I hope this finds you fine as frog's hair! That's how my Grandma Mader used to start nearly every letter or card she wrote to me. It always struck me so funny and brought to mind images of frogs with fine wisps of hair and wee little combs to manage it. I've never heard anyone else use this phrase of endearment and, until today, I'd have been shocked to ever hear it again. I am sure now, however, after this post, it will become a household greeting that sweeps the nation.
This past weekend, I spent a lot of time getting dirty with my kids. Digging...planting...finding worms...finding frogs (make that toads)....and fishing off the dock. In the midst of this dirty play, I found myself thinking a lot about my Grandma Mader. It kind of caught me by surprise. My grandma has been gone for a long time now and, because of living so far away for so many years, I didn't see her very often in the many years prior to her passing. In fact, there are days when I grieve that my memories of her are not clearer...that I didn't really get to know her when I was old enough to really appreciate her.
My Grandma and Grandpa Mader, one of the cutest couples you would ever meet, lived in the small town of Antigo, Wisconsin. Antigo, about a four hour drive from where I grew up, was, and for all I know may still be, one of those towns that just felt like a step back in time to simpler and quieter days. It was the land of baseball, hotdogs, apple pies, and Chevrolets...or so it seemed...with corner candy shops, a Dairy Queen, an old funny smelling department store, and flags flying in many yards. In my mind's eye, I picture the old hospital, my Grandparent's church, the local park and swimming pool, the farms on the edge of town, and the houses along a tree lined street. More than that, I picture my Grandparents' home and their cabin which, while a definite drive out of town and into the wooded countryside, seemed like an extension of "home" while we were there. I picture the "kitch" and true treasures that my Grandma proudly displayed, African Violets, the lake, the art work and funny sayings hanging in halls and in the bathroom, and the enchanted woods of the Mader's Pleasant Acres. The smell of my Grandpa's pipes, baking pastries and infamous kolaches, old home basement, and big ole artery hardening breakfasts linger in my memories. The sound of ticking clocks - cuckoo, grandfather, chime - that kept me awake when I slept on the Davenport always seemed in contrast to the otherwise still and quiet home, rarely interrupted by any artificial "modern" noises (aka white noise), but often interrupted by a good story, laughter, a fish tale, or the sound of playing cards and poker chips.
One might wonder how in the world I went from digging in dirt to thinking of my Grandma. To anyone who knew my Grandma, the leap is only a small one. My Grandma was an amazing gardener and was often found with her hands in the dirt. I believe she may well have been a plant whisperer. Her home was surrounded by flower beds and rose bushes while she boasted two large gardens in her back yard. I honestly can't recall all of the flowers, fruits, and veggies that she had planted. In her basement, she had an African Violet mini-nursery. She knew how to grow these often fickle plants, giving them just what they needed to grow - even in a basement. Often, when I see a garden that is somehow impressive, I think or say outloud, "Man, Grandma would have loved to see this garden." And just the other day, as my daughter was talking about Lady's Slippers, the Minnesota State Flower, I immediately thought of my Grandma walking with me in the enchanted forest pointing out this delicate looking flower. Grandma Mader had a gift for growing.
Pulling up worms with the kids also made me think of Grandma. She was no prissy, afraid-to-get-dirty grandma. She could bait a hook and catch fish with the best of them. In fact, I'm not sure who enjoyed fishing more, my Grandma or my Grandpa. And, without a doubt, she had her share of tales about the ones that got away. And, while she had her rules about fishing that had to be followed, she was almost always open to having a little one tag along in search of the elusive monster fish lurking just out of reach. Grandma Mader had the guts for getting dirty.
Although it has nothing to do with dirt, I cannot think of my Grandma without thinking of her baking and hospitality. One of the things that made the four hour drive to Antigo bearable to an antsy little girl, besides the 8-track tapes of Oklahoma (OOOOOklahoma where the wind - kuklunk - comes sweeping down the plains) and Roger Whittaker and mystery radio theater (ouch - just dated myself and revealed my geekiness!!), was knowing that upon arrival, I would be greeted with hugs, kisses, and fresh baked pastries. To a child with a sweet tooth, it was almost paradise. To top it off, nearly every meal was completed with some sort of sweet treat carefully crafted by loving hands. I don't recall, though it may have happened, her ever "rationing" out her treats. I do recall, however, her asking me to run a dish of goodies or a packaged up meal across the back yards to a neighbor in need. And, I do remember that she didn't seem to waste a thing. Grandma Mader had a heart for hospitality.
My memories of Grandma Mader are not nearly as clear and neatly packaged as I wish they were. I envy my sister's and older brothers' recollections of times they had with her and Grandpa. Their stories seem much more coherent and vivid. I regret not making a point to make a few extra long haul road trips to see them before it was too late to see them again. Yet, the things that matter most will always linger in my mind and settle on my heart...the way my Grandma grew...not just flowers, but compassion and love toward others, and a creative spirit that encouraged me to run in her back yard, check out butterflies, and dare to try my hand at a new game of cards (and not get too bothered by my incessant singing while playing). The way my Grandma got dirty...not just literally (in the garden, among the worms and the fish), but figuratively as well...surviving the Depression, living humbly and giving freely, sharing her faith and encouraging mine. The way my Grandma showed hospitality and taught it to me...welcoming "weary" travelers, being prepared for someone to stop by unexpectedly or to give to someone in need, visiting those who needed a lift of spirit, always making me feel welcome and walking along side of me.
I was rejuvenated digging in the dirt this weekend. I felt as if I had missed working the earth and digging for worms for far too long (odd, I know). And, surprisingly, I was refreshed by the memories of an amazing woman who was unexpectedly brought to mind. I hope the memories don't flee too soon. I have much to learn from them and am not yet ready to let them go.