It's been ten years, seven months, two weeks and four days since Kathleen Lucille Matlock Sack officially stopped living. That's what it says on the somewhat morbidly named website "Find a Grave," but I know better. I know that the end of life is not always marked by the cessation of breathing. Whatever the case may be, it is well past time that I shared some of my memories of her with you, because she is a big influence in my life, and I want to make my life worthy of her memory.
What I remember most about Grandma Sack was her cooking. She made the best egg noodles, thick but not doughy, just mild enough to take on the flavor of the rich beef broth she often cooked them in. Whenever my brother Chris and I stayed with Grandpa and Grandma Sack, we could count on eating those noodles at some point. And Grandma's monkey bread was unbelievably good. I have no idea whether her recipe was as decadent as the one I just linked to, or whether she used canned biscuits and a jar of caramel topping, because I was a stupid kid who never even thought to follow Grandma into the kitchen to learn her secrets so that when she was gone I would be able to cook up those memories on my own. And the phrase that I remember being constantly spoken during mealtimes was, "Sit down, Grandma! Enjoy your meal!" Because the woman lived to serve. She simply couldn't sit still if there was the remotest chance that someone at the table was missing something that would make their meal less than perfect.
In the 1960s my Grandpa Sack got bladder cancer. He stopped smoking around that time, but continued chewing tobacco. He had a cystectomy (bladder removal surgery), and radiation and/or chemotherapy. My Dad and Uncle Tom had driven to Emporia a few times when Grandpa had sudden health issues, so the family decided to move Grandma and Grandpa to Leavenworth in 1983. I was 13 years old, and Chris was 11. To my brother and I that just meant that we could see them more often, so we were pretty happy. I didn't really understand at the time that Grandpa and Grandma were transitioning into the end of their lives. Grandpa died in the fall of 1988. I was in my first semester at K.U. I came home for the funeral
Grandpa was more enigmatic. He didn't talk a lot, and came across as being kind of grumpy. In hindsight, I'm sure that his health had something to do with that. Nonetheless, I still remember him laughing and smiling. And I remember that he was still growing as a person. I have a very clear memory of Grandpa taking a walk with my brother Chris. When they got back, Grandma told Chris that it was really hard for Grandpa to apologize: Talking about feelings and such just wasn't what men were taught to do growing up in his family. I have no memory of what the previous disagreement was about, and Chris never talked with me about any of it. But Grandma made it clear that Grandpa apologizing was well outside of his comfort zone. He was a good man, and a product of his time.
I wasted so much of this opportunity. I am ashamed to say that I can count on one hand the number of times I went to visit Grandma for no reason at all, just to spend time with her. Yes, I was a teenager. I was making decisions that I really didn't understand. Those non-decisions to not go visit Grandma are the ones I now regret. Because that evil bastard Alzheimers was starting to sink his claws into her. She had always been forgetful, so it was difficult to tell that her memory lapses were becoming holes. Holes that would never again be filled. But at that time her memory was like Swiss cheese, still more substance than holes. She held the keys to unlock a wealth of stories and memories, and she was always willing to share. But she was devoted to her grandson, always willing to listen. She never pushed her treasures on me, and I didn't know well enough to ask.
Grandma's laugh is a deeply embedded part of my soul. Grandma wore her joy like a comfortable sweater. She was built like Santa Claus, with a spirit to match. She would, in her words, "get tickled" over the slightest thing. I don't remember any specific situations or jokes, just that her laugh was ready to go at any time. When she told stories about something that had happened, especially involving children or her dogs, that laugh would pop up and make it almost impossible for her to continue. It had a bit of a wheeze to it, not entirely unlike the gasping intake of breath that my son Quinten sometimes does when he laughs, or the snort that makes its way into mine. Out of control, shameless laughing. Not loud, or disgraceful, just unstoppable. A celebration of life.
Then I joined the Peace Corps and went off to see the world. Well, Nepal anyway. And a bit of Thailand, and my introduction to Korea. I came back in time for Christmas in 1996. By then Grandma was living in Mt. Hope in a retirement community for people who could not completely take care of themselves. I didn't know much about that when my family drove to the home of Uncle Bob and Aunt Charlotte, Grandma's surviving daughter. I was so happy to see these people for the first time in more than two years, especially Grandma. I gave her a hug, and she hugged me back, but not very strongly. When she said, "It's nice to see you, too," the look in her eyes and the tone of her voice told me that she had absolutely no idea who I was.
Grandma's stories were not epic, but they were amazing. She and Grandpa raised their own four children, Opal, Charlotte, Richard and Tom, but also took care of foster children for many years. Some kids stayed for a few days, some for months. She told us about one boy who she felt so sorry for. He would only eat cereal from a cup, not a bowl. As he ate, he would cover the cup with his hand as everyone else sat eating their cereal normally. When she asked why, he explained that where he came from if you didn't keep it covered, the bugs would fall in it. Grandma told us about how if a poor person came to her door, he was invited in for a meal. It didn't matter if they were colored, because that didn't make any difference in how a man was. (Kansas! 1940's!) I can imagine that meals at her house must have occasionally been somewhat out of the ordinary. This may account for her later tendency to cook army-sized portions, and to leave food out for us to "piece on". No one left Grandma's house hungry!
I made it back outside only just before the tears started flooding down my face. My Uncle Tom, Grandma's youngest son, held me as I sobbed uncontrollably. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, it was a few days after Christmas, I was home in America, and my Grandma was gone.
Grandma told me about when she and Grandpa would go to dances together. He played the guitar with the other musicians, and she would dance with any boy who wanted to dance. Melvin loved playing, but had to stop from time to time because it drove him crazy to see Kay dancing with other men. I imagine a VFW hall, a church basement, maybe even a barn. The music lively, the crowd even more so. They lost most of their early photos in a house fire sometime in the 1940's, so it was difficult for me to imagine Grandma as a pretty young woman and Grandpa as a dashing young man. As I mentioned, she was built like Santa Claus, and swayed a bit when she walked. Dancing just didn't seem possible, and jealousy seemed ridiculous between these two people who existed as one in my mind. Now that I have talked with my own daughter about the times before she existed, it is easier for me to believe that it happened, though I still have trouble picturing them as a young couple.
Three months later, in March of 1997 I returned to Korea, to give living overseas a second try, and Grandma moved into an assisted living environment in Mt. Hope, KS. I met my future wife, Horyon in February 2000, as Grandma was forgetting how to get dressed and feed herself. We were married in February 2001, and traveled to America for her to meet everyone who couldn't make it to the wedding in Korea. In other words, to meet everyone other than my parents and Jon VanHoose. Including Grandma.
When Chris and I stayed with Grandma and Grandpa, we loved the trailer park in Emporia where they lived. It was a quiet neighborhood, and Grandpa had a giant tricycle that he rode to get the mail and such. Chris and I raced that three-wheeler up and down those little streets, staying off the main road of course. Our favorite destination was a mulberry bush on the next street over. We would come back with our mouths, fingers and clothes stained purple, scratches all over our arms, and thrilled with a snack that we had to work for. We never got in trouble for getting messy, because Grandma!
We sat together for a while, each of us holding one of her hands. Horyon talked to her, about what an honor it was to meet her, and how beautiful she was. Grandma was no longer built like Santa Clause. She would eat if you put food in her mouth, but wouldn't do so by herself. She couldn't walk, but she would use the toilet if put there. My cousin Mike later swore that from time to time you could still see glimpses, glimmers of her in there. I saw the smile that I loved so dearly, and she mumbled in that lovely voice, but the laugh was gone. I let the tears run down my face as I watched the woman I would spend the rest of my life with reach out to the shadow of a woman whom I had loved as I could never love another.
Grandma's handwriting was a bit difficult for me to decipher (I know, pot, kettle, etc.). It was an old school cursive, quite narrow, and slanted to the right about ten degrees. She wrote to me in college, telling me that she was so proud. She hadn't gone to college, but she learned more from life than many college graduates I've met. Every letter from her reflected her positive attitude and her joy in life. She even sent me a small gift or two. She couldn't afford much, being on a fixed income, but a little aluminum bird mobile (or maybe it was a wind chime?) is still packed away in a box in my parents' basement, waiting to remind me that Grandma loves me.
I didn't know that our first visit with Grandma would be our last. Three years later when Horyon and I visited America we took a road trip through Colorado, New Mexico, and the northern bit of Texas, planning to stop by Mt. Hope and visit Grandma and Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Bob as well. But before we could start we got the news that Grandma had passed away.
So many good memories. The time Grandma was with our family driving through a torrential storm, and she was sort of driving my Mom a bit crazy. I let Mom listen to my Walkman as a distraction, and I think she still remembers that long evening when she hears Billy Joel's song "You May Be Right." ("It just might be a loooonatic you're looking for!") The time Grandma visited us and left her slippers, so we wrapped them up and gave them to her the next Christmas. The luggage set that she gave me as a high school graduation present, maybe knowing better than I did that I was destined to travel.
I don't usually like the euphemism "passed away," but it feels appropriate for this ending. Grandma's body finally just stopped working. No struggle, no disease, no accident. The funeral was sad, but also relieving. In the most important ways she was already long gone.
Until I was 13, Grandma and Grandpa lived far enough away that we only saw them two or three times a year. Every summer my brother and I would stay with them for a few days. I didn't realize until much later that this was as much about giving my parents a holiday as giving us a special trip. We looked forward to these long visits, and there were some tears when it was time to say goodbye, but always with the expectation of seeing them again at Christmas.
Goodbye, Grandma. Until we meet again, thank you for everything.