It was 1963 when my mother divorced my Dad; I was 2 at the time so I have no recollection of what happened or why. I do know that she packed me up and moved back to Joplin Missouri to live with her parents, my Grandpa Miller and my Grandma Theda.
I can’t say that I have too many fond memories of my Grandpa. He was gruff, ornery, and not very kind or gentle to me. My Grandma, on the other hand, loved me with all her heart. The memories I have of her are dear and the lessons she taught me I carry with me to this day.
My Grandma was a character to say the least and she liked to have a good time. I can honestly say that it is difficult for me to remember her without a drink in her hand and a cigarette in her mouth. She was more than happy to sit in front of the window mounted air conditioning unit her son the engineer bought for her, (she would refer to my Mom as her daughter the divorcée). She would sit there smoking cigarette after cigarette and drinking enough to keep her buzz on. Grandma was what I would call a happy drunk and she did some drinking, not only at home but out on the town as well. On more than one occasion Mom would get a phone call from one of the local bars letting her know that Grandma had had a few too many and we needed to come get her.
Regardless of how much she drank she was seldom ugly to me, not that she didn’t have her moments and not that I didn't deserve a whooping now and again but the vast majority of the time she was full of hugs and kisses, compliments and praise and at times she was profoundly wise. Unfortunately the depth of the wisdom she would share with me was all too often lost on a boy of my age.
I can’t say that I remember my exact age on the afternoon in which she shared with me a particularly unusual bit of wisdom; I know that I couldn’t have been more than five or six. What I do remember is that it was a typical hot and humid Midwestern day. Grandma was especially happy that afternoon, she was sitting in front of the A/C, cigarette in one hand and a drink in another and I had been entertaining her. I was a big fan of the Lone Ranger so she would put on the William Tell Overture and I with my six guns, cowboy hat and hobby horse would gallop around the room while it played. She laughed and laughed as I giggled and galloped around the living and dining rooms, soaking up the attention I was getting. Well the song ended (for what must have been the umpteenth time) and Grandma needed to freshen up her drink, so she got up, put her smoke out in the ash tray and went into the kitchen.
Well Grandma didn’t do a very good job of making sure her cigarette was out, because it was still smouldering. With Grandma out of the room and me being an inquisitive young boy I decided to see what this smoking thing was all about. So I picked up the partially lit butt, put it up to my lips, took my first drag of a cigarette and proceeded to violently cough and expel the noxious smoke. My throat and lungs felt like they were on fire which resulted in me crying, coughing and choking all at the same time.
Needless to say the ruckus I was making got my Grandmas attention; she came out of the kitchen like a shot to find out what was wrong with me. Upon seeing me red faced, coughing and spitting, the still smouldering cigarette butt in the ashtray (how I had the presence of mind to not drop it on the carpet I will never know) she began to laugh. This was not a snicker, or a snort, not a chortle or a giggle, nosiree, this was a full throated belly laugh, a knee slapping, tilt your head back howl kind of laugh. My Grandma was laughing at me, SHE WAS LAUGHING AT ME! Couldn’t she see that I was hurting and in pain? She shouldn’t be laughing because this is not funny!
Right then and there I wanted to make her feel the way she was making me feel, I wanted to get back at her for laughing at me so I lashed out the best way I knew how, I yelled “Smoking is yucky Grandma and I am never going to marry a girl like you that smokes!” Instantly I watched my Grandmas countenance change, she stopped laughing, she grew solemn, and her eyes turned tender and loving. She didn't say a thing, she simply went back to the kitchen only to return with her drink and a glass of water for me which I proceeded to greedily drain. She then went back to her chair and gestured for me to come near. My throat still burned a bit and my nose was runny from crying, and being the loving Grandma she was, she grabbed a tissue, wiped my eyes and helped me blow my nose. She then lit another smoke, had a big sip of her drink, got close, gently cupped my face in her hands, her blue eyes twinkling and bright and said “Honey, you find yourself a girl that smokes and you marry her, because a girl that will put a cigarette in her mouth will put anything in her mouth.”
Of course being as young as I was the depth of the wisdom she had just spoke was lost on me. It would be years later, after she was gone and I was in the Army, before I would remember her words of wisdom, understand what she was saying, and test the veiled hypothesis she shared with me on that hot and humid Midwestern afternoon, sitting in her chair next to the window mounted air conditioning unit her son the engineer bought for her.
Grandma, you were a bit of a freak and I love and miss you.