would attend his Mason's meetings and Grandma would go to her Eastern Star. They learned hobbies and crafts together. They traveled together. They relaxed together. Even when they might be pursuing their own interests, they did it together; as Grandma might be knitting or reading, Grandpa was busying himself with another craft (I remember latch hook and macrame being a couple of his pastimes), but they'd be together, sharing a room, content to simply be together and converse with one another. 1950's vintage wedding dresses
Sometimes, the TV might be on in the background, with the sounds of Lawrence Welk's orchestra gently filling the room, or the laughs of Carol Burnett's audience joining their own. Usually, though, it was just the sounds of the house and the the farm and countryside around them that provided the ambience they seemed most comfortable in.
There are so many memories that I can't possibly begin to recount them all here. It would take an entire book, perhaps even a series of books, to adequately detail all of the adventures, journeys, and experiences that they shared with me.
The trip to the Airstream factory in Ohio. The weekends at Salamonie reservoir, boating and camping. Mackinaw Island, the Wisconsin Dells, and the Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania. Minnesota, Iowa, Georgia, Florida, and Washington D.C. Many of the places they took me, I was too young to even remember; but, as an adult long haul truck driver, it always surprised me when I'd happen upon a place I'd thought I'd never been, only to discover a sight or a landmark I'd seen before, most often from the backseat of a Suburban.
I admit that I was a fortunate and selfish grandchild, given over to grandparents that had the means and opportunity to show me (at the time, their only grandchild) the world. I had six long years alone with them, before I had to share them with any cousins, and even afterwards, I claimed the lion's share of their grandparenting time. I don't say that to exalt myself, or to rub it in the noses of my cousins; I know that Grandma and Grandpa deeply and dearly loved all of their grandchildren, and devoted as much time as they were allowed to each one.
Circumstance favored my presence and time with them. My own parents were divorced, each pursuing their own paths and careers, and that afforded Grandma and Grandpa a lot of time with me during summer vacations and winter breaks. I even got to live with them for an entire year, as my mother helped my stepfather begin to recover from a horrible, life-altering accident.
Seventh grade was spent living in Roanoke, Indiana, catching the bus to the middle school in Huntington. Mornings were started by bowls of hot oatmeal and fresh toast with Grandma's own homemade strawberry jams and preserves.
On the bus, I was greeted by a friendly bus driver who knew Grandma well. At school, I was welcomed and accepted by a great group of kids, many of whom had passed through Grandma's kindergarten class. They made a place for me in their circles, never treating me like the new kid or a stranger, based solely upon my last name and relations; Grandma's influence on them had been that strong. She was an integral part of their scholastic tapestry, and every one professed a love and respect for her; very uncommon, in my experience as a student.
I don't know how or where to end this. I guess, to sum it up, that they meant everything to me. My childhood began and ended with them. I strive to be the kind of man that Grandpa was. I strive to be the kind of man that Grandma believed I could be.
There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of them, at some point. The sight of an Airstream trailer, whether it's being towed down the road, parked alongside someones garage, or lodged on a campsite, makes me long for them. I channel Grandpa when I'm putting up my tree for Christmas. Every time I stumble across an episode of the Waltons or the Carol Burnett show, I can't help but feel a strong sense of melancholy. Passing by a kindergarten class in my kid's school always puts me in mind of Grandma.
So many things in life are daily reminders of my grandparents, and that's not a bad thing. It's their legacy, as far as I'm concerned. They're in me. They're in my kids. They'll be in my kids' kids. They'll never really gone; most importantly, the best of them will never ever be forgotten.