It’s winter solstice here in Austin, Texas, United States of America, and I’m feeling nostalgic. Not only because of the holidays, or working in a place with a long history here in town and in the country that’s closing down, or because a year ago I had ridden my bike alot more, and the year before that, even more. It’s mostly because my maternal grandmother died 20 years ago on December 22, 1998. This post is dedicated to her memory. (Check back after the holidays for more photos.)
Nostalgia Is Not a Disease, It’s Actually Good for You
In this interesting article in the July 8, 2013 New York Times, “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows”. John Tierney explores the science behind what used to be thought of as a disease. And it turns out, remembering things from the past can increase resiliency, a sense that life has meaning, and even physical comfort. When I think back on bike rides I’ve done, places I’ve been, my college years, and good times with friends and family, I experience happiness but also a sense of wistfulness along with it. It’s like a good piece of dark chocolate: bitter yet sweet.
Grandparents, and maybe grandmothers moreso, hold special places in the lives of children. They’re like parents, but far less strict. They bring you gifts, treats, and hugs — there’s just a sense of unconditional love that’s like a warm blanket on a cool night. As a young woman in the 1930’s, my grandmother attended pharmacy school at the University of Texas at Austin. That was a bold move for a woman at that time. UT is where she met my grandfather, schoolteacher from New York who died when I was younger. They were Jewish though not religious. Ultimately, she dropped outif college to become a mother to my mother.
When I remember my grandmother, I experience a great deal of nostalgia. She was by no means perfect. She smoked, sometimes got a bit irritable (especially when my younger brother and I would get into trouble), and she could curse like a sailor. She pronounced “hell” like “hay-ull.” Actually, her brothers were all in the navy. She loved classical music, but other kinds too, like the Music Man. It took me years, but I finally saw the film a few years ago, and really enjoyed it. More nostalgia.
Moussorsgky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” was one of if not her favorite orchestral works. She’d say that one movement was about gnomes, which she joked was pronounced as “guh-no-mees.” She was also fascinated with and curious about New Age ideas, it being the 1970’s. Edgar Cayce, biofeedback, astral projection, lucid dreaming — you name it, if it was about spirituality, she liked it. She also taught us needlepoint, and we did a huge wall hanging she had framed called “The Animal Kingdom.”
Grandmothers Are Golden Girls
We’d visit in the summer for what felt like forever, until it ended, usually with tears, and sometimes at winter school breaks. She loved taking us outdoors to visit rivers and mountains (assigning us each our own peak) of Southern Nevada and beyond. We’d collect rocks in the desert which she actually polished and put little eyes on, making them into pet rocks. I’m not sure we ever discovered any real gold, but we did find some Fool’s Gold. I’m pretty sure we had a bikes to ride at her and my grandfather’s house at some point. There was a pool we’d spend alot of time at. There were trips to the library. We learned to shoot guns. Once hiking we walked over some very large snakes sunning themselves. Through it all, she and our grandfather encouraged our adventures and made us feel at ease just being at their mobile home, our retreat, our safe place. I recall her with great fondness, love and affection. And often, yes, with nostalgia.
My brother and I had a favorite day, I think it was Tuesday. That’s when Grandmother (that’s what we called her, out of respect, none of those baby-talk names). She would take us in her old Jeep (which was really a pick-up with a shell) to the second-hand, day-old bakery shop, which she called “the necessity store.” She called salad “garbage” and served us cottage cheese with canned peaches, which I eat to this day. Some nights she didn’t use the air conditioning, or maybe it was so hot it wasn’t working well. She’d sit in her chair in the living room, read and smoke while my brother and I would lay on top of the bedsheets, without shirts. We’d be sweating and trying to fall asleep, box fans blowing on us. We’d take turns rubbing each others backs very lightly, almost tickling, for some reason, thinking that would help cool us off.
There was the time I did a sporting event that foreshadowed all my 14,000+ miles of biking in the last few years. I bet a high school buddy we’d each run 100 miles. I had done only 25 miles two days before vacation ended, and I thought I could double that. So I took the pick-up/Jeep and measured 6.55 miles. I went home, and began to jog out and back. That night I crashed hard. I got up the next day to do it again. On the last leg back, I was hallucinating the black tar used to patch cracks — I thought they were snakes. But I made it back, and though exhausted, I didn’t die. Basically I did a 24-hour marathon. I returned home to learn my buddy hadn’t run at all. Grandmother supported my crazy venture, of course.
One day, all four of us were near the California border when I rushed headlong into a dark cave and fell into a mine shaft. Fortunately, it was caved in, so I didn’t die. My grandfather had to climb in and push me out. We almost couldn’t get him extricated. There were scratches and bruises and alot of tears, (mostly from my brother as I remember), but I survived. It was until that point in my young life probably the scariest thing that had ever happened to me, far worse than having my tonsils out. I carried fears of the dark, and even moreso, tight confined spaces and heights, into adulthood.
This came out quite unexpectedly when I began having images, not quite visions, of falling through the sky. It had something to do with having been in Central America and being a witness to political violence — violent rallies where I got tear gassed, some students who had been shot, and more. So on a milestone birthday, I went tandem skydiving. Though I still have the fear of heights, it’s more of a healthy respect. The fear of tight spaces surfaced again when I had to get my first MRI; I couldn’t do it, even with a sedative. I had to go to San Antonio for one that was open on the top, and probably will again if I ever need another one. Conquering fears is a life-long project, but I sure learned alot about facing it down in the deserts of Southern Nevada. Grandmother allowed us to let our spirits soar free under the Mojave Desert skies.
An Exercise in Trust
One of the most memorable experiences I had with my grandmother was when I was a teenager, or maybe in my early 20’s. It was around this time of year, Christmas-time. I remember, because we went up into the mountains to a place called Christmas Tree Pass. People decorated the naturally occuring juniper trees with holiday ornaments, garlands, and the like. We went to “my mountain.” It was not my first one, which I had mostly climbed, and graduated from, but to a bigger, more significant one. It was probably my idea to go climb it, being a headstrong young lad, which runs in the family. But she supported the idea, because she believed in me, and taught me to reach farther than maybe I thought I could. Because of our deep bond, which included her trust and confidence in me, I trusted and had confidence in myself. Not everyone has that in their lives, so I’m grateful I did for as long as I did.
Back on the mountain, while my grandmother waited with her dog, snacks, and probably a book and more than a little concern, I attempted to summit the beast. It is over 5,000 thousand feet high, but it was deceptively tricky with alot of ups and downs. I had to do some free climbing that I would never attempt today, or maybe it would be easy as an adult. I might not have tried it back then, had I known what I was getting myself into. I did have a topographic map, compass, whistle, water, snacks, hat, long sleeve shirt and pants, gloves, sunglasses and sunscreen. I also had an old instamatic camera. (Yeah, I’m not so young, so what? Remember young people: old is the goal.) I didn’t quite make it to the top, but was pretty close. Somewhere I have a selfie of me, looking really happy. I probably invented the selfie (like Al Gore invented the internet)! It was a great moment that had to be captured. (If I can find that picture I’ll post it.)
But on the way down, as the sunlight was fading, I was trotting fairly quickly, dodging the cacti and rocks, when all of a sudden, I came to a ledge with a big drop off. Had I not caught myself and stopped very quickly, I could have easily fallen and broken bones, become immobilized, bled out and died. There were no cell phones. The walkie talkies wouldn’t have had the range. So, I was much more careful the rest of the way, navigating some pretty scary downward climbs. The day was becoming evening and soon it would be night. Once off the steeper sections I jogged back to the Jeep. Grandmother was happy for my success but greatly relieved to see me, and said she had been using the whistle to signal me to return. I hadn’t heard it. We returned home with quite the story.
The Moral of the Story
About a month before my grandmother died, I was living and working in a Quaker guest house in our nation’s capitol back east. I couldn’t really leave the job, and didn’t really have the money for a trip, so I didn’t take the opportunity to return home and drive with him to visit her for Thanksgiving with my brother. I’ve always regretted that. A few days before Christmas, she went into the hospital, and didn’t come out of it alive.
When I got the news, of course I was devastated. For a few days, I did very little. I had a few co-workers, but not many friends. I was far away from home and couldn’t even be with family to grieve. As time went by I was able to go on and realize that our time together was precious and her lessons and love are everlasting. That, and she, are all part of me now. I feel especially close to her listening to Kitaro, one of many New Age musicians she loved.
I’d like to think that (perhaps after my mother), she’d still be my biggest fan of this blog, my bicycling and so on. As I’ve written, I’m an agnostic athiest, but I still allow for the image of her cheering me on from some other dimension. She always told us we should never be sad to think of her when she was dead, or else “she’d reach down and whack us on the head with her ugly stick.” She was quite the character.
When I have mountains to climb — whether it’s literally a big hill on a bike ride, or overcoming obstacles in my life, I’m so fortunate to have had someone in my life who believed I could do whatever I set my mind to. I have a long way to go to remember that and to do it consistently. But over 4,000 miles pedaled this year ain’t too shabby.
As I type this, Kitaro has come on the music stream. And you may be wondering, is that a sign my Grandmother is sending me a message that she approves of this blog? Well, who knows? Shakespeare said: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Oh, and the name of that mountain that I climbed?
Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every byway,
Every path you know.
Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
‘Till you find your dream.
A dream that will need
All the love you can give,
Every day of your life
For as long as you live.
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