Monday, November 13, 2006

November 13, 2006: Monday Memory: Gramma

My grandmother, had she been alive today, would turn 106 on her birthday tomorrow, November 14. Gramma--Gladys May--was born to James and Aretha Riley in 1900 in southern Illinois. In the town of Dix, Illinois, over half the 400 or so residents are Rileys. My family. Gladys was one of ten Riley children, whose grandfather, Andrew O'Reilley, and his brother came from Ireland as young men, dropped the tell-tale "O," and settled in southern Illinois sometime in the mid-1800s. The Riley clan was prolific, until Dix nearly burst with Rileys.

I was forever fascinated with the Riley clan as a child. To think that I had hundreds of 2nd and 3rd cousins, who ran back and forth to each other's houses, ate at each other's supper tables, played games of ghost-in-the-graveyard in the fields. My father grew up in a swarm of them. He had so many first cousins he could barely count them, must less name them, 75 years and eight hundred miles away from his childhood.

When I was a baby, my father moved us all from southern Illinois to upstate New York, worlds that have nothing to do with each other. Summers we would drive the 18 hours back to Illinois. We'd stay at my maternal grandmother's air-conditioned house in city of Mt. Vernon. In the afternoons my father would drive my brothers and me out to Dix to visit relatives. Rileys were everywhere. Every few feet, it seemed, my father would pull off the road. "Here's where Grandmother Riley used to live," he'd say. "Here's the house your mother and I lived in when we were first married. Here's Jack Riley's house. Here's John Carl's shop." Later my father would sit on front porches with his aunts and uncles while my brother and I drooped in the hot Midwestern sun, longing for carpet instead of the scratchy brown grass beneath our feet. I would hear my father slip into his native drawl and feel an ache in my heart even then. I wanted to lay some claim to this clan my father had left behind. But what do I know about the Riley clan, really, other than a few afternoons spent decades ago watching distant cousins, whose names I soon forgot, play free-tag in the short grass? They could have been anyone's children.

Gramma, though, I knew in a youngest grandchild kind of way. She and Granddad wintered in St. Petersburg, and I spent happy vacations there, riding in the baskets of their old people tricycles and eating delicacies like Frosted Flakes and store-bought packs of chocolate pudding. Eventually, after Granddad died, Gramma moved into a nursing home, and then another and another. She got mean and cranky and could make up a whopper of a story. She lived long enough to meet Randy (or "Andy," as she insisted on calling him). The last time I remember seeing her, she pointed at my dad across the lobby of the nursing home and shouted, "ISN'T HE HANDSOME?" Gramma died in 1988, my senior year of college. I remember my father telling me that when he was a boy in Dix, funerals were important social events. Everyone was practiced in the art of mourning, and he and his Riley cousins, dressed in their best clothes, would carry baskets of flowers in the funeral processions with the other mourners.

Being the last of 5 children with 16 years between me and my oldest brother, I never had the luxury of really knowing my grandparents. My brothers all have memories that include living near them in Illinois; I remember a handful of week-long vacations as a child and nursing-home visits as a teen and young woman. I wish I had longer with them. I never got to hear their stories. If I try hard, I can remember the sound of Gramma's voice and her laugh, and her particular smell. I wish I had more than that and am tremendously thankful that my own children have their grandparents living next door half the year. I can't think of many better gifts than that.

(Gramma and me, 1985, Florida. No comments on the hair, please--it was the 80s!)

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