A few years ago, a layover dropped me briefly at the Denver airport–and flared in me a sudden longing for my grandparents.
I would expect to feel nostalgic at the sight of the Colorado Rockies. When I was a child, my mom took me several times to visit her parents in Woodland Park, a high-altitude town across from Pikes Peak. I spent summers there playing with my brothers in their yard, chasing wild peacocks, peeling mica flakes from an enormous stone, marveling at the geodes that lined their sidewalk, and sunning myself on a red boulder (in June) while bits of snow still hid in its crevices.
That was decades ago, and those were only sporadic visits. We lived far away–in Chicago, then Cleveland. When we did come to town, we mostly played outside and my mom did the visiting. Grandpa died suddenly when I was in high school. Grandma died slowly while I was busy graduating from college.
I’ve lived an entire lifetime since then. A lifetime they don’t know, just like I don’t know much about their lives. We intersected so briefly, really. So when I saw the mountains on this trip, my instinct was to go hug them. I couldn’t, of course, from inside the terminal. The mountains were an untouchable backdrop. The realization hit that I felt the same way about my grandparents: real and anchoring in the backdrop of my life but just as untouchable.
I stood frozen in the airport, desperately searching my memories for my grandparents. I’d just left my own children for a weekend with my parents. My kids’ grandparents were watching them grow up, watching them have tantrums, triumphs, cute phases, awkward phases. My parents knew my children intimately and were their friends.
Suddenly I was sobbing in a corner of the airport. Calling my mother to ask whether her mom really knew me. My mom was at my son’s basketball game. Through the din, she reminded me of her mother’s frequent trips to visit us, how she came to my music and theater performances and took lots of pictures. I remember those pictures in my mother’s album, my grandma’s huge smile. Maybe she wasn’t just mugging for the camera. I want to read love and pride in that smile.
The summer after that layover, I returned to Colorado with my children on a road trip. As soon as I saw the mountains, something in me relaxed.
I spent nearly two weeks with relatives there, sight-seeing, reconnecting, remembering. One day I drove up the pass to Woodland Park. Visited my grandparents’ graves. Took my mind’s eye up the back road where someone else now lives in their home. Tested the firmness of my memories, like stepping cautiously on ice. Relaxed as those memories held my weight up with a sense that I was loved, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
As I drove away from the mountains, eastward, I looked in the rear-view mirror often. I wanted to see the mountains as long as possible. Eventually they disappeared behind me, but I could still feel them. Solid and dense but comforting.
I want my sense of my grandparents to be more than solid and comforting. I especially want to know my grandmother, Barbara Jane. I want to pin her down in words and pictures and personality and humor. Almost as if recreating a friendship. I have other relatives whose memories I want to reconstruct, as well. Some I knew personally, some I’ve only known secondhand through others’ memories or through research and records.
It’s time to look in the rear-review mirror and blog my family history.