birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Grandmother Kimmel

My grandmother taught me to love and to be loved. She was always glad to see me. The pleasure shone on her face. She felt joy in my presence and I, in hers.
Her name was Martha Margaret Phillips, but her friends and family called her Peg. She was born in 1900 in Indianapolis Indiana. Her father was a sign painter.
She had four sisters and 2 brothers. She was the second born and the oldest of the 5 girls. Her sisters were Jo, Mary, Elizabeth and June. June was nearly 20 years younger than my grandmother and was my mother’s playmate and life-long friend. The sisters did not finish school but they were very well educated and had mastered reading, writing and math. Her brother Stanton was the oldest and he was crippled in some way but smart and became a lawyer. Her younger brother Bill must have been much younger. He served in WWII and his daughter, Marlyce, was born a few years after I was.
When Grandmother was 19, she married handsome debonair Fred Ropa from South Bend. When she was 20 my mother Phyllis was born at home. She watched her daughter being born in the dressing table mirror. A few years later, Fred left them for another woman, the wife of a neighbor. Sometime after that Peg remarried this time to Fountain Kimmel, the husband of the woman Fred Ropa ran away with. Fred had seven marriages but none of them lasted. But my grandmother and Fount stayed together for the rest of his life. I don’t think her second marriage was a romantic love match but they made it last, raised my mother and Fount’s foster son George. They had many friends and a busy social life.
Before she married, Peg was a hairdresser. She knew how to put in marcel waves with curling irons heated on a wood stove. I liked to have her cut my hair even though my mother hinted that Grandmother wasn’t really a trained beautician.
Grandmother loved her bourbon. She always packed her own bottle in her suitcase when she came to visit. She smoked extra-long Benson and Hedges. She claimed she never inhaled but when she went into the nursing home after she broke her hip, she had my mom bring her cartons of cigarettes from the PX at Fort Benjamin Harrison where they were cheap.
She was a well-dressed, beautifully coiffed lady who knew how to have fun. She liked to play cards, from bridge to canasta and two-handed gin rummy. She had a big laugh and a healthy sense of humor.
I spent many summer days and nights at her big stone house on the Ohio River. She would put little trinkets, bits of lace and ribbon or old greeting cards in the top drawer of her maple secretary for me to find. She called it my drawer and anything I found there was mine to keep or play with. Once I found her old watch. It was so tiny that the entire watch could slip through a wedding ring. I loved to hear her stories about the olden days. She used to skate to school on wooden roller skates. She remembered when dachshunds had to be called kraut dogs during WWI and the schools stopped teaching German overnight. I wish I had listened more carefully to her stories, but I think I usually fell asleep sharing her big bed.
They had a big garden every summer and grew tomatoes, strawberries and sweet corn. She taught me to have the water boiling before picking the corn and to put a pinch of sugar in almost everything, including the corn water.
She was a good cook. Her recipes ranged from Johnny Marzetti to Chicken Chow Mein. Her specialty for a birthday dinner was a pork roast with homemade noodles. She would top the noodles with crispy buttered bread crumbs. Yum. She taught me to make ox-tail soup with spaetzli, garlic cheese grits, and eggplant casserole as well as peach cobbler. I still have the recipe cards in her handwriting. The ink is pretty faded and the cards are definitely grease-stained, but I treasure the sight of her carefully formed words.
When they sold the river house and moved to the Marblehead Apartments in Jeffersonville, Indiana, she still had a river view. She loved to sit out on their second-story balcony and watch the activity on the river. I was in high school by that time and I liked to walk from school to her apartment to visit her. I knew she would be just as glad to see me as I was to see her.
She was in her early forties when I was born so I spent hours, days years with her when she was in her prime. These are joyful memories. But she lived a long time, dying at age 89 ½. “good happens after 90,” she said. My memories of her last years are painful. I didn’t visit her often enough and I didn’t spend enough time when I did visit her (Yeah, yeah, I know I lived in another state, had a full time job and was raising two children of my own, but those facts do not excuse the truth that I neglected her).
She was in a wheel chair and needed help from the nursing home aides to help her go to the bathroom. Sometimes they ignored her needs. Sometimes they lied to her and stole her money. She was in a fancy place called “The Forum.” It had bright sunny windows and stylish furniture. It didn’t smell bad. When I remarked how pretty it was there, she replied,” It looks different from the inside than the outside." I’m sure it did.
Even though confined to a wheelchair and essentially imprisoned behind the Forum’s fancy décor, she was still able to find moments of fun. She played bridge everyday, and she became a people watcher. She learned and laughed at the quirks and habits of the other residents. “Watch this old guy,” she told me. “In a minute he is going to try to sneak out the door,”” Sure enough she was right. It must have been a daily ritual.
He never got out alive and neither did she. I am left behind with my memories both joyful and sad.