My Grandma Always Stopped the Car in the Middle of the Road
My grandmother slowed her ’88 Dodge Dynasty to a full stop in the middle of the road. “Listen,” she ordered, motioning for us to roll the windows down.
It was a precarious place to park: the crumbled pavement so narrow only one car could fit. The forest so thick you couldn’t see around the bend. And the hills on both sides just steep enough for an unsuspecting car to gain speed.
Strapped tight in the backseat, we grandkids were too drunk on the promise of a day roaming free at Grandma’s farm to sense danger. We did as we were told.
“Here’s where you really hear them,” Grandma said, her voice lilting, wistful. We listened.
Outside the Dynasty, an untouched, Illinois woodlands’ worth of wrens, finches, chickadees and robins filled the air with dings and whistles, whoops and crackling harmony. Orioles and blackbirds flitted from branch to branch, warbling their anthems. Jays chittered and the bobwhite sang his name. And beneath it all, if we were lucky enough, we’d hear the peppery spray of a salty woodpecker pounding his way to a snack. Bonus points if we could locate him.
Decades later, at Grandma’s funeral, I learned that many of her fifteen grandchildren had some form of the same memory: a car parked in the middle of the forest, a head stuck out the window, a firm command from our sugar-sweet grandmother to listen.
I struggle sitting still. I’m a novelty-seeker, endlessly curious. I try something new every time I go to a restaurant I’ve been to before, even though I’m often disappointed. I like to change things up. That’s fun for me.
Maybe I’m like this because I’ve had to remake my life numerous times, or maybe I keep remaking my life because I don’t value sameness like other people do. Whatever the reason, I’ve moved from state-to-state and from one political end to the other. I’ve divorced and dated, loved and lost. I flit from branch to branch.
Unlike my grandmother, who grew up just a few miles away from the man she would eventually marry. She and my grandpa would live together for over sixty years in the same house my grandpa’s parents had built and eventually died in themselves. Before she passed, one of the last things my grandma told me is that I could always make my home in the one she was leaving behind.
It reminded me of the moment, twenty years earlier, when I drove my little Toyota out of her driveway. She stood on her front porch waving, the same way she’d waved at me since I was a little girl. I’d just graduated from college, and I was ready to see the world. I moved to China the next day and never lived in downstate Illinois again.
I wonder if my daughters are missing out. We don’t live a quick drive away from their own grandparents’ house. In our Chicago suburb, they aren’t within an arm’s reach of deep forests like the one in my childhood backyard, where you could lost in for a whole day. My kids don’t know how cornstalks smell freshly flattened in tractor tracks, and they couldn’t pick out a morel mushroom to save their lives.
I have to remind myself that we moved here for opportunity. Opportunity in the form of better education, better jobs, and diversity in terms of kinds of people and kinds of thinking.
We moved here because sameness wasn’t working for me. So, the trade-off: my kids and I live in an 800-square foot apartment, outside of which lies a world of busy intersections, public transit, condos, skyscrapers, and a cacophony of people as unique as the songbirds in the woods of my youth.
I think of this on days like today, when we drive thirty minutes to a forest preserve so I can lie down on a big log and close my eyes to listen. Really listen.
There’s a bit of birdsong, some passing geese. But what I really hear are cars on the interstate. My heart sinks.
And then, another sound: laughter. Because my kids have made up a game that involves hitting each other with sticks. Do they know what they’re missing?
I don’t think I’ll tell them.
We are as different as city and country, but it was my grandmother who taught me how to remake and re-order my life. I will stop worrying that I don’t give my kids enough ritual, enough tradition, enough sameness that will stick in their brains and remind them of the beauty of childhood. Maybe it was never the sameness that was the important part.
What I soaked up from my grandmother was the act of stopping the car. The stopping, and the teaching of small, impressionable people how to do this very important thing.
It’s why, every time we try out a new hiking trail, I find a log to turn over. There is something I want my kids to know about seeing tiny worlds thriving in hidden places.
It’s why, when we walk the Lake Michigan shoreline, I point out the way the tide moved the beach back so that it slants differently than it did last year. Water doesn’t seem to like sameness either.
And while I haven’t yet found a familiar dip in the road to call our own, I have developed a practice my German Protestant, prairie-raised grandmother lacked: the ability to receive a compliment.
Grandma always brushed compliments away, or gave the credit to someone else. But when someone tells me what I mean to them, I open my hands, palms up, to receive it. Then I bring them to my heart.
Somehow I owe this gesture to her too. Because if there’s one thing my grandmother insisted on teaching her grandchildren, it was to make sure we didn’t go our whole lives without having really listened.