I was reading my grandparents’ obituaries tonight, and these things stood out to me:

  • Chalmers enjoyed racing his H-145 stock car, playing cards, driving his tractor on the farm, entertaining his grandchildren and mowing lawns.
  • Madaline loved to knit and sew and spent many happy hours playing bridge.

Initially, I wanted to be the one to write my grandfather’s obituary, but it turns out that my grandmother had already written it. Which is funny, because she died two years before him and suffered severe dementia for at least 6 years before that. At the same time, I’m not surprised. My grandparents had been convinced their death was imminent throughout my childhood and never failed to remind us that they wouldn’t be around much longer.

I can picture my grandmother at home, sitting on the davenport with her leg up underneath her, using the latest copy of Reader’s Digest as a lapdesk to pen her husband’s obituary. I wonder if she mentioned at the table, when my grandfather came home midday for dinner, and they sat together and ate a leftover pork chop. She really believed that my grandfather was a great man; she had a lot of pride in what he had accomplished in his lifetime, pride in the name he had built for himself and given to her. I remember her telling me the story of how they met; he drove a coal truck, and he would come by her house with his face all smudged with coal dust. And then there was the time I came along with her to the hospital for her volunteer shift, and she sat down next to a worried-looking old woman in the waiting room.

“I’m Madaline Cross,” she said, as though that were enough to alleviate this woman’s anxiety.

Is the job of a wife? In so many ways, so much of what she did were actions that mainly fulfilled this role, and it was the role she played first, always, above any other role a woman can also play: mother, sister, grandmother, friend.

The stock car racing happened before I was born, when my grandpa was more of a big man around town. The tractor driving must have been before that. I never saw my grandpa on a farm, though he owned farmland. I saw him playing cards a lot, and when he was too old to drive, he still enjoyed taking the riding lawn mower around town.

When I was around 9 years old, my grandparents decided they wanted to take their grandchildren on a last trip, something to remember them by. We went to Galena, Illinois. The home of Ulysses S. Grant and some antique shops.

The trip was stressful. A three hour drive, my grandparents fought the whole time. They called each other stupid and idiot. When my grandfather missed his exit on the freeway, he came to a complete stop and backed up. I remember turning around and seeing headlights barreling down on us, a mental image that still haunts me today. We ate dinner at a truck stop that had a buffet, and my grandma ordered all of us the salad bar, except my grandfather, who also got the hot bar. We pushed around lettuce on our plates and stared at the tray of macaroni and cheese steaming on the hot buffet. We wouldn’t eat it anyway, my grandmother reasoned, and looking back I can’t blame her for that logic; how many meals had she cooked to watch us push away after two bites?

The way I see my grandparents now colors all of the memories I have. They were narcissists, through and through. My relationship with either of them was so much different from my maternal grandmother, who loved us unconditionally and traveled from her home in Florida multiple times a year to visit, which she did well into her 80s.

Madaline Cross had Bridge Club and the Senior Citizens Club at the YMCA. She read for the blind and worked the volunteer desk at the hospital and entertained friends at her home. She did the shopping and the cleaning and she kept a candy jar in the cupboard for my grandfather, which we were never allowed to take from.

Maybe I’m being ungrateful. The point of me writing this was because I looked at those obituaries and thought, look at how many hobbies they had.

I think that, sometimes, my grandpa did really like entertaining us kids. He sat on the floor and played gin rummy with us. He got us ice cream cones when my grandma said we couldn’t have any. He had a really great laugh.

My grandma, too, sometimes enjoyed us. Less so, I tend to think, but maybe it only seems like that because, being a woman, she was saddled with us more often than my grandpa, who could come in from work and spend a few minutes telling jokes and talking at dinner before it was time for him to watch his tv programs.

The best memory that I can come up with from my grandmother is a time we were sleeping in the same bed–me, my little sister, and my grandma. She was trying to get us to go to sleep, but all we wanted to do was laugh and snort and make fart sounds and generally avoid falling asleep. She started telling us a story about a place called Sleepytown and how we would really like to go there. She was trying to make her voice very singsong and gentle and like a lullaby. I understand now how hard she must have been trying to get us to calm down and go to sleep. My little sister all of a sudden said, “Grandma, you smell nice.”

My grandma asked us what she smelled like. “Flowers,” my sister and I both agreed. Then my little sister asked my grandma, “What do I smell like?”

My grandma thought for a minute and then said, “Dirt.”