Storycatching with Clarice: Today I Will Live and Laugh

Clarice told her boyfriend that she would marry him, but he was going to have to wait four years.

She loved reading and talking about books. She sang in the choir and spoke a soft, raspy French. When her boyfriend-turned-fiancé graduated and left for work, she wrote him long letters, and he always wrote back. He wasn’t tall, dark, and handsome like the men she had always dreamed of as a teenager.

Yet now she knew: life was about so much more than that.

She decided that she needed that college degree. No amount of romance could change her mind. She lived in a time when a girl was lucky to be in college. If she left, there would be no coming back. There would be babies and responsibilities at home. She studied hard. Knowledge satisfied her curiosity. It gave her a bucket list in life that included item after item of adventures to check off throughout her future marriage.

Once she had that diploma in hand, she felt ready to marry.

I remember pressing my nose against her curio cabinets with my cousins one Saturday morning after we ate blueberry pancakes. It was her fiftieth anniversary; I was her fourteenth grandchild.

My grandma Clarice had always picked up little treasures wherever she and my grandpa went. By the time I was a child, the collection contained thousands of memories.

There were clusters of hand-carved elephants with red spots marching in a row toward a little stack of German teacups. The crystal salt and pepper shakers with real silver tops were no bigger than a man’s thumb. I would stare, craving a taste of their delicate salt. Tiny pieces of crystal that resembled modern birthday candles sat next to a replica of the Eiffel Tower and a clay mask that made my youngest cousin shiver. One sandy stone came from China when a man told my grandparents it was a cookie so my grandpa would take a bite. And he did!

We were never allowed to touch any of these treasures. Grandma Clarice would see our greasy fingers smudging the glass display. When there was just one or two of us, she’d pull something out and tell us its story. But usually, there was a gang of her hyper grandchildren stampeding through the house, and her number one goal was to divert us from her treasures. “Why don’t you all bring out the cowboys and Indians from the closet?” she’d suggest.

There were plastic cowboys in every shade of brown and black that we knew. We’d haul them and their horses out of the hallway closet and onto the shaggy brown carpet of our grandparents’ living room with shouts of “Yaw!” and “Giddyap!” We’d wedge those cowboys into mint green metal trucks and horse trailers. We’d stuff all the florescent plastic ranch animals and Indians into my brother’s hands, then rush back to pick up the gingerbread trail of walnut-sized sheep and cows he couldn’t carry.

I never thought to ask where the old toys came from. My mind was always on the adventures my cousins and I were plotting or the ones our grandparents had collected in the curio cabinets.

Around the same point in life, I remember driving down the interstate with my grandparents. We were heading into the mountains, and it was one of the few times I recall being invited on one of their adventures, especially without my parents. The adventure was just a little day trip, but Grandma was just as bouncy and excited to go as she was the day they left for Paris.

I imagined the perfect (and very valuable!) stone that I would find up in the mountains like the little gold nugget one of my uncles added to the curio cabinet. One day I’d put my amazing rock in an enormous glass cabinet of my own, and that would be the start of my story collection. The brown Blazer my grandpa drove smelled like a combination of the mountains and homemade muffins or cupcakes from a mix.

Grandma had redeemed Betty Crocker points in a catalogue for something called a muffin top maker. “No one likes the muffin bottom,” I heard her tell my mom in a sing-song happiness. “Now thanks to this muffin tin, no one has to eat them at my house.”

The Blazer kept rumbling along the interstate. Grandma sang and let her soft hair blow in the breeze of the cracked window. My brother and I sat in the back. Maybe our sister was there, too.

“Ooooh, goodie goodie gumdrops!” Grandma squealed. She turned around to look at us. The corners of her mouth danced. “We’re getting a special treat!” she said. “Watch!”

And slowly, we slipped into a cloud. The world around us disappeared as the Blazer chugged along. It was scary at first. Grandma kept smiling. She laughed. Then my brother and I weren’t scared. We wanted the cloud to continue forever.

When the Blazer rumbled out of the other side of the cloud, Grandma turned back to us. “Not everyone gets an adventure like we just did!”

No, I thought. Not everybody does.

Happy 95th birthday, Grandma! Five years ago, my grandma and I stepped into NPR’s Storycorp recording bus to tell her story. The experience ultimately led to my concern for all the other women who had stories and lives to celebrate. I began the writing prompt journal shop, Gadanke, several years later.

We’ll be having a little birthday party (i.e. big sale!) in my grandma’s honor at Gadanke’s new mailing list. I hope you’ll join us.