Janie’s spare bedroom was full of barn wood shelving and canned fruits. Full of canned vegetables and canned meats too. She was nothing if not conscientious and well prepared. Janie wasn’t exactly a doomsday prepper, although she did decry any form of processed food. Especially processed meat. How could you blame her? Raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression, she was free, what we might call nowadays 'off the grid.' A ‘farm girl’ through and through she had always raised her own meat and poultry. Always collected her own eggs and culled her own pigs too. There’s an intimacy in growing and raising your own food stuff. An intimacy uncommon for most anyway.
Skills like gardening, hunting, foraging, fishing, all have this in common. At first, when you’re learning the skill, it plants you firmly on your ass. It’s humbling. Failing more times than you can remember before you get even remotely good at something has that effect. Janie, she never saw the pandemic. Never got to say ‘I told you so. But, ‘being prepared is cheap insurance’ as she used to say. Janie, known to yours truly as Grandma Johncock passed away in 2019.
When we Grieve we’re not ‘supposed to’ enjoy a sandwich or lunch. We’re not ‘supposed’ to laugh at jokes or take time to ourselves and enjoy things mundane or novel. But you do. Everyone does. And that’s ok because most people have this misunderstanding about grief. This idea, that it’s a mutually exclusive emotion. But it’s not, and other emotions are perfectly compatible with grief.
The week and month following my Grandma’s death a lot of tears were shed. A whole lot of great memories came rushing back to me when I got the call that she was gone. There’s a whole lot to learn in life and a finite amount of time to accomplish what you need to. In 40 years on this planet I can say this much: We are wise if we remember a person’s whole life and not just how it ended. We are, all of us, harbingers of lineage and keepers of moments in other people’s lives. My Grandmother Jane would have very much liked to have been remembered for who she was, so let me share with you how I remember her.
That Old Mare:
My Grandma Jane was nearly killed in her barn many years ago. Kicked by her own horse, an ‘old stubborn Mare’ as she put it. She spun around the back of this horse she had owned forever, like she had done 1,000 times before, but it only took one time to get lambasted. That horse kicked and drove her back into a stall door with two mighty hooves. She hit the ground, and would later recount that she thought for sure she was dying. Most likely going to succumb to internal bleeding and the sort.
At that moment she knew exactly what she had to do. So she crawled a quarter mile, bruised and broken, back to her house and put on a fresh pair of clothes, because no way was she going out without fresh drawers on. She resolved that it would be too embarrassing for the poor boys who would have to attend to her if it was her time to go. How thoughtful and pragmatic is that?
With her boots on. That’s how she lived, that’s how she wanted to go out, and that’s how she would want to be remembered. No one could make that happen for her, not even her. What we can do however, is remember her that way, with her boots on.
A Standoff at the Local Gas Station:
I was in the Upper Peninsula Labor Day weekend after my Grandmother’s passing. I saw a pack of candy cigarettes and was instantly reminded of (Romona) Jane Johncock (Miller), Grandma Jane. I remember like it was yesterday when she came home after filling the tank and buying milk at the mini mart in Brethren, MI (High School to James Earl Jones and a few short miles from Tippy Dam for those of you who 'don't know nothing'). The very mini mart just a stone’s throw from my old High School.
I huge fan of old westerns, my Grandma was all fired up because the convenience store had for sale, and presumably ‘was selling candy cigarettes to children’. So enraged she bought every last pack, pointed at the clerk, and told her that if she ever saw another pack of candy cigarettes in that store she would boycott the place for good. She stood her ground. Although she really didn’t want to drive fifteen miles to the next closest place, she would have. I know that much about the stubbornness of Ms. Johncock. And you know what, that store quit selling candy cigarettes.
Pork Sausage and Egg Sandwiches:
When I was very young Grandma would make sure we were at Sunday school every week in the summer. As She got older she didn’t have much use for Superstition and I myself (like George Carlin before us) became persona non grata for critical thinking predispositions and asking too many unanswerable questions. What she did continue to love was stirring the pot. She did. It’s part of who she was.
In Middle School and in High School I spent a lot of time with my Grandma. There was always a fence to mend, gate to install, or barn stall to clean (yes a whole lot of shit to shovel ): But, there was always time for lunch too. For a pork sausage and egg sandwich or flour battered steak. Always time for food and conversation. We spent a lot of time just talking. Hundreds of hours just talking, talking about life, about family, about everything. Most of which shall remain between us. Some of which I have and I will share.
Even after I started college I would stop by for a meal and a chat. She would always tell me that I looked hungry, Her way of saying I was too skinny. She would whip up a meal and we would sit, and we would talk. Then one day she said I looked healthy, her way, I think, of saying I had put on a few pounds: But I asked if we could have lunch and a talk anyway. And she, true to form, was gracious anyway.
I was with My Grandma when Walter, my great grandfather and her (former) father-in-inlaw died. She admired her own father and really loved Grandpa Johncock too. I remember her getting off the phone after hearing the news. She gave me a hug I’ll never forget. We hugged, and she cried, and the look in her eyes in that moment made me think how glad I was that someone was there for her.
As for me, I may have been alone when the call came through that she had passed, but I was not lonely. I held her memory. I hugged children of my own. Even now, some two years later I’m reminded of her and the stories we shared. Let this be a promise kept to remember her for who she was and not just how she left, ravaged by dementia and the confines of assisted living.
A Poem, A Promise Kept:
My Grandma was a Punctuation Mark:
My Grandma was an Aardvark, a Matriarch
Tougher-skinned than any Patriarch
My Grandma was a Hallmark, a Shall Embark
Sent more signals than a Postmark
My Grandma was a Deutsche Mark, a Landmark
Heard more handouts than a Car Park
My Grandma was a Bismarck, an Angel Shark
Had more Brands than a Trademark
My Grandma had a Spark, had a Remark
Had more voices than a Ballpark
My Grandma was a Monarch, a Beauty Mark
My Grandma was an Exclamation Mark!
When I toast, I toast to clean drawers (and you all won’t wonder why),
Michael James Hiller