A tribute to my grandmother and the little things in life.
When my grandmother passed away in 2007, it was one of the toughest moments of my life because selfishly, I wanted her to be with us forever. She lived to be 94, so it wasn’t supposed to be sad. It was no doubt a celebration of a life that touched so many people. I think everyone in the community in her small Kansas town knew it would be hard on all of us. She was the closest to a living saint that any of us would ever have the pleasure of getting to know. During my last visit with her, she looked me square in the eyes, said she was “just tired” and asked me if I would be her pallbearer. “Of course I will. I would be honored,” I said. We were both sobbing and hugging. She had lived in the same house since my dad was a toddler. We have always been a family built around humor, so to help us fight back the tears, I told her I had one question: “Is your house paid for?” With her quick wit, she laughed and replied, “Just a few more payments. Just a few more.” That was our last conversation.
Sitting in her living room following the funeral service, my uncle asked me if I wanted anything from Grandma’s estate. Anything. Knowing I have a love for all things midcentury, he probably thought I would pick her console stereo or perhaps her car. Without hesitation, I said, “You’re not going to believe this but I would really love to have that foot ashtray on the end table.” I couldn’t even recall what it said on it, but it’s just the most ingrained image in my head when I would picture her living room. I remember thinking as a kid that it was funny that an ashtray was in the shape of a foot, and I loved it.
I can picture and feel so many things about that house in detail. When we would pull up, she would likely be outside awaiting our arrival, or at least looking through the living room window to greet us. I can clearly hear the sound of the screen door opening and slamming shut as dozens of grandkids and great-grandkids ran in and out. I can also hear the living room wall clock that had the loudest second hand that would tick away as I lay there on the living room floor on a makeshift bed, wanting to stay awake as long as I could. I can smell the wood of the built-in storage bench in the entryway leading to the smell of some freshly fried chicken. She was a farm girl and the youngest of eight, so she knew how to maximize a chicken to accommodate whomever might show up. You could show me 100 color swatches of olive green and I could pick out the exact one that matched her refrigerator and stove. I could point out the specific locations in the dining room where the floor would creak the most if you were sneaking around after you were supposed to be in bed. I can picture exactly where she would leave the most recent Sears catalog, in which we would all circle what we wanted for Christmas and put our initials next to it. In the winter, I could identify the best spot to be over the floor vent, which pumped warm air from the basement furnace. In the summer, the best spot was on the glider sofa on the front porch, hopefully next to Grandma. There were so many grandkids and great-grandchildren that real estate was limited and precious.
For obvious reasons, December is an incredibly nostalgic time. Every year following Thanksgiving, we pull out the Target tubs of decorations. In one of those tubs is the foot ashtray, which I now know says, “We got a kick out of colorful Colorado.” I don’t know for certain, but being born and raised on a Kansas farm, that very well may have been one of the farthest trips from home she had ever taken. I don’t know that for sure, but that, to me, is a reminder it’s not what you have or where you’ve been, but who you are.
What I do know is that Grandma’s relationship with all of us set the bar so high, it’s something we all strive for every day. She had a way of making me feel like I was the most special person on the planet. As a kid, I thought it was just me. Now, I understand she did that for everyone.
If you are ever at my house during the holidays, you are likely to see a silly little foot ashtray in the living room near the Christmas tree, a reminder of a simpler time and an amazing person. I know I’m not alone because my oldest sister chose to keep a ceramic monkey that holds sugar packets that my grandma kept next to the coffee pot. How could she have ever known that those tiny, insignificant objects could symbolize such emotional memories?
Gertrude Frances Sauer Hager 1913–2007