My dad’s mom was the first person I told I wanted to be a writer, at least with any proto-adult sense of what that meant as an aspiration. I was 17, in a rented car on a winding road in Appalachia. I was, at that moment, technically a high-school dropout, but it was my graduation trip.
Grandma Plocher took each of her grandsons (and she only had grandsons) on a graduation trip after high school. It wasn’t a first trip with her for any of us. By the time I got mine, I’d already traveled with grandma on a jetboat through Hell’s Canyon, camped with her in what seemed like half the national parks west of the Rockies, and spent time taking advantage of her membership in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’d traveled with my grandma and brother, with my grandma and various cousins, but the Appalachia trip was the first time I’d traveled with just grandma.
We didn’t really get each other. I was 17, moody, and far from being a morning person. I didn’t need itineraries or specific plans…to a point that was probably annoyingly noncommittal. (I was really good at shrugging nonchalantly.) My grandmother was retired, an experienced traveler, somebody who—like my dad—wanted everything to go right now, precisely according to plan. The stays in the hotels were not always great, but that’s not what I remember. I remember being up in the mountains, mountains older and rounder than the Rockies on my youthful horizon, but still…a misty day on the ridge roads was a kind of magic.
So was eating at a weirdly fancy restaurant attached to the Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia. Restaurants, at least, I knew. We did Colonial Williamsburg. I pulled grandma to North Carolina, a quick detour to Kitty Hawk just so we could say we’d added another state to our trip. The Wright Brothers museum was much cooler than it had any right to be. We drove into Tennessee and ate at a McDonald’s just to say we’d done it.
The mountains, though, were the best part of that trip. We hiked, and didn’t talk all that much. Grandma got a number of pictures of my back as I walked or stared at the scenery. There are one or two that she convinced me to actually look at the camera for. Not many of those. (Most of the pictures of me from the trip are of me reading plaques at the places we visited.) The longer conversations were in the car as we traced the Virginia border. I told her about Wales, about being at an international school, about what were surely my Deep and Profound Teenaged Thoughts. [Aside: the more time I spend with AP high school students, the more I realize how insufferable I probably was for spells when I was that age.]
I was bad at asking questions. I wish I’d asked more, or remembered any of her answers. We seemed to be in different worlds, from different worlds. I remember, not from that trip, but from other visits, the way she would throw her hands in the air, raise her eyes, and cry “Good grief!” Her grandkids inspired that reaction sometimes, but so did her own kids. So did the world.
She wrote, a few days into the trip: “…getting more comfortable. We talked about his school and his interest in writing. He reads much more than I do and more heavy stuff. More power to him.”
And that’s what made those trips so special: “More power to him.” She didn’t understand me, but she didn’t have to understand me to appreciate me. Grandma was great at appreciating the world and the people in it, even when she didn’t understand. She traveled all over North America, was active on Elder Hostel trips, and was constantly telling stories about people she’d met or things she’d seen. She was great at asking questions, at listening to the answers. Sometimes her only response to those answers was “Good Grief!”, but she didn’t stop asking questions. She didn’t stop listening to the answers.
Grandma Plocher died in her sleep this past weekend. Her health had been deteriorating for years; her memory was shot. The last time I sat down and talked with her, she needed occasional reminders of which of her sons I went with, and didn’t always remember that my dad was dead. It didn’t stop her smiling, though, to see my mom and my brother and me. We had a big party for her that summer, a belated celebration of her 90th birthday with all the kids, grandkids, and great grandkids. She held on most of the way to 93.
Death doesn’t get easier to deal with, even when you know that it ends a struggle. That makes it more complicated, sometimes, because part of you is relieved to see an end to suffering and an end to the complicated responsibilities that go with care. One of my first responses was a desperate sense of how unfair it was that I couldn’t help my dad through this, that he was already gone. Mourning grandma came later.
Grief is messy because life is messy. We only ever understand a small part of either, but we keep trying. And that is good, Charlie Brown exclamations included.
Rest in peace, grandma. The world’s a better place for having had you in it.