The last time I stayed with my grandparents - before Gram moved to a nursing home - was the first time I stayed with them on my own. As I stepped out of my car and walked across the spiky Floridian grass I felt the rush of being The Grandchild, without my older, louder sister there to take centerstage. (Yes, even as a twenty-something. Many of us who end up onstage are there because of older, louder siblings. It’s the only way we were ever going to be heard.*)
Yet for the same reason, I felt shy, nervous… even a little scared. Without my sister, mom, aunts, uncles, or cousins, and all the noise and activity they bring with them, who was I in relationship to my grandparents? How would we interact? What would we say? What could they possibly think of this grimy, barefoot vagabond crossing the driveway, car piled to the ceiling with all that Mary Poppins couldn’t fit?
I didn’t even have to knock before Papa opened the door, eyes twinkling, corners of his mouth turned ever so slightly upward. “How are you!” he said, patting me on the back. And from beneath the cool waves of the fan Gram’s lips emerged, bright like a tropical fish at the end of a long line of “ooooohs.” Gram. It’s difficult to recall Gram then… the past few years have been so hard for her. For Papa. For their children.
However that afternoon, still able to drive, she went on a secret mission to Publix and returned as I stood in the driveway rolling clean laundry into burritos. “Come here!” she rasped. “Quick, before Papa sees!” I walked to the street to meet her dark sunglasses, half-obscured by a low visor. From the passenger’s seat she presented two bags of trail mix. “I got you this for the road,” she said. Then, placing a folded $20 bill in my hand, “Don’t tell Papa.”
Of course Papa wouldn’t have minded, though he might have been puzzled by the strange deal going on outside. It wasn’t about the trail mix, nor the $20. It was about the conspiratorial grin. I’d never discussed “the road” with my grandparents, for reasons you can and can’t imagine. But in that moment I felt like Gram, who had given me a subscription to Rolling Stone when I turned ten, got it. No explanation necessary. Even more than that, she wanted to be part of it. And she was. She is. They both are. How could they not be?
Thank you, Gram. Thank you, Papa. I love you, Shellenbach tribe.
* To be fair, I enjoyed and exploited my sister’s loudness. It/she enabled me to silently witness all the stuff I sing about.