I am dangerously close to 40, and all four of my grandparents are living. I have enjoyed a life thus far complete with extended family, an exercise in patience and balance at times, but overwhelmingly rewarding and incredibly joyful. Not a day goes by that I do not count each of my family members among my blessings, even when we are not getting along as well as I would like. I was raised that family was important, as you can imagine, smack dab in the middle of all of these grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Storytelling, in the traditional sense, is not something we do much anymore as a culture, for whatever reason. We are busy, we have technology, we occupy ourselves with the Now or the Future – rarely the Past. Sharing stories and getting to know others through stories can be amazingly comforting. All children want to hear stories about themselves or someone they know – and it’s hard for me to remember to tell my own children their stories sometimes. But I try.
My maternal grandmother is the best storyteller I know. She recently graduated with her Masters, and for her thesis, she wrote stories of her family history. These are amazing stories, artfully told. She was raised by her mother, Leone, and her dad, “Cowboy,” primarily around oil fields in Texas. Her memory is impeccable, she is as eccentric as a cat, and everyone that meets her falls in love with her. She has the wisdom of her age coupled with the genuine kindness and heart of a teacher. She can fit in with college students in their 20s as easily as she fits into a group of women in their 70s. Young and old call her “friend.” If anyone ever has a question, about anything, my grandmother is more reliable than Google. She has read every book known to woman and man. Everyone in her small town, including me, call her JJ instead of her given name, Joyce Jones. I gave her last name to my second-born son as his first name, hoping to further connect the generations and family history.
My father’s mom is a true Southern lady. Although her people weren’t from the South, they moved here just in time to birth my grandmother here, so she truly embraces the hospitality and custom of traditional southern peoples. She knows how to set a proper table, devil an egg and make a mean cinnamon roll. She is the consummate hostess, and she enjoys being with people, especially extended relations or friends that drop in from far away. She always wears lipstick, and it’s usually red. Even when she had breast cancer and lost all her hair, she always had on her lipstick – and usually a very chic wig. She nurtures with food, loves very practically and always sends my children M&M’s on Easter. If you are envisioning a strikingly beautiful older woman in a fur coat and short, dark hair (with red lipstick on her full lips, of course), you are picturing my grandmother just as I do.
My mother’s father is not a touchy-feeling person by any means. In a good mood, he could persuade the Queen of England to give him Buckingham Palace, but in a bad mood, he might run over your dog. We, as his grandchildren, never gave him a loving moniker. We do, and always have, called him Ralph. That’s just what he is – Ralph. He grew up under less than ideal circumstances, in a very poor time and place, and he did the best with what he was given. He is a genius when it comes to many things – music being one. He plays several instruments, and has regularly created music (and consequently enjoyment) for many, many people – including me both as a child and as an adult (still today, he fiddles me a tune when I go to see him). He gave me an education in folk songs, just by playing music of the people – from “Banks of Marble” by Pete Seeger to “Remember the Alamo” performed by Johnny Cash. If you’ve never heard of the former song, here is the chorus: “But the banks are made of marble, With a guard at every door, And the vaults are stuffed with silver, That the farmer sweated for.” Through these songs, he gave me an appreciation for the working man (and woman), the underdog, the forgotten and the needy. As a child, I have memories of seeing people weep when he played “Remember the Alamo.” I knew that music was a powerful tool – especially in the formation of our country and in the formation of the values that we pass on to our children. He is JJ’s husband, my grandfather, Ralph.
My father’s father is Dean. His given name was Harland, but he hated it and changed it. We never speak of it. He kept the “H” so he is “Dean H. Burger.” There is no more record of Harland. He is a farmer, an only child, always. His parents wanted more children, but could only have the one. He is an extrovert to the point of deteriorating if he does not have contact with people. He teases and pokes fun to relate, especially with children, but also with his friends and family. He has been married to my grandmother since she was 15, then left her to go into the Army during the war. He came back, whole and unharmed. He has always had strong opinions, as a farmer and as a veteran, but his love of people, especially those wanting to do the right thing, transcends his opinions on race, sexual orientation or country of origin. He is and always has been the boss. Of everyone. He has gardened for as long as I can remember, always growing for his family, as well as the masses. If you run into him, he will ask you about the weather. This is the farmer’s way, always wondering about the weather – and, as a general rule, always unhappy about what the weather is doing. I have come to find it endearing.
The balance these people have created in my life, each with their different strengths and weaknesses, is indescribable. When I think about what each of them has given to me, what little piece I carry of them inside of me, I get tears in my eyes. I wonder if this is how it has been for generations and generations in our family history. Things have not always been passed on orally or in writing, but I draw comfort in knowing I had many predecessors, none of them perfect, who gave to me each little thing I have, each redeemable quality, each freckle, each wrinkle and character flaw. They have been passed on through the ages to me… in ways I cannot imagine and will never know. But by treasuring these 4 people, these bits of extended history in physical form to me, I treasure all that has occurred up to this point… and I am able to appreciate the world, with me a part of it, so much more.
Thank you JJ, Nonna, Ralph and Papa, for the balance, the love and the courage you’ve shown me in thought, word and deed. Without you, I – quite literally – would not be me.