The Grown Up's Table

Content Index: PC183

By Lisa Nesler

Almost all of my memories of my grandma would have to include my grandpa as well, because wherever one was, the other was usually nearby. It was grandma that kept grandpa in check. I am for certain my grandparent’s long, healthy life was a result of her advocacy for a healthy lifestyle. She made sure my grandpa didn’t eat one too many Oreos for breakfast, or have more than a couple of Budweisers while grilling hamburgers in the evening. When his cholesterol got too high, she rationed his servings of cheese. She encouraged him to give up cigars and pipe smoking. She was a health food nut and vitamin connoisseur before the age of GNC. She knew about home remedies and alternative treatments decades earlier than the Internet was dreamed of, and before Webster’s Dictionary considered Google a noun and a verb. My grandma composted and recycled before recycling bins were created. She was “green” before green was more than a color.
My grandma was the most intelligent person I have ever known. She knew many species of birds and animals. Memorizing the songs of birds, and the shapes and colors of leaves was her way of connecting with the earth. She knew if a tree or plant was deciduous or evergreen, annual or perennial. An avid gardener, Grandma saved seeds and created her own hybrids of tomato plants. She embraced the concepts and ideas of a generation way ahead of her time, and saw the good in everything and everyone. Having read almost everything she could get her hands on, current events was common knowledge. Because I am a nurse, grandma would often run information by me that she read in Prevention Magazine; making it clear she was not seeking my approval, but instead had something to teach me. Surprisingly, she even found entertainment in the National Enquirer and The Star.

Memories of her love of birds and nature, of gardening, artwork, and family gatherings leave a powerful imprint in my mind. Where there was family, there was usually food. Her famous dressing recipe is as popular at family gatherings today as it was years ago. She canned, pickled, and made homemade chow-chow and relishes. Grandma enjoyed baking fresh fruit pies with the berries she harvested from her own garden. We learned not to balk when she never added enough sugar to our liking.

As one of 6 granddaughters, our goal in life was to reach the age when we were allowed to sit at the “grown-up” table. We suspected the grown-up table was where the earth moved; the world revolved, and time began. As I was busy trying to conceal uneaten mashed potatoes in my milk at the kid’s table, conversation and laughter would erupt from the grown-up’s table in the other room. We wanted to be there, where we thought the action was. When we grew tired of not being included in the activity, we found haven in the closet at the top of the stairs, where we played with old toys and treasures for hours. As young children, our favorite hideout places at their home were either the A-frame structure in the backyard, or sitting between the enormous branches of the tree in the front yard.

A matriarch in her own right, family was very important to grandma. She was especially proud of her heritage, and often talked about “Mama” and “Papa.” She found family genealogy fascinating, and knew a great deal about her family’s legacy. She saved many photographs and newspaper clippings. In her later years, one of her proudest accomplishments was the completion of several scrapbooks, and one of my most prized possessions, a Grandmother’s book.

Family names were especially important to her. When discussing potential middle names for babies with Linda, who had long ago proudly reserved the name of Ada for a girl, grandma’s response was “Ada Lois would be nice, ” as she preferred that over the name of her mother, Ada Cornelia. As lifelong playmates, her sisters Marjory and Ruby, and cousins Lucille, Virginia, Mabel, and Gertrude were considered good friends. To communicate their availability to play, Grandma told me a rhyme was often heard from across the field: “Yoo hoo! Yoo hoo! Can you come out to the pasture too? We will ask out mother if we may!” And then back would come the answer: “yes, half way!” They would then meet each other in the middle of the field.

It was important to Grandma that she spent time with her six granddaughters: Monica, Michelle and Marla, Lori, Linda, and me—Lisa. With the exception of Linda and I, it wasn’t often she confused our names when we were all together. I can speak for all of the granddaughters when I tell you how grateful we are that she was able to meet ALL 11 of her great-grandchildren: Amber, Danielle, Alex, Andrew, Ben, Anna, Alyssa, Jack, Ada, Cole, and Emma. Their ages span 22 years. My grandparents attended weddings, baptisms, and countless birthday parties.

After raising their family—Marian, Lloyd, David and Delores, traveling and camping became a central part of my Grandparent’s lives. We memorized their schedule by holidays. They often left after Thanksgiving, as winters were spent in warm climates, and returned in the spring, in time for Easter. Grandma was diligent about sending postcards from their travels, and included very specific, detailed information about the places they spent time. She often sent handmade cards and stationery; I have saved an entire box full of correspondence from her. Summer weekends were spent camping in the central Illinois region, often with grandchildren included in the adventures. As a result of their influence, many of my weekends are now spent in a campground, under awning lights with a campfire burning nearby. My children roam the campground freely, as we once did.

My initial memories of camping were of being placed into the bunk above the double bed in the tiny Scotty camper, known to us as “the balcony.” The ladder was placed across the front, ensuring we could not escape until we were actually allowed down. I now suspect my grandparents had their morning coffee before they even considered removing that ladder.

My memories then proceed to times when Linda, Marla and I would pile into the gold colored Buick for a camping weekend. We rolled down the back windows, and pretended we were being chauffeured to a private, secret destination, as if we were riding in the back of a limousine. We of course didn’t take into consideration our limousine was towing not only a camper, but often had a canoe strapped to the top as well. By then, they had a larger camper, where we marveled over the fact that now the dining table converted to a bed. On our campout weekends, there were almost always at least two, if not three, of us sleeping there. If Marla wasn’t able to come with Linda and me, we often brought a friend. In the morning, we were greeted with the sound of cabinets opening and closing, a passive suggestion that we arise—we were sleeping in the space my grandma was to soon serve buckwheat pancakes. For years I had no idea what buckwheat was, let alone want to eat it. On rainy days we would play dominoes, or crochet yards and yards of yarn chains—it seems we always had something to do when we were with them, even in a confined space. We never took costumes to the Halloween campout, but grandma always had ideas, and then had us convinced we were actually scary.

My favorite campout of the year was when they invited the camping club out to set up on their property. It was here we perfected the art of making cherry pies in a bathtub. We thought it was funny that their old claw-foot, cast iron bathtub was recessed into the yard and used as a fire pit. During that campout, grandma and grandpa would sleep out in the camper, which was parked adjacent to the campers of their friends. We were then relegated to the house, and slept on the living room floor. This suited us fine, as our deviance gave way to playing with the wall sconces in the archway, or pulling down the light fixture in the living room, as it had a built-in pulley system. Marla was the tallest—she did the deed while Linda or I would serve as the lookout. With grandpa’s blessing, the wall sconces came down, and one of them will be hung in the entryway of my house, for one day my grandchildren will likely play with it as well.

My grandma’s art was profoundly moving. I view it as if it were a puzzle of her existence. In each piece she did, she left a piece of her heart, and a piece of her soul. In the portraits she did, she was able to completely capture the personality of the person, and yet, still left a piece of herself. Whether you know the subject or not, you only need to look into the eyes of the person in the portrait, and you are able to see her there. In the portraits of children, her interpretation of facial expressions was timeless. In all of her artwork, whether portraits, still life, or landscapes from their travels, my Grandma was able to project a feeling indescribable by words. Her reproduction of color was precise. I once questioned the reason why she insisted on using a mail order company for her photo and slide processing. I always thought the colors were too muted. She told me she only looks at the photographs as a guide. The quality of the color on the prints or slides wasn’t as important; because she told me she remembered the colors in her mind.

A modest person, my grandma spent the better part of her life downplaying her astonishing talents. She told me she didn’t consider herself extraordinary, as she assumed everyone was capable of producing such work. The quality of that work instilled in me the capability of knowing the difference between mediocre and good, quality art. I remember seeing her paintings at art fairs, in other people’s homes, and at the ADM Corporate Office, and most importantly, Zion Chapel United Methodist Church. It meant a great deal to me when my college class commissioned her to do a painting of Troyer Hall, the historic building of Mennonite College of Nursing. This painting today hangs in the Mennonite College hall of history at Illinois State University. I am proud to know my grandma was a famous artist.

And so today, as I sit in my office located off of the kitchen in my house, I look at the vase filled with my grandma’s old, worn paintbrushes, as if it is a prized floral arrangement. Her old pastels sit in my desk, the boxes tied together with a strip of tattered cloth. ½ filled tubes of acrylic paint sit in a well-used, green metal toolbox. I am immediately taken back to their old worn farmhouse: to the bedroom that was her studio, located across the hallway from the kitchen. I can smell the paints and the paint thinner. I can see a ½ painted canvas on her easel, and the metal stool she would use, ½ sitting, ½ standing. I can hear the faint smooshing sound of oil paint on canvas. I remember the tile on the floor—ugly industrial tiles—brown with flecks of color. I never knew if the flecks of color were supposed to be there, or if they were droplets of paint.

It has only been in the last few years that I have discovered my own talent in art. I am not able to paint or draw as she did (yet), but I am able to carry on her legacy in my own way, with photography. I have inherited a piece of her gift, and I will be forever grateful. Where most people see the world in terms of light, and the way light is caste onto objects, I now understand that she instead saw the shadows—the depth of the underside. She held an innate ability to see beauty and depth in things most people pass by. Her outlook of the world was far more colorful, intricate, and detailed than most people’s views. She saw the world in terms of color, diagonal lines, and the rule of thirds. I never understood this until I looked through her old sketchbooks. I can only hope that maybe one day, someone somewhere will look at one of my photographs and see it as a prized possession, as I have always seen my grandma’s artwork. I will then be famous to even one person somewhere, as my grandma was to me. I can only hope that I am able to have such an impact.

My grandma was 92 years old. She spent the vast majority of her years happy and very healthy. Our family genetics are exceptional; we have been blessed with longevity. How many people surpass the age of 40, and have yet to make it to the grown-up table?

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