“The literary equivalent of a summer night, a good friend and a gin-and-tonic: Shannon is a deft writer; a natural storyteller with a wicked turn of phrase and frighteningly specific memory...”

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My 99-Year Old Grandma Saved My Life

My grandma Ellen turned 99 today. She was born in Wakeeny, Kansas, Trego County, July 2, 1913.

Voted Most Beautiful at Fort Hays Kansas State College in 1931

We celebrated with wine and cake. I lay in bed with her last night holding her birdlike, blue-veined, sun-spotted hand, the one that milked cows on her family farm of a bone-chilling November morn circa 1920. The one that held her mother close after her father made the morning coffee then ended his life with a shotgun to the head in their barn in 1932 .

The one that bore my grandpa Maurice’s wedding band on her ring finger in May of 1934.

The one that swaddled my infant mother in September of 1941,  just three months before America and her husband went to war.

The one that helped me catch my first Bluegill at Cachuma Lake in the summer of ’70 at the tender, bloodthirsty age of 5.

The hand that was there to hold mine through my parents’ divorce and their remarriages, some for better, some for worse.

The hand that stroked my hot, sunburned 6, then 7, then 12-year-old brow as she whispered the Lord’s Prayer in my ear at bedtime in her house on the frog-symphony creek. Her God is the only one I’ve ever fully known.

She’s tiny as a child now. Her mind works in a circular pattern, the neuron pathways in her brain iterating the same frustrating ritual over and over again. “I need to get dressed.”  “Grandma, it’s 4:30 a.m.”  “I need to get dressed.” “Grandma, it’s 5 a.m.” “I need to get dressed.” “Yes, I’ll dress you.” “What time is it?” “5:30 a.m.” “That can’t be right.” “Your microwave clock says so.” “Oh.”

Then, just when I’m mentally checking out, she surprises me by singing an old Gogi Grant folk song I’ve never heard her sing before even though we’ve tended many a campfire together in my 47 years. Even though her third and best and last husband, Ned “Rusty”Allred was a cowboy who worked the last cattle drive from Utah into California during the days of the open range.

Her tremulous voice rises to meet the tune:

The wayward wind is a restless wind

A restless wind that yearns to wander

And he was born the next of kin

The next of kin to the wayward wind

In a lonely shack of a railroad track

He spent his younger days

And I guess the sound of the outward-bound

made him a slave to his wander’n ways

Oh I met him there in a border town

He vowed we’d never part

Though he tried his best to settle down

I’m now alone with a broken heart

And the wayward wind is a restless wind

A restless wind that yearns to wander

And he was born the next of kin

The next of kin to the wayward wind.

My grandma’s singing voice is imbued with a mournful beauty. She sings me through the Kansan Dust Bowl, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, her father’s suicide, the many roads she’s ventured down throughout This Land and sits me down at the troubled knee of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. She and I have traveled “a hundred miles, a hundred miles, a hundred miles, a hundred miles, Lord I’m one hundred miles away from home.” Together.

She is my touchstone. My angel. My Northern Star. The blood from Bohemia, Czechslovakia that sings in me. I don’t fully know it now – because you have always been there – but I will miss you, I will miss you, I will miss you when you’re gone.



30 comments

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  1. Christine Macdonald
    Christine Macdonald 2 July, 2012, 22:12

    Isn’t it amazing, what we learn and live through just knowing people like Ellen?

    Beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing. xo

    Reply this comment
  2. Jamie
    Jamie 2 July, 2012, 22:19

    OH I LOVE THIS POST! What a beautiful woman! She sounds like she isn’t going anywhere for awhile, though Shannon! No need to start missing anyone yet.

    Reply this comment
  3. Rosie Carrillo
    Rosie Carrillo 3 July, 2012, 06:49

    How often you make me laugh, how easily you make me cry! What a wonderful, treasured relationship you have! Hope you hold her hand a long while, yet. Thank you for bringing me back to precious times with my own treasured ones who are gone now! Hugs……

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 3 July, 2012, 09:33

      Hi Rosie — there’s certainly a rich history in our grandparent’s lives. My stepmom is a genealogy guru and sent me to my grandma’s with some questions and while she had a hard time remembering things from yesterday she remembered so many things in her childhood with great detail. I wish I would’ve asked more questions and listened more carefully than I have.

      Reply this comment
  4. Wendy
    Wendy 3 July, 2012, 07:50

    This was incredibly beautiful! I’m so nominating this for next year’s BlogHer Voices of the Year.

    Reply this comment
  5. Megan
    Megan 3 July, 2012, 09:33

    Now I miss my grandmother.

    Reply this comment
  6. OCMomActivities - Katie
    OCMomActivities - Katie 3 July, 2012, 10:18

    So beautiful. I never got to know my grandparents very well and that breaks my heart, 3 of the 4 had passed before I was born (my parents had me late in life).

    What a beautiful realtionship to have, give her a hug for me!!!

    Reply this comment
  7. Nicole
    Nicole 3 July, 2012, 10:20

    I’m calling my grandmother right now. I already talk to her 3 times a day because she’s 3400 miles away, but she truly is my best friend and always has been. xx

    Reply this comment
  8. Tania luviano
    Tania luviano 3 July, 2012, 11:22

    I miss my Abuelita!!

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 3 July, 2012, 15:31

      They are the best. I was able to read this to my gram today, but I think she was more interested in her red velvet cake.

      Reply this comment
  9. Carol D
    Carol D 3 July, 2012, 13:53

    What a beautiful tribute to your grandmother. Unfortunately, I was a baby or not yet born when all but 1 of my grandparents passed. You are so lucky to have had her for so long. Please don’t waste time missing something that you still have. And I can tell that you treasure her and that is really wonderful to see.

    Reply this comment
  10. Corporate Wife
    Corporate Wife 3 July, 2012, 15:57

    Honestly, the tears were flowing here. My mom was born in the 20’s & was only six when her own mother committed suicide. My mother lived what some would describe as a difficult life, but I never knew any of it as a child. She was all love, probably like your dear grandmother. Keep holding her hand.

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 4 July, 2012, 13:02

      Hi there — it’s amazing the challenges our elders faced that we’ll never know. When I look at my tiny grandma it’s hard to believe all the hardships she’s overcome.

      Reply this comment
  11. Kelly McMahon
    Kelly McMahon 3 July, 2012, 16:38

    Great post, Shan. The portraits your paint of your familial relationships are my faves – deep and meaningful.

    Reply this comment
  12. Cathy
    Cathy 3 July, 2012, 19:15

    Beautiful have you read it to her?

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 4 July, 2012, 13:03

      I did read it to her yesterday, she’s a little in and out these days, but started signing right along to The Wayward Wind.

      Reply this comment
  13. Florinda
    Florinda 3 July, 2012, 19:18

    What a great tribute, and how fortunate you are to have your grandma still around. Happy birthday to her!

    Reply this comment
  14. Desiree Eaglin
    Desiree Eaglin 3 July, 2012, 19:48

    Sincerely amazing. My favorite piece you’ve written yet.

    Reply this comment
  15. Ciaran
    Ciaran 3 July, 2012, 21:46

    Beautiful. Like you. I like you when you’re like this!

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 4 July, 2012, 13:17

      Hi Ciaran — thanks for reading. I have to step away from my vanity from post to post.

      Reply this comment
  16. Sila
    Sila 3 July, 2012, 22:14

    Very beautiful and heartwarming. May Heavenly Father give her many more birthdays and more treasured memories for you and your family. I wish I had such happy memories with my grandparents.

    Reply this comment
  17. Shelby Barone
    Shelby Barone 4 July, 2012, 08:10

    Happy Birthday to your Grandma. What an amazing woman!

    Reply this comment
  18. Zoe
    Zoe 9 July, 2012, 08:37

    Really beautiful.

    Reply this comment
  19. Kat
    Kat 10 July, 2012, 17:51

    Oh, you make me miss my Czech Babi!

    Reply this comment

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