The Grandpa plant: remembering someone I loved

If you thought that story was odd, here’s another even less explicable.


Confession: Once upon a time, I noticed a beautiful plant in a loosely monitored location. It may or may not have been the windowsill of my grandpa’s nursing home. Okay, it was. I made sure the plant was hearty enough to withstand a little pinch. I felt around in the dirt at the edge of the pot until I could extract a single root. I wrapped it in a damp napkin. Then I brought it home and planted it. (I told you before I have occasional problems with plant snitching.)

I named it the Grandpa plant until I could find out what it was really called. I love having plants that remind me of special people. I have Yvonne’s lily and Marlene’s philodendron and my mom-in-law’s Bethlehem sage and Cynthia’s spider plant and April’s creeping jenny and Aunt Rose’s oregano and the kids’ columbine and Sherry’s cilantro… and so many more. Even after I knew this one was technically “purple shamrock,” I called it “the Grandpa plant” for short. Kind of like how Robert goes by Bob.

I enjoyed it for several years, and watched it grow.

That was the story of the Grandpa plant until this spring, when I brought all my houseplants into the laundry room for their great annual shake-up – pruning, transplanting, and regrouping. I had noticed the Grandpa plant was not doing as well as I would have liked in its deep crock; it had grown better when it was cramped. I dug out all the roots (there were a surprising number of them, like mini bulbs), and placed them carefully into a smaller, shallower pot. Then I put the collection by a window – a different window, which was my big mistake.

They all died.

Every stem keeled over and bit the dust, and only one of the bulbs produced a new shoot, a baby thing of hopeful promise until it, too, collapsed.

I was horrified. I’d killed the Grandpa plant, and now it was gone.

Several weeks later, as I filled a jug of water at my laundry room sink, I saw something odd coming up in my African violet pot. You won’t believe this, but it was purple shamrock – the Grandpa plant – just two little curls of leaf, sturdy and determined.

I had not planted it there. I’d never grown purple shamrock in that pot. In the great annual shake-up strange things can happen, but this one felt like a resurrection. How did it get there? How did it survive when my careful tending did nothing for its brothers? (Don’t even think that snarky thought – you are suggesting I babied the others into an early grave?)

I watched it grow, delightedly.


Soon it had five stems or more, and one day as I looked at how the leaves of the shamrock intertwined with the leaves of the African violet, my eyes opened wide.

That violet came from my grandma.

I’d not thought of it before,
but of all my two dozen houseplants (and countless outdoor varieties)
it’s the only plant I have from
Grandpa’s
wife.

I like to think of him in heaven, and her in Ohio, and their plant starts twining together beside my sink.

Remembering Grandpa

When I was a child, I had more grandmothers than I could count—grandmothers and step-grandmothers and great-grandmothers, all beloved—

but only one Grandpa.

ted fishing

Grandpa was from Minnesota—a tough cookie, hardly sick a day in his life. He loved snow and popcorn and apple cider and northern lakes.

josh baiting

He could tell stories that left us in stitches, praying for breath. Like the one about his first date, when a prankster friend put a hunk of Limburger cheese on his radiator. Like the one about his snazzy new yellow car and the neighbor dog who kept coming over to pee on the tires, until Grandpa pinched a 110-volt wire in the car door and the whole thing went live.

kelly and her worm

He’d been a rebel teen who headed for the back forty whenever the preacher came around. But when he found Jesus he never looked back. Powerful revivalist, staunch premillenialist, he was a black-and-whiter, firm in his faith and sure of what he believed.

aarick fishing

I had only one Grandpa.

Photo credit to Andrew Coblentz

Photo credit to Andrew Coblentz

Two weeks ago, I packed up some of his favorite things—fishing tackle, fresh baked cookies, apple cider, and a tin of popcorn—and headed for a park with my family.

popcorn

When I spent his funeral numb, I thought that someday, when I could feel again, I would bury something—maybe get a box and pack it with some symbols: a fishing bobber, a photograph, a whoopie pie—and bury it in a hole in the ground. When I was ready.

memorabilia

Then I thought Grandpa would never like that. Bad waste of a good whoopie pie.

Kelly's first catch ever

Kelly’s first catch: a beautiful little walleye

So I spent time talking and eating and fishing with my family, and we remembered him. This was the way I wanted to say goodbye, because I could not say it when the time was right.

candle 1

To those who wondered if I was finding fault with the church that hosted the funeral, I can only say how sorry I am for the misunderstanding. I hate saying things wrong.

I’ve never seen a congregation so devoted to a very old man… the care and honor they gave him was beyond praiseworthy. I wrote of my own numbness and pain. There are many times in my life when I long for Presence and cannot find it.

candle 2

After supper we remembered what we loved about Grandpa. Some of us wrote it on helium balloons–

balloons

my balloon

regan's balloon

andi's balloon

and then a child counted to three

and we let them go.

Goodbye, Grandpa.

After the funeral

Confession: The only thing worse than seeing someone for the last time is not seeing someone for the last time.

It wasn’t my grandpa after all. Someone had taken him away and left a wax effigy; not a very good one, though they obviously tried. The cheeks and mouth were all wrong. And the hands were not Grandpa’s. I looked at the figure and felt nothing but disappointment. It wasn’t him after all, and my one chance to see him again and say goodbye was taken away.

But we had to go on and finish what we started, had to eat the scalloped potatoes and talk to the people and shovel the dirt, though in the whole simulation I could not find the two people I came to see: Grandpa and Jesus.

We sang his favorite song at the funeral, though it wasn’t really his favorite song but another by the same name, put in by mistake. We sang the wrong song—all five verses—and we listened to clay tongues share feeble words about Eli’s compassionate spirit glaring forth.

The living are selfish with the dead. I imagine that I have a corner on the grief; that he was at his very core My Grandpa. Over here is a camp who loved him better, and longer. At heart he was Our Dad. Here is a large black-clad body claiming him Our Preacher. And here stands his widow, silent and small. She doesn’t say it, but he was My Husband for twenty-seven years. Beneath every claim lies the unstaked mystery of Eli Mark Yutzy, and no one there knows who he really was.

All I know is that he’s gone.

Has been gone this whole week.

I am happy for those who cried yesterday, who recognized in the coffin the man they loved, who laid him to rest. My time is still coming, and when it does I will have no effigy.

*****

What if you don’t feel the right thing at the right time?

The best part about Grandpa

IMG_0987Hard workin hands.

Logger man hands.

I remember how they felt around mine when I was seven, tagging along on his errands. I remember how they looked holding the whoopie pies I baked him, their smooth circles dwarfed by his huge fingers. All of his sons were big sturdy men with hands to match, but nobody had hands like Grandpa.

I watched them split wood and build fires, butcher meat, play cards, wield a hoe, catch walleye, and pop the best corn ever.

They thumped on his pulpit.

They steered his old Steiner around the yard, a grandchild perched on either side.

They sliced cheese and served customers alongside mine when we worked at the same bulk food store.

They covered mine and Ryan’s as he pronounced us man and wife.

He was crazy over fishing, Grandpa was. You take a grandfather’s boat, add a keg of minnows and an ice-blue wake, you get wind yelling in our faces and us yelling back into it for sheer joy, summer after summer. He grasped the rudder, handled the net, picked out pretty little lures for us so we’d catch the big one. We camped on Yutzy Island mid-day for a bathroom break and a packed lunch, our feet hanging in the water. In the evening we ate the rich catch, fresh-fried and crisp, our childish bodies swaying with weariness and the memory of the waves.

IMG_0013

His hands were good at steering courses, filleting fish, and holding the happiness of small fry in safekeeping.

This week I will see them for the last time, the heartiest part of his shriveling body. The best part about Grandpa.

I can’t help hoping that on Resurrection morning, Jesus remakes them exactly the same.

Words from a friend

“In the beginning, O God,
your Spirit swept over the chaotic deep like a wild wind
and creation was born.
In the turbulence of my own life
and the unsettled waters of the world today
let there be new birthings of your Spirit.
In the currents of my own heart
and the upheavals of the world today
let there be new birthings of your mighty Spirit.”

– J Phillip Newell

My grandpa went Home last night.