8 min read

To Grandmother's House We Go


When you reach the autumn of your life, it's time to harvest.

When you’re young a trip to Grandma’s house means games, gifts for no reason, uncles, aunts and cousins, all the junk food you want and watching The Land Before Time as many times as you can handle. It’s a celebratory event in a liminal place - Grandma is boss but her rules are different. You’re not on vacation but you’re still spoiled at every turn. This isn’t quite your own home but on the other hand, it may as well be.


As an adult, visiting Grandma takes a decidedly different feel. She serves up some decadent dishes, but now you wonder if she should be eating so unhealthily. Your favorite cousin has moved out west and can’t take the time from work and kids to join you. You still celebrate over too much cake and too many drinks, but while focusing on the past - reminiscing about summers and Christmases that simultaneously feel like just yesterday and a long time ago.



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Before my most recent visit, invitations to barbecues and pool parties for the upcoming holiday weekend littered my Facebook page and I wondered if this were the best weekend to visit Grandma. I messaged my cousins to ask if they wanted to come - “Working this weekend,” said one. “Don’t even have enough left over this month for gas money,” said another. Without an excuse, I sighed under the weight of obligation, packed my bag and threw it in the car.


Each time, the drive to Florida is long and not very pretty. Passing through the panhandle as I make my way around the Gulf doesn’t leave much at which to gaze, so I listen to a Dean Koontz book on tape, a thriller (or so it was billed). Drifting in and out of the storyline, I read off the names on shiny green signs overhead - Lake City. Ocala. Leesburg.


By the time I pull into Grandma’s driveway I’m already late for dinner. I ring the doorbell repeatedly. Grandma’s hearing isn’t too bad for her age, but Wheel of Fortune at high volume drowns out everything else.


Grandma throws opens the door with a beaming smile and too-loud “Hello!” Her bear hug feels less impressive now that I outweigh her by thirty pounds. Her trusty little Lhasa Apso pup, Rocky, claws at my shins, with the kind of pure exuberance only a dog can show for a guest.


blue jay

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Grandma has my favorite white wine chilled and ready for me. Gazing around the kitchen as she pours me a glass, I notice she’s bought an entire case of my favorite wine. That’s one thing about living alone, I think. You never run out of booze. Grandma still shops like the whole family might stop by any time, even though family visitors are few and far between these days. There’s no need for Costco anymore, but she purchases beef, bread and brussel sprouts in bulk, faithfully freezing and defrosting as she goes along.


Dinner is delicious but not decadent. Instead of buttery mashed potatoes, she serves me mashed cauliflower with margarine - “better for my heart,” she says. After dinner Grandma asks, “Do you like the Big Bang Theory? Those guys just crack me up.” I emphatically don’t, but I nod anyway. Mercifully, by the time the second episode starts, we’re fast asleep on the couch.  


The next morning I wake up in the guest room, the sound of the news already blaring obnoxiously loud in the main room where Grandma sits at the table with her toast and coffee.



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When I was little, before Grandma moved to Florida, she had customized a very special breakfast nook in her kitchen. Right where you sat and ate, nothing more than a pane of glass separated you from a small alcove outside filled with birdseed. (Imagine a window that bubbles into the house, right above your kitchen table.)


Every time we ate breakfast at Grandma’s, we’d watch the birds who came to join us for breakfast. I would munch lazily on my Golden Grahams, my mind elsewhere, planning a day filled with pool time, Nintendo and more sugary snacks while Grandma would lean over to point out a bird.


“Do you see her?” Grandma whispered so as not to startle it. “That’s a chickadee. You can tell it’s a chickadee because its birdcall is its own name - chickadee-dee-dee-dee!” The bird looked up, searching for whoever was calling to it, then continued pecking at its breakfast as I shoveled another spoonful of cereal for myself.



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Tiny paws snap me out of my reverie. I look down to find Rocky waiting impatiently at our feet.


“Time for the dog park!” Grandma announces brightly, and Rocky runs to the door in excitement.


At the dog park, everyone else is still in pajamas with morning coffee on their breath. Dogs rush about, under chairs, into bushes, at and over each other.


When I was younger, meeting grandma’s friends meant squeals of delight over my pigtail braids and taffeta skirt. I brace myself for cheek-pinching. But, stripped of my childhood charm, I’m just another adult. They talk about HOA fees going up, the alligator haunting the community golf course, and how much rum was in the punch at last weekend’s neighborhood mixer.


“Al’s wife had to go get the golf cart to bring him home,” one women across the pavilion from me laughs. “He couldn’t walk four steps let alone four blocks!” She’s boldly paired purple satin pajamas with a vibrant red dye job. I wonder if with fifty years of practice I could regale a group the way she can. Looking down, I’m suddenly embarrassed in my mesh shorts and stained undershirt. Grandma laughs, too, not at all embarrassed in her floral print house dress. Every new member arriving to our little circle asks how she’s doing - and of course, how Rocky is doing. To each one she smiles wide and says, “Well we’re just fine, thanks! And you?”


I get to know every dog owner as they come and go, almost always via their dog. One particularly amiable shih tzu, Lulu, prefers my lap to the grass below, and I’m happy to oblige. Grandma and I chat to Lulu’s owners about how often they have to groom Lulu’s long locks, how many tricks she can do (only one, even though they’ve tried to teach her at least ten) and their unfortunate young grandchild who Lulu enjoys harassing. “Don’t get me wrong, we love our Timmy,” says Lulu’s owner. “But everyone gets a good laugh watching him run away in terror from a ten pound shih tzu wearing a bow.”



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By the time we’ve recovered Rocky and arrived back at Grandma’s house, the sun is hot and high in the sky. After dropping Rocky off,  we take the golf cart to a nearby flea market. Vendors hawk American flags for Harleys, icons of the Virgin Mary, toe rings and VHS tapes. A prick of nostalgia prompts me to ask if they have the original The Land Before Time. They don’t. Grandma and I opt for some lemonades and soft pretzels and find a picnic table.


“Look,” she gasps, pointing into the branches above us. “It’s a Golden Eagle.” The bird perches there contentedly, as if the lot of a central Floridian flea market is the most natural place for it to be. “You don’t see those too often in these parts,” she breathes out. I agree even though I have no idea. A twinge of guilt leaves me regretting not paying closer attention to the lessons she gave me years ago in her birdfeeder breakfast nook.


Heading home, we pick up Rocky for another trip to to the dog park. I realize that the dog park is as much for Grandma as it is for Rocky. The dog park is where all the evening’s plans are made. “My granddaughter makes fantastic martinis,” Grandma announces to the owner of a Jack Russell terrier with whom I’ve recently made fast friends.


Skip to a few hours later when we’re sitting in the kitchen, dinner finished and dishes put off in favor of another round of drinks. I’m not a very good bartender but Grandma’s friends all disagree. “She’s a great pianist, too!” Grandma claims. I really, really don’t want to play Grandma’s old organ for them, but with the kind of insistence only old ladies can muster, they compel me to take a seat at the electric organ. I start in on “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from the Oklahoma! soundtrack (even though it’s 7 pm) and everyone sings along.


Just a few bars in and we’re rudely interrupted by otherworldly trumpeting coming from the backyard. We stop and gaze wide-eyed outside to find that a group of very large, intimidating birds have gathered right outside the lanai. They’ve fallen silent and stare at us unapologetically. We stare back, equally unapologetic.



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I chuckle inwardly thinking that it’s like staring into a funhouse mirror. Then I resume playing. The birds restart their bizarre trumpeting. I stop after a few measures, and then they stop, too. I start, they start. I stop, they stop.


“You don’t even know the right words!” one of Grandma’s tipsier friends yells at them. Laughter breaks the tension.


“They’re sandhill cranes,” Grandma explains. “Pretty, but very vicious. They can use their beaks to stab. John and Lorraine down the street lost that yappy poodle of theirs to a sandhill crane attack.” Small, underfoot and braver than usual, Rocky barks at the birds from the safety of the living room.


An hour later, I’ve used the golf cart to safely deliver all of Grandma’s friends home and reclaimed my seat on the couch at Rocky’s leftpaw side - Grandma takes the right. Tonight we don’t even make it through one episode of The Big Bang Theory.



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A full day of friends, music, bird-watching and drinks under a perpetual summer sun - in the state of retirement where you’re meant to live out the autumn of your life - left me exhausted. But there’s nothing liminal about Grandma’s life here. There’s no wasting away in figurative waiting rooms. When jobs, child-rearing and housekeeping are all behind you, there’s finally time to do nothing but but reap enjoyment from every moment of the present. 


The following Thursday I’m back in the city and stressed about what to eat for dinner. I had to stay late at work and now there seems no hope for a healthy dinner as I rush to reach the market before it closes. A flash of bright pink catches my eye. There to my right hanging behind a shop window, a beautiful little bird sits perched in an antique Chinese-style cage. I can’t help but stop and stare. Having caught my attention, the little bird starts to jump along its perch, tilting its head back and forth, back and forth as if trying to take me in. Its happiness is infectious and, chuckling, I take out my phone to snap a photo. I have no idea what kind of bird it is, but Grandma will know. I decide to post her the picture and see what says. Maybe I’m finally beginning to pay attention to Grandma’s bird-watching lessons. Better late than never, I smile to myself as I continue on my way.

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