My grandma sewed most of the dresses and pantsuits she wore. She cut her own white hair and dried it in bobby-pinned curls. She called margarine "oleo" and referred to sofas as "davenports." She looked after her neighbors, whether with a cup of perfectly weak coffee or a few bucks for a grocery trip. When a local boy came home from a stint in prison, Grandma hired him to fix her porch. She didn't drink or swear, but didn't hold it against you if you did. She caught all the jokes. And she hosted the best Christmases.
My mom, brother, sister, and I would make the 40-mile trek in our beat-up blue Chevy on Christmas morning, keeping vigilant watch for her crooked little house in the middle of Minnesota nowhere. It was a drafty two-story that seemed to be made mostly of cardboard, but it was one of the warmest places I've known. Fritz the Great Dane would meet us at the end of the driveway, and soon other family would show up. My aunt Mugs and uncle Bernie and their kids, Deone, Daryl, Darla, and Darin. My uncle Glen and aunt JoAnn. My cousin Gwen and her husband Bill.
We'd play in the snow, pelting each other with iceballs or standing in the ditch until the plow came by and buried us in a thick drift, while the adults gathered around the big kitchen table with the green vinyl tablecloth for a family update. A common topic was my aunt Rosie, who thought she looked like Liz Taylor but didn't, and refused to have anything to do with us. Dinner comprised multiple turkeys, salads, pies, cookies, homemade bread and butter, homemade pickles, and deviled eggs. Grandma cooked for days beforehand, and I can still see her pushing up her perpetually smeared glasses with an oven-mitted hand as she opened the oven.
When dinner was over, we'd all move into the back room with the peeling wallpaper and push-button light switches and plunk ourselves down in front of the Christmas tree. It was a little fake tree, set on a table to give it height, and surrounded by presents wrapped in paper scarred with old fold marks. Grandma would usually buy only two gifts each year in bulk: flashlights or mini-toolboxes or socks for the boys; potholders or jewelry boxes or mittens for the girls. Gifts weren't the point.
We'd unwrap our toolboxes or flashlights or potholders and finally, when it started to get dark outside and we were on the verge of running out of things to say, we'd hop back into the Chevy with our bounty of leftovers, and head for home. We'd make our way down the long driveway and out onto the two-lane that ran past Grandma's place. As we passed, there she'd be, standing in the yard in her long wool coat, waving. We always honked.