Thursday, May 2, 2013

Priceless Memories

Eight years ago, my sisters, our husbands, and our children traveled from our corners of the country to meet at my grandmother's house in Alabama.  The day after we had arrived, our group of eleven piled into cars and drove across the state line to Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

When we got there, we found out that there were 15-passenger vans available for rent to drive through the park - and the vans were zebra-striped!  We knew it would be much more fun for all of us to be together in one vehicle to travel amongst the animals who roamed free over the many acres there.  We paid the admission and the rental fee and then headed towards our Zebra Van; as we were boarding, my brother-in-law Peter walked over carrying a giant bag of animal feed.  He said it was a better deal to buy in bulk instead of purchasing individual containers of food for each of us to feed to the animals in the park.  I will never forget the look of wonder on Grandmom's face when she saw Peter carrying that huge bag; she laughed excitedly as she took her seat in the van and then said, "The animals sure are going to LOVE us!"  

Somehow it worked out so that my brother-in-law David took the wheel in the van - some of the time with my niece Daly on his lap - and with my daughter Molly in the passenger seat in front.  The rest of us sat on the bench seats in the back with our windows rolled down, ready to feed the animals as David slowly drove along the gravel road, stopping frequently as wildlife approached the van.  

There was a great variety of animals in the park, from antelopes to zebras.  We all had a blast, including and maybe especially Grandmom, who smiled ear-to-ear the whole time that we were there and laughed hysterically when a big slobbery bison leaned in through the window and tried to lick her in the face!

We had such a good time there that day that a couple of years later my husband, my daughters, and I went back to the park with Grandmom.  The second time, when it was just the five of us, she was moving much more slowly than the first, and we just drove through the park in our car since we were a much smaller group.  After we had driven through the safari part of the park on our return trip, we went in the gift shop.  Grandmom, who, as I've mentioned, lived on a very tight budget, thanked us for taking her and for paying for her admission, and then she said she wanted to buy a souvenir for us to take home.  Always the practical thinker, she picked out a pair of salad tongs with a zebra carved into the handle of each one.  When she gave them to me after she had paid at the counter, I noticed the price tag said $19.99.  That was a lot of money for a person of her income to spend on a non-necessity, I knew, and she knew that I knew it.  I looked at her, thinking that I should decline the gift and try to get her to return it, but then she said, "Thinking I was going to be able to take a vacation somewhere this summer, I had some money saved. Today has been as good as any vacation, and I don't need anything else, so please accept my gift."  

The zebra salad-tongs, today

A few weeks before, Grandmom had stepped into a hole in her backyard while hanging clothes on her clothesline and had broken her leg.  My dad had tried for years to get her to let him buy her a dryer, but she insisted that it was a waste of money and she didn't need it.  After all, she said, she had raised a family and had lived without one for eighty years, and who could argue with that logic?  When she had fallen, she laid in the yard, unable to get herself to a phone, for about an hour until her next-door neighbor pulled up in his driveway and saw her.  He had called the ambulance and then my dad, and my parents had come to be with her while she was in the hospital.

When I'd called the next week to check on her, she told me that she had a walking cast on her leg and that she would appreciate some help with a couple of things so she hoped we could come to visit her soon.  Of course, I arranged to get there as soon as I could, worrying that things must really be dire if this independent woman needed help taking care of herself.  When my husband, my daughters, and I got there, though, we found out what she actually wanted help with, and it wasn't technically self-care: she wanted assistance with pulling her refrigerator out from the wall in her kitchen so she could do her scheduled quarterly cleaning behind it and with cleaning up debris that had fallen into her yard.  Other than that, she had it covered, she told us, and so we did those chores and then decided to head to the Safari Park the next day.  (Side note: Grandmom had told us to put any limbs, sticks, or leaves from her yard on the curb across the street from her house instead of in her trash can, but I had dumped a bucket of semi-wet leaves in there anyway, thinking it didn't really matter.  As we walked out to the car to leave for the park the following morning, she cooly lifted the lid of her garbage can and peered inside, and then she said, "Somebody put debris in here!"  I had to admit that I had done it, and she said, "Well, next time remember to put all of that stuff on the curb where it's supposed to go; that's what I do!"  Ouch!)

We had a lot of fun on our return trip to the park, but not nearly as much as we'd had the first time when we had gone as a big group.  I have treasured those salad tongs since that day, though, remembering fondly both of our trips there with Grandmom and remembering how she so generously spent her vacation money to buy them for us.

Several years after our second trip to the park, Grandmom had a stroke, and her physical and mental decline began.  Many, many times when we visited her after she was in the nursing home, we talked about how much fun we'd had at the Safari Park; in fact, when her condition had progressed to the point where she couldn't carry on a conversation, we often described things from the day when all 11 of us went in great detail, in an effort to help her to remember that wonderful day and to help her to focus on a much happier time.  

On the night before Grandmom died, as my mom was sitting with her holding her hand, my sister Jennifer called Mom's cell phone and asked Mom to hold the phone up to Grandmom's ear.  Although Grandmom had been unresponsive for several hours before, as Jennifer again tried to use her words to paint a picture for Grandmom of that great visit, Grandmom smiled and her breathing pattern became more relaxed, and I have no doubt that that happy memory was one of the last things on her mind as she transitioned out of this life.

"Not too many people can say they've been kissed by a bison!" Grandmom said. 

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