Borrowed Grandparents

When my parents left their home in Alabama to move to Florida in the 1950s, I almost got cheated out of grandparents—almost. I got to know my grandparents through cards, letters, long-distance phone calls and the occasional week-long visit. But with both grandmothers and my one grandfather too far away for Friday night babysitting and everyday spoiling I almost missed out—almost.

            Instead I was abundantly blessed in the grandparent department. When I was two and a half, my dad became pastor Ocklawaha Bridge Baptist Church in the Ocala National Forest—a community packed with retirees living miles and miles away from their own grandchildren.

            I never lacked for a lap to crawl into or someone to sit with in church while daddy preached and mother sang in the choir.

            Earl and Frances Midkiff had dozens of grandchildren in Iowa but during their winters in Florida I had dibs on their attention. They invited me over to bake cookies and help them decorate their travel trailer for Christmas. Mrs. Goldie Hoffman made me stuffed animals and a rag doll. Mrs. Gertie Hartselle crocheted afghans for my brothers and me just like she did for her own grandchildren up north.

            Clyde and Kathleen Harless lived in Ocala, where he was director of missions for Southern Baptist churches across three central Florida counties. Rev. Harless and my dad were good friends. The Harlesses’ only son was a missionary and their only grandchildren lived in South America. They came to our house often for dinners and weekend cookouts. One Friday afternoon they stopped at our house in their new camper and took me with them to camp overnight at Juniper Springs. We played board games, built a campfire, and walked through the woods. When I was a teenager, I stayed with them when my parents had to go out of town. When their granddaughter came to the States for a visit, they invited me to go with them to Orlando. We camped and went to Sea World, the Magic Kingdom, and the Wax Museum.

            Ethel and Charlie Henderson lived in a beautiful old country house with a white picket fence. Mr. Henderson was a true gentleman farmer. On Sundays he wore suits and polished black wingtips. But for working in the orange groves and tending his cattle, he wore a starched long-sleeved work shirt, a safari hat, crisp pants tucked into work boots, and spats! He showed me how he cut the branch of an orange tree with his pocket knife to splice in another type of tree to create hybrid fruit.

            Mrs. Henderson was a librarian in Ocala and drove the Bookmobile. I’ll never hear Burl Ives singing Christmas songs without thinking about hearing his Christmas album at the Hendersons’ house. Their dining table was loaded with Christmas goodies and a cut crystal punch bowl full of hand-squeezed orange juice with all the seeds strained out.

            Understanding that passenger train travel would soon be a thing of the past, Mrs. Henderson invited me to go with her and her granddaughter, Susan, on a train ride from Ocala to Wildwood. We rode the train then spent the day at Homossassa Springs.

            The day my dad broke his leg, Mrs. Henderson met me at the bus stop to let me know why my parents weren’t home and to take me to the hospital to be with my family.

            Rose and Oswald Harrington lived just on the other side of the church. Mrs. Harrington was one of my favorite babysitters. On trips to Ocala, my parents would sometimes stop for lunch at the Burger King on Silver Springs Boulevard but we always had to sit at a boring ole booth. When I went to Burger King with Mrs. Harrington, we got to sit at that wonderful, long narrow counter by the front windows with the fabulous spinning stools.

            The Harringtons had a bulldog named Casey whose bark terrified me, a 17-year-old white cat with no tolerance for a little girl, a fishing boat, a dock that was perfect for jumping into the lake, and the first color television I’d ever seen. All these years later, every pot of chicken and dumplings I encounter is judged by how close they come to Mrs. Harrington’s recipe.

            When the ladies had their missions meetings at the church, Mrs. Hartman used to bring me a pint-sized freezer bag stuffed with boiled peanuts from her freezer. She would set them out to thaw but they still had just enough ice crystals to make them delightful. I loved sitting with the Hartmans in church because she kept butterscotch Lifesavers in her pocketbook and if she ever ran out, Mr. Hartman would share his Tums with me. Even after I went away to college, I continued to get birthday cards from Mr. and Mrs. Hartman—every one had a crisp one-dollar bill inside.

            Robert and Frances Peebles had more than enough grandchildren but they always made room for me too. An afternoon at their house was pure delight and I loved every one of their grandchildren and other kids she kept while their parents worked. Mrs. Peebles collected salt and pepper shakers and had two shelves full of craft magazines. I loved looking at all the crochet instructions and patterns for intricate decorative pillow covers and tablecloths. My mother would never let me have a friend spend the night during the week, but when she and Daddy went of town, I often stayed with Mrs. Peebles and she always invited a friend over. When Mr. Peebles was sick and the family had been told to say their goodbyes, I was honored that he counted me among his adopted grandchildren.

            Mrs. Beatrice Holly lived in a big old wooden house across the road from Don Baker’s store and was another one of my favorite babysitters. She came to stay at our house when Tom and I both had the mumps, but I spent many afternoons at her wonderful old house. Her kitchen had a pie safe that always had something special inside. I’ll never eat warm homemade bread slathered in butter without thinking of Mrs. Holly. Her house had a huge screened back porch with a wind-up record player and in the rafters was a quilt frame. I remember going to her house one day when the quilt frame had been pulled down and the quilt was surrounded by grannies sewing and spitting snuff juice into soup cans.

            Christine Beedle’s youngest daughters were close to the ages of my big brothers. The Beedle girls always made me think of fashion models with long “That Girl” hair, white frosted lipstick and Twiggy eyelashes. I was at Mrs. Beedle’s house one day when she accepted delivery of several huge boxes of baby chickens and I got to help transfer them into an incubator. Another day a package arrived from her son, Robert, in California. She set up a slide projector so we could all see the pictures Robert had sent of the giant redwoods.

            With all my happy memories of all my many borrowed grandparents, I owe thank-you’s to countless bonus cousins for being willing to share their grandparents’ love with me. I adored them all.

            And it pains me to confess that I also owe an apology to a new generation of kids to whom I could not return the favor. When I grew up, I moved far away from my mom and dad. They showered their “grand” affections on every child they encountered. But somehow I really blew it when trying to teach my daughter to share her grandparents.  As a little girl, she was extremely possessive of their attentions and she tended to pout when she saw other kids hugging her Grandma. With five-year-old Jennifer in tow, my mother arrived at church one night and collected hugs from a small assembly of other kids. A man asked my mother, “Are these your grandchildren?” Normally shy, Jennifer quickly and firmly answered for her: “I’m the grandchildren.”

            And I’m so sorry.

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