Monday, August 27, 2012

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Every group of friends needs a hangout. A place to call their own, away from the pressures of work or family. For examples of this you need look no further than your television.

Our most beloved TV friends meet daily in their signature diners, bars, coffee shops, and electromagnetic subterranean island hatches (Lost, I don't know how to quit you) to unwind, catch up, and bond. Any event of true importance in their lives happens here: first kisses, accidents, incidents, spiritual revelations, soul mates met, soul mates lost, life-changing pronouncements about engagements, divorces, and pregnancy made.

Throughout most of the 90s, my group of friends and I had such a hangout. It was not a bar, it was not a restaurant (though the food was excellent), it was not a coffee shop. (It might have had a subterranean electromagnetic hatch. The basement was a little other-worldly and I am fairly sure some weird space-time continuum stuff went on down there.) It was a well-kept house ruled by a woman I simply knew as "G-Ma."

The first time my friend Matt took me to his grandmother's house, I thought it was just a temporary stop on the way to somewhere else. I had no idea I would spend much of the next decade of my life there.

It sounds strange now to say that my young adult location of choice was a friend's grandmother's house. But if you have any doubts about how a group of teenagers, and later, college students, could possibly have fun hanging out with a grandma, well...that's just because you didn't know this particular grandma.

She was a recent widow, and I think we started going by at first just to provide some company and to check on her. Where Matt went, I followed; I did not have a car but I hated to be stuck at home, so friends just had to rattle their keys and I was in the passenger seat ready to go along for the ride. A group of four or five of us began to tag along with Matt and make regular appearances at the house, and we began to fall in love with the woman who lorded over it.

Pretty soon we were invited over to play horseshoes in the backyard. Then we were invited over for dinner. Then for cards. Then for any reason at all. We could stay as long we liked and more or less do as we pleased. We were grateful and respectful in return for this unbelievable trust and kindness from a woman not related to all of us by blood. She became a grandmother to us all.

We bonded with G-Ma over long card games around the kitchen table. I think we started with Euchre. I have a hard time remembering, though, because before long G-Ma taught us to play Rook, and for the remainder of my 20s that was the only card game that existed. As a teacher she was patient; as a partner she was sly; as a competitor she was ruthless. I spent every night one summer as her Rook partner playing against Jason and Matt, who consistently beat us. No, they didn't just beat us. They demoralized us. They ripped out our still-beating hearts and shoved them in our faces. To this day, I don't know whether G-Ma and I had supernaturally awful luck that summer or if Matt and Jason had supernaturally awesome luck, or if those two cads were cheating outrageously. I do know that nothing brings two women together like a shared frustration and white-hot anger aimed at two smug card-playing men. So G-Ma and I, we became pretty tight.

Eventually our group of friends paired off and married. G-Ma and her house were important at these events, too. All the groomsmen in our wedding, in a move that probably confused outsiders who didn't know this was our happy place, met at G-Ma's before the ceremony. The pre-wedding pictures taken of Jason and his best men were snapped there. G-Ma attended both my wedding and my wedding shower as a special guest and friend. I do believe a different marriage proposal took place at her house several years later. Ainsley napped upstairs on her very first Christmas while the rest of us played a cut-throat round of Trivial Pursuit in the time-warp basement. (I'm telling you, you could spend hours or even days in that dark, quiet basement and think you had only been in there an hour.) Holidays, birthdays, Super Bowls, college basketball games, Reds games, Friday evenings after our first jobs had started to make us crazy--no big occasion was needed for us all to meet there. And presiding over it all, with smiles and warmth and love, was the lady herself. If you were at G-Ma's, you were home. She made it feel that way.

When Ainsley was almost a year old, G-Ma sold her house. Matt invited everyone in his extensive group of friends who had ever made his grandma's house a home to celebrate that special little corner of the world one final time. Over the years, at some time or another, many young people had been invited; most of them showed up to say goodbye. We stood on the front lawn, in matching custom t-shirts, surrounding the wonderful woman who had become our grandmother. It was like the last episode of a sitcom.

For a couple more years, we visited G-Ma at her new place on the holidays. But our families were growing. The last time we all got together with her was to watch a basketball game at a family reunion in the clubhouse of her condo. We ate. We laughed. We played cards. We cheered on the Louisville Cardinals in spite of ourselves.We promised to try to do better about staying in touch and pledged to meet up every year for a similar dinner. I am sorry to say that life got in the way of keeping these promises.

I had heard that G-Ma wasn't doing very well years ago and that she was no longer able to live alone. My correspondence with her was limited to cards and letters sent at the holidays. Once after sending her a Christmas picture of Ainsley, I got a letter back, a quick note that our daughter was beautiful and that she clearly took after her MOTHER. ("MOTHER" was in all caps and underlined; G-Ma wanted to make sure Jason picked up on the subtle and playful slam. She never quite forgave him for that awful summer of Rook.)

A couple of Christmas Eves ago, when we were feeling a little blue and sorry for ourselves that it was our first Christmas without Jason's mother, the phone rang. A bright light on a dark day--it was G-Ma. She had received our card and wanted to wish us a Merry Christmas and brag on Ainsley. Her voice had become frail. Her humor and warmth, though, were still intact. I wept when the conversation was over; sometimes, when you talk to someone, you know it's for the last time.

This week, G-Ma passed away. I feel for her family, who lost a wonderful mother and grandmother and great-grandmother. I feel for all of us in that little merry band of misfits who found refuge for most of the 90s with a woman who welcomed us as one of her own, loved us, fed us, and taught us how to gracefully win and lose at cards. (Well, she tried.)

I think this weekend I will honor her by baking an orange cake from her own recipe, drinking lots of sweet tea, playing some cards (not Rook; I've not forgiven Jason for that awful summer, either), and coming together with my closest friends. We will think of her, and miss her. But her kindness, generosity, and love will live on.

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