We were all tucked into bed when the knock came at the door. My father went with the urgent voice behind the door to the telephone located at the college across the street from our apartment. Mom got my brother and I up and began getting us ready for a trip to South Dakota. She wasn’t sure what the call was about, but if it was important enough to wake us up in the middle of the night, it could not be good news.
My father came home and had to tell my mother that her beloved parents and her twelve-year-old brother had been killed when their old farmhouse burned to the ground. I was only four, but I remember the ride from Omaha, Nebraska to Carpenter, South Dakota. I sat on my mom’s lap, stroking her cheeks saying, “Mommy, don’t cry. Please don’t cry.” I didn’t understand what happened until we drove into the yard where my grandparent’s home once stood. The house had fallen into the cellar, flat with red embers still spitting out smoke.
Just days before, we had hugged them all goodbye and moved to the city to join my father who was attending college there. We have pictures of us all kissing them goodbye before we piled into the car for our trip. Now they were all gone and our world was shattered.
Although I was four–almost five–I have wonderful memories of my grandparents and Uncle Arlen. Grandma held us on her lap as she sat on the large rocking chair and read us stories. She tucked me in at night (We lived with them for four months before we moved.) and taught me to pray my first prayer, a German night time prayer. Grandpa always smelled of peppermint candy and we enjoyed trying to find the pocket on his overalls where he had hidden them. Burnt Peanut candy and ice cream bars still make me think of the shopping trips I made to town with my grandfather. He always bought them for me.
Uncle Arlen was my favorite person in the world. He taught me to cut an orange in half and eat the orange flesh without damaging the white membrane or tearing the peel. We’d have contests to see who could have the neatest half left after we’d devoured the fruit. The two of us would bounce on the extra beds upstairs and bury ourselves under the thick feather ticking to hide from the Boogie Man. My ornery streak was probably learned from him as we got into trouble with Grandma for using a long hooked pole to catch chickens in the yard. Grandma would yell at us, telling us it hurt the chickens and could possibly break their legs. She let us know that she was in no mood to cook chicken that night, especially not one of her best layers.
In 1999 my mother wrote a book entitled, Before I Forget, a book that tells our family’s stories so they won’t be forgotten. She finished it just months before she had a massive stroke that made it difficult for her to communicate. If she had waited a few months longer, it never would have happened. Every time I pick up that book I think about the fact that life takes turns we never expect. If we had stayed at my grandparents’ home a few more weeks, we would have been sleeping in the house that fateful night. If Mom had let petty differences grow between her and her parents, I’d have none of the wonderful memories of them that I now treasure. If the tragedy had led Mom into bitterness instead of accepting the grace and love of God, our family could have suffered lingering pain and anger. Mom could have put off sharing the family stories with us, just for a few months, but then we wouldn’t know how our family got through the Great Depression, how Mom followed Dad around the West Coast during World War II or all the other fun stories she shared in her book.
Time flies by and one day we wake up and realize most of the grudges we held were stupid things caused by our selfish pride. Too often, that realization comes too late to do anything about it. Someday we plan to tell people how much they mean to us, how their love has impacted our lives. The problem is we may realize all of that the day after a tragedy or illness makes it impossible. How much better it is to live life scattering our love, forgiveness and appreciation on those around us freely so if something terrible happens, we have no regrets.
My mother has lived with tragedy, but she was a living example of poured out love as she held her family and friends close. She’s been home in heaven for almost four years. She’s an example to me to live openly before others, to live without regret.