Grandma

I moved away from Minnesota when I was 18 and haven’t always been the best at communicating with family members back home. This is especially irksome to my mom’s mom, who happens to be a prolific letter-writer. Once, when I returned for my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary, Grandma asked me, “Have your hands healed?”

“Nothing’s wrong with my hands. Why do you ask?”

“Well, you never write! I assumed they were broken!”

Point taken, Grandma.

I have not been a good letter writer for some reason, which is weird because I actually enjoy writing. It’s just easier for me to pick up the phone and call. I like hearing her voice on the other end of the line, the Minnesota accent that thickens with age and the Scandinavian colloquialisms that make me quietly chuckle.

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Grandma on her 90th birthday with my mom, sister, and niece (I’m always the photographer, never the photographed)

So, to kickoff my “40 Days to 40” project yesterday, I called my now 92-year-old grandma. I wanted to ask her if she remembered turning 40. I figured she would because this woman forgets nothing. Especially birthdays (I get a card every March 26 with $2 or $3 tucked inside). But, to my surprise, she did not actually remember! She reasoned this is because she was chasing after a 2-year-old at the time, and turning 40 just “wasn’t a big deal.” The extended family probably would have come to the house, and there would have been a cake, but the details are all lost, blurred together with her 91 other birthdays and milestones. “It’s only a big deal if you make it a big deal,” she said.

That’s probably true, but since I don’t have 5 kids–including a 2-year-old–to run after, I suppose I have a lot of free time to make a big deal out of things.

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I can only hope to look this good at 90!

My Grandma has spent most of her 92 years taking care of other people, mostly children. In fact, she still babysits! I think that’s one of the secrets to longevity – always having a purpose, knowing that waking up every morning will make someone else’s life a little better. Also, I imagine she has one heck of an immune system after caring for 3 generations of children with all their mutant flu and cold viruses. I’m rooting for her to be the first centenarian in the family, although she laughed when I told her this. “As long as I’m not stuck in no wheelchair!” Truth be told, I think she’s far too stubborn to get stuck in a wheelchair. If her legs stopped working, she’d will herself to move them and walk home. That’s the kind of person she is.

While children have dominated the landscape of Grandma’s life, there were other interests that speckled it with color. Back in 1943, “Pageant of Poetry” published one of her poems.  She showed it to me after her 90th birthday party.  I had known about the anthology for a few years but had assumed she’d never be able to find it. Surely, it was buried under 70 years of memories. Not so! She simply walked into a room and proudly emerged with it a minute later.

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I was thrilled to hold that book in my hands, knowing that Grandma was the first woman (that I know of) in my family to be published.  It meant that my desire to write and be published came from somewhere.

“Do you wish you’d have written more?” asked my mom, who also happened to be there at the time. I had been wondering that myself, but there’s something in Mom that also loves to put pen to paper.

“Oh ja,” she’d said. “But you know it cost money to send things in and there were always kids to take care of…” There may have been a hint of sadness in that statement, but I could be projecting.  _dsc8898

As she talked, I thumbed through the book, and something caught my eye. Inside the front cover were a few, crisp sheets of paper. I pulled them out to take a closer look. They were the birth certificates of each of her 5 children! Again, I could be projecting, but I can’t help but think that’s significant.

I remembered this as I spoke with Grandma yesterday, contemplating existential anxieties and what it means to turn 40. And suddenly, something clicked for me.  For a while, I thought that Grandma put her writing on hold to put her duties as a parent and grandparent first. But, that’s not true–Grandma never gave up writing. She adapted her writing to fit her life. She expressed herself in the hundreds of letters she’d sent to me over the years.

It makes me think I should try a lot harder to write back. And, I should finish all of those writing projects that I’ve started.  I think I can make a big deal out of that.

40 Days

My mom turned 40 at Kramer’s Supper Club in Evansville, Minnesota, a no-stoplight town in the West Central farmlands. It was a surprise party. I was 17-years-old at the time and the only one of my 4 siblings to snag an invite because I had a car and agreed to sneak in the cake ahead of time. The room was decorated in prerequisite black and white graveyard-inspired decor because turning 40 means you’re about to die, and that’s obviously something you should joke about. My friend Missy came along, and we sat by ourselves when things got started, plotting to steal a taste of someone’s unattended beer. We got our chance when all the adults cleared out after dinner. No one noticed us hanging back, taking swigs of Miller High Life from half-empty bottles. That night defined for me what a 40th birthday was supposed to look like. I assumed it would take a lot longer to get there myself.

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I recently polled my Facebook friends to see how they spent their 40th birthdays, and here were some of their experiences:

  • Had a hysterectomy
  • Took a two week trip to the UK
  • Had too much sushi and wine
  • Cut off very long hair for Locks of Love
  • Enjoyed a farm to table dinner
  • Took a long weekend on the Olympic Peninsula
  • Forgot because brain dumped out pre-divorce memories
  • Had tea and played with kittens
  • Went to Disney World and then went on a rafting trip to see Grizzly bears
  • Turned 40 in a Chicago hotel room
  • Started a random tradition of spending every birthday somewhere I’ve never been before, doing something I have never done before
  • Disneyland!
  • Husband planned a surprise party
  • Went off to an island alone and considered how I wanted to live the next 40 years
  • My wife left me
  • Saw Queen Latifah
  • Cooked dinner for a few closer friends
  • Parents took me to Italy

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Now it’s my turn to summit that infamous “hill” and start the gradual decent into old age. I’ll be 40 at the end of March, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to celebrate it. I don’t have any scheming daughters to sneak sips of my wine (Miller High Life was something I never tried again), and my life hasn’t followed a traditional path with a husband, kids, and whatever else we attach to the American Dream, so I don’t really feel 40. Maybe no one ever really feels 40. Is it even really that significant anymore?

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It must mean something—the number 40. It’s the number of weeks human beings gestate before birth. And then we grow up listening to American Top 40 before settling into 40 hour work weeks after college. In the Bible, people were always spending 40 days wandering around or getting tempted or rained on.  40 must mean something.

Today marks 40 days to my 40th birthday. And while I don’t know how I’d like to celebrate the actual day yet, I’d like to take that time to meditate on what I’ve accomplished so far and to think about what I’d like the next half (or so) of my life to mean. Over the next 40 days, I’m going to seek out new experiences, make new connections, strengthen existing connections, and hopefully finish a few projects that I started in my 30’s. This was inspired by my friend, Renata, who had one long, continuous celebration. And why not? If we’ve made it this far, shouldn’t we take some time to celebrate ourselves?

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I’ve come up with about 20 things to do so far, so I’m in need of some ideas! Big or small. Feel free to comment with suggestions or simply share what turning 40 means to you.