My grandmother Mildred died on July 2, 1989, the day before I flew home to Seattle from Washington DC, where I’d lived for six months while trying to figure out what to do next. Although I had approximately no money to my name—I “borrowed” cash from my DC roommate to catch a bus to the airport—I planned to fly home and then find a way to catch a plane to Arizona to see her before she died.
Mildred was my father’s mother. She and grandpa Roger lived in Mesa, Arizona, having moved there in the 1960s from West Virginia because they believed the heat would help her Rheumatoid arthritis. I saw her a few times when I was very little, such as when they came to see us in Washington DC.
They came to Seattle for a visit in the early 1970s and (according to my memory) stayed in a big hotel downtown, which might’ve been the Westin. Or I could be completely wrong. I can’t remember anything else about that visit but I recently found a sweet photograph of Mildred talking with Johnnie Hill, my maternal grandfather, over breakfast in grandma and grandpa Hill’s kitchen in Lacey, Washington so we must’ve gone there for a sleepover visit. I know we didn’t have a car at the time so I have no idea how we made the trip. That’s me, in the background, in the flowered pajamas and that’s Jesse’s gigantic head in the foreground.
In about 1975, when we were in elementary school in Seattle, grandma and grandpa sent money for airfare so that Christopher, Thomas, and I could visit them in Arizona. Mom cashed the check and then gave us each a $100 bill to cover the cost of the plane tickets and let us carry the money in our own pockets while we walked downtown to visit the airline office to book and pick up our plane tickets. The fare was $96 or $97 dollars and I think mom let us each keep the change. I have no memory of the flight—our first trip on a plane and Christopher and I flew on our own!—but I can remember clearly how exciting it was to carry that $100 bill in my shirt pocket.
This photograph on the patio in Arizona is when Christopher and I first arrived. (Note that I am wearing a Dos Equis tee shirt and squinting through my Welfare eyeglasses.)
Here we are visiting the Casa Grande National Monument after Thomas arrived a few days later.
And here we are monkeying around in the sprinkler in the backyard. (Note my homemade swimsuit and graceful moves and Christopher’s high-waisted briefs.)
Grandma and grandpa visited us in Seattle once when I was in high school. That time they came through on a driving trip (grandma later referred to it as their “old friends tour”) when we were living on Cheasty Boulevard. I could tell that Mildred meant a lot to my mother because she let her smoke cigarettes inside the house instead of relegating her to the front porch as she would anyone else.
The summer after I graduated from high school, in 1983, I made my first of many trips to Arizona on my own. I took the train because it was cheaper than flying and I had more time than money. I was tall and slender that summer and wore a pair of Dr. Scholl’s sandals that made me look even taller as I stood next to Mildred in the kitchen.
During my visit, Mildred told me about growing up in West Virginia and offered stories about Chilton’s childhood there too. Mildred was the youngest girl in a family of six children: Bernice, Frederick, Francis, Robert Earl, Mildred, and William. We pored over the album of old family photos together, Mildred filling me in on the key players in each photograph while I carefully pulled the pictures loose and wrote notes in pencil on the back. She told me lots of stories related to school. How much she loved school, how she never missed a day, even recalling the year her family couldn’t afford to buy books for the next year so she repeated a grade so she could keep going to school. (It wasn’t surprising, really, that she became a school teacher herself.)
My notes on the back of this photograph indicate that Mildred is in the front row, second from the left. Her brother Francis is on the far right, Fred is in the back row in the middle (you can see his ears sticking out), and Earl is right behind Mildred. Mildred scratched out the face of the girl in the middle of the front row but didn’t explain to me why she did it.
Here she is with “the Shafer girls.” Mildred is on the right. The girl on the left is demonstrating that she’d just learned how to spit through her fingers.
During our visit in the summer of 1983 we also played countless games of Kismet at the kitchen table and chatted while grandpa scurried around doing laundry, making coffee, or cooking dinner. We smoked cigarettes together indoors and made one trip to the greyhound racetrack. Mildred loved to gamble and had a tendency to win.
I returned to Arizona several times while Mildred was still alive and most of our visits proceeded at a similar pace. Chatting, reminiscing, and playing Kismet while grandpa did the chores.
After Mildred died, I continued to visit grandpa every year and had the pleasure of getting to know him outside Mildred’s shadow. When grandpa lay dying eleven years later, I was there to argue with the doctors who wanted to withhold hospice care in favor of patching him up and sending him off to a nursing home. Before heading home to Seattle, I gathered up the things he left me in his will: the photo albums and Mildred’s cedar chest and everything it held. In the cedar chest I found Mildred’s report cards, her diplomas and college degrees, school pictures of each of her 2nd grade classrooms, and photographs of Roger’s little sister, Pauline, who died as a toddler, along with their father, in the flu epidemic of 1918. Roger maintained that there were no pictures of her but I’ll bet he just forgot that he had them. There’s no way these two children aren’t siblings.
In the years since then, I’ve found that I hold onto little things simply because they once belonged to Mildred. I think it’s time to let some of them go.
Offering: a sweet wooden curio shelf meant to be hung in a corner.