Two Cups of Coffee

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I wrote this several years ago. My grandfather was a man who was embarrassed by praise, no matter how well-deserved. Jesus took him home exactly one year ago today, so I decided to edit and post it now as a memorial. 

 

If Grandma was at home, you could be sure she was on the phone with someone. We were used to walking in to her kitchen to find her chatting with someone, a cup of coffee by her side.

“Oh, I have to let you go, honey,” she said one normal afternoon. “My grandkids are here!” There was a pause. She laughed. “Well, me too! Call me any time!”

My mom asked who she had been talking to.

“A wrong number,” Grandma answered. “She said that she had more fun talking to me than the person she actually meant to call.”

I couldn’t have come up with a more perfect illustration of my grandmother if I tried.

If she’d been “out and about”, we knew there would be a bag of goodies for us. She was always wiping away big red lipstick kisses off our faces and offering us lemon drops or mints from the seemingly bottomless purse called the “Poppins bag”.

When we slept over at my grandparents house, my sisters and I would wake up to the smell of toast and coffee and the high clear sound of Grandma whistling hymns in the kitchen. She would sit down at the table in one of her fuzzy housecoats with her cup of coffee and watch us eat cereal and toast with red plum jam. And she would smile at Papa when he came home from playing golf.

Papa and Grandma married in 1951 at Shaw Air Force Base. Papa entered the Air Force when it was still part of the Army in World War II. He had a degree in aeronautical engineering, a fact I was unaware of until college. He was never someone who talked a lot and never about himself. He let Grandma do that. He made us root beer floats and egg and cheese sandwiches to enjoy while we watched Nickelodeon or Disney Channel movies. He played golf, counted the offering money at church, and followed Grandma to the Air Force base for shopping expeditions. They came to every one of our recitals, shows, and parties, arms always loaded with presents. I took for granted that they were happy and healthy. They were Grandma and Papa. They would always be there.

After a routine colonoscopy found a tumor, Grandma needed surgery. It was a simple procedure, and she wouldn’t need chemotherapy or radiation. But the surgery changed my grandma. Her memory had been slipping for years, but when she came out of the anesthesia, it was more pronounced. She was easily scared or angered, and she seemed confused all the time. As months passed my quick-witted Grandma began slurring her words and dropping off into silence mid-sentence. She forgot how to drive the car. Her balance deteriorated until she wouldn’t walk. She called me by my mother’s name. The grandma I knew faded to a shadow of her charming self, like a photograph left out in the sun.

Papa finally had to move her into a nursing home just a few streets away from the home they had shared since his retirement from the military. I visited Grandma in her room early one morning, but Papa was already there. On the hospital-style table sat two cups of coffee. Papa was reading the paper. Grandma was sleeping. She barely stirred while I visited, so I talked to Papa. I told him funny stories about work and the weird people I’d encountered on my commute on the train. Grandma’s coffee went cold. I kissed her cheek and told her I loved her. When I left Papa was still sitting next to her, coffee in hand.

Every morning Papa would visit her, pouring two cups of coffee until she couldn’t drink hers anymore. Sometimes she knew he was there. Occasionally she would smile or give him a kiss in a moment of lucidity. She always seemed to know him long after her other memories had faded. It was a soul-tie that even tangled proteins could not cut. He never gave up coming because she couldn’t talk. He stayed at her side, holding on to memories and the small pieces of love she could give. Because when you’ve loved someone for fifty-seven years, you do not need grand gestures, flowers, cards, or even words.

That is why when someone asks me what love is, I think of two cups of coffee.

Military Life: 70 Years of Stories I Wish I Knew

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We are officially moved into our home at my husband’s first duty station as an Army chaplain. It’s been a crazy few weeks getting settled, but posters and pictures are on the walls, the kitchen is functional, and we all have clean beds to sleep in. I call that success.

It’s been a strange transition moving onto a military post. Other than a brief stay at Fort Jackson for Caleb’s graduation from chaplain school, I haven’t spent much time on military bases. I made a few trips to the base commissary with my grandma when I was little, but what seven-year-old actually pays attention? I read The Army Wife Handbook in preparation because yes, I’m that wife. I googled everything I could find on our post, the amenities, and the house itself. I’ve joined Facebook groups and scoured internet forums for advice. The truth is you just have to experience it.

There’s a special rhythm to life on post. My husband disappears for PT every morning and returns almost before I realize he was gone. I hear bugle calls for reveille, retreat, call to quarters, and taps (there are others, but my boys make too much noise for me to hear them all). I woke up to practice fire on the artillery range, and I heard it again as my oldest played on the playground. The neighborhood comes alive each evening with kids shrieking and riding their bikes. Families chat across their fences, some soldiers still in uniform as they flip burgers or pet the dog. It’s PCS (Permanent Change of Station) season, so many of us are packing or unpacking.

And through all of this, I keep thinking of Papa.

Last summer my beloved grandfather went home to heaven. After Caleb resigned from the Kansas church, we ended up living in Papa’s empty house. You would think it would be hard living in my grandparents house, and sometimes it was. I had small daily reminders of both my grandparents as I moved through my day. I’d open a cabinet, and the sugar bowl would send me back in time until I was kicking my short legs beneath the kitchen table and munching toast with red plum jam. I’d whistle along with the birds as I did dishes and break down crying because my whistle sounds nothing like my grandma’s. I’d see Papa’s cap collection and think of a funny story I needed to tell him until I remembered he was gone. But those moments were usually brief because the house was comforting in its familiarity. I’d spent nearly as much time in it as my own home growing up. It was a safe place to be sad, even if it hurt.

Here on post, I’m keenly aware of the side of my grandparents that I didn’t know.

Papa was a pilot and bombardier in the Air Force and fought in World War II and Korea. I knew this my whole life, but in high school I discovered he had flown two missions on D-Day. He said it was foggy that morning. He worried the weather would throw off his targeting and accidentally hit his fellow soldiers instead of the enemy. He was a man of few words, so that was the end of the story and I didn’t push it. I now know Grandma was invited to every party on base in the Philippines, their first duty station as a married couple. I know that the silver and blue dress with the mandarin collar was handmade for her in Hong Kong. I know Papa loved to bring her trinkets from all his trips overseas. I know my mother and uncle remember Papa coming home in a flight suit, sometimes carrying his helmet. I know they lived at several different bases in the US before retiring to Oklahoma. But these are all just facts without the warmth of memory.

Now I live across the road from the golf course, and I wonder which base my grandfather first picked up the clubs he came to love so much. I wonder what it was like to blast through the air in huge bombers and scrappy fighters. I wonder if he liked being a flight instructor later on and what he missed most about spending his days in the sky. I wonder what Grandma served at coffees for the other wives. I wonder what her strategy was getting to know each new place. It seems like every new thing I experience brings questions I didn’t know to ask. I think I feel their loss more keenly now because of this sudden insatiable curiosity. There are so many stories I never heard, so many missing pieces and snapshots with no captions.

I wish I had known the right questions to ask.

My grandfather’s plane from his service in WWII