Recently my friend Amy Crow, who writes No Story Too Small, challenged others to join her in writing about our ancestors each week. This is week 3 of the challenge and I’m going to share some stories of my maternal grandmother, Shirley Helen Krueger Morse. I’ve written a few posts about her in the past, but this time I wanted to share more of my own stories of her.
From the time I was a little girl I spent a lot of time with Grandma Morse, She was always an energetic and fun person to be around. Our routine included her taking me with her on walks around the neighborhood to get our after dinner exercise, meeting and talking with neighbors, admiring the yards, and telling each other about our days. It was always a highlight of the day to spend with Grandma. I was a pretty shy kid so I really took some time to warm up and get going. It worked out well for me.
While I was at Grandma’s mom was working. My mom and dad had divorced when I was just 4 years old and mom worked hard. Dad lived a few blocks away from our house so I did see him often on weekends. But for the majority of the time I went to school at the Hebrew Day School either mom or grandma would pick me up. I often would be at grandma’s after school and would sit and color for a while as she would cook our dinner. It was often just the two of us. Grandpa was still alive at that time, but he was usually at work late into the day. I can’t remember any time that he ate with us, but I’m sure it happened on occasion. He was busy at Morse Electric which he owned and managed with his son, Brett. Grandma and I sometimes went to see him at work and I’d sit at a table and draw. Perhaps that is where I got my interest in engineering?
Grandma and I would sit and watch tv in the little breakfast nook next to the kitchen and eat our dinner. We’d finish our meal, load the dishwasher and wash the pots and pans we’d dirtied. Then we’d head out the front door for our walk. Her house was a beautiful tow story white house with big shrubs in front. The lovely expanse of green lawn in front was always immaculate. As we’d walk down McKinley Avenue towards the grade school it was always nice to see the different styles of houses and people out in their yards. My grandma knew everyone and was friendly to all. I admired her easy way of talking with everyone. It was always a bit awkward for me, but seeing her befriend everyone made me wish that I could be the same way some day. There was one house that was in the next block that she told me about how they had lost their child earlier that year. I’m not sure if it was a case of a death in Vietnam or something else, but I got the impression that he had been in his 20’s. For some reason I had thought that he was buried in their front yard! Childhood memories and impressions are such funny things and for years I was freaked out by that house.
As we worked our way through the neighborhood Grandma would tell me stories about the lives of the people in each house. Occasionally we would go in to see someone and sit and swap stories. I would sit and listen and try to understand what the grownups were sharing, but I’m sure most of it was well over my head. By the time we made it back to the house we had walked a couple blocks and worked off some of our dinner. Depending on mom’s work schedule I’d either watch tv with grandma until mom came to get me. Or I might take a bath and go to bed and mom would get me late at night. I probably spent as much time at Grandma’s house as I did at our own house.
Sometimes one of my cousins would be over at grandma’s house too. Those were fun times. Shellie and I would play in the backyard or across the street with the other kids in the neighborhood. If the weather was bad we’d go down into the basement and play with the old toys there. These toys were my mom’s and her siblings old toys. Lots of toy cars, dolls, and a big pink showboat that we;d pretend to use for plays. The best were two little cars that you could sit on and scoot around. The bigger one had a door you could open in the back and put toys in. It had a horn you could honk and a lever you could pull that made it sound like it was revving up. Grandma would occasionally call down the stairs and ask us to quiet down when we really got going with the horn. When my cousin Ryan would come over we would mostly play with the cars and play hide and seek. Grandma’s house was a fantastic place for hide and seek. Lots of closets, beds to hide under, long curtains, and the basement was full of dark crevices. It was my favorite game to play because I was always so good at sitting still and being quiet. Most kids give themselves away, but i did not. By far my favorite spot to hide was under her kidney shaped desk. It had bookshelves built-in and so it had a completely closed space where your legs would go. I’d squeezed in there and pull the chair in tight. Unless you knew that it was there, most kids didn’t think to look. Sometimes we would get into grandma’s closets or even in the cupboards that she had in her bedroom. I’m sure we wrinkled and screwed up many of her clothes over the years, but she never complained or made us stop the game.
Grandma was always a big volunteer in a number of organizations and kept herself hopping from thing to thing. She often assisted with things at the synagogue and would take me along. I’m sure she was hoping that she could get me to be interested in learning more about being Jewish, but I was a kid and not yet interested. Even though I went to the Jewish day school for the first few years of my school life I still did not get involved in the synagogue. My cousin Shellie started together at the school because her dad wanted us in the same class together. Too bad she was held back and we ended up in different grades after all.
One of my fondest memories of Grandma was when she taught me how to tap dance. She was a dancer since she was a little girl. There are wonderful photographs from her childhood to adulthood of her in costumes. She did tap, ballet, jazz, and even belly dancing. She was one cool grandma. When she taught me how to do a shuffle, ball, change on the tile front entryway it has never left my mind. I can picture those tiny aqua tiles and us standing side by side practicing our shuffles. She had a lot of patience and encouraged me often. I took a ballet class along with my cousin Shellie. We danced to the “Rainbow Connection” from “The Muppet Movie” in outfits with sequins and rainbow tulle overlays. I loved that outfit and was so sad when I grew too old to wear it anymore. I took tap classes and though I don’t remember any of the songs we performed I can still remember some of the steps. When mom remarried and we moved to Ohio I started taking jazz classes and remember that we had this really cool outfit that was aqua with gold streamers attached to the arms and draped around the back of our leotards. It was fun and I knew I was good at it. I think Grandma even made it down for one of my performances.
Grandma had a rough year in 1981 when she learned that her husband, Ed, had colon cancer. At the time I was only 5 years old and didn’t really understand much beyond the fact that grandpa was very sick. He spent a lot of time upstairs sleeping when I was there. Grandma would tell us to play quietly so we wouldn’t disturb his sleep. Sometimes she’d have us go up and talk with him, but I don’t remember much of the time spent with him. I do remember him teasing Shellie that she had big feet or something like that. I was pretty shy around him. In May of that year he finally became so ill that he had to be in the hospital. I didn’t know that they were expecting him to die. I remember seeing him there and thought how tired and old he looked. Grandma and mom looked very sad. When he eventually did pass away it was the first family member that I’d ever lost. We sat in the first two rows of the pews at the synagogue while the rabbi spoke about grandpa. I cried. A lot. My aunt Toni leaned over and told me that I should be careful or I’ll rub my eyes out with all that crying. It didn’t help. When we went to the cemetery for the burial I remember that my little cousin Ryan had written grandpa a goodbye note and when everyone threw in some dirt he tossed in his note. I wondered what he had written to say goodbye.
After grandpa’s death I could tell that grandma was sad. I spent a lot of time with her, but somehow she kept busy and optimistic. When her brother Marvin’s wife, Leah became very ill a month later we would both go and visit them. Leah passed away in June and in Marvin died in November. Grandma was the last of her immediate family to survive and she never seemed to let it get her down. She had an uncommon optimism and tenacity for life. She went traveling with friends, volunteered with Civitan, B’nai B’rith, and the local synagogue too.
She helped with taking care of her grandchildren whenever she could. She hosted family gatherings regularly. There are many wonderful memories of being stuck at the kiddy table while all the grownups sat in the dining room discussing the issues of the day.
My mom met Kevin just a few months after Grandpa had passed away. I don’t know how many times I heard Grandma say that she wishes he could have been around to meet him. How much he would have liked Kevin. I like to think he did know that mom finally found a good life partner. When they married in 1982 I was a junior bridesmaid. I loved Kevin very much, but was sad that this meant we would be moving to Ohio. I would miss my Dad and my best friend, Erin. I would miss seeing my Grandma and Grandpa Alford. It was scary to think of going someplace new.
When we moved to Ohio we didn’t get to see our South Bend family as often. We were often only able to visit every 6 months or so. Dad would drive down to get me for a month or two in the summer, but as I got older I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay with my friends. As time went on we were only able to make it up there once a year.
On occasion grandma would come down to see us, but as she got older her travel became limited. By this time I had two younger sisters that didn’t know the “fun” grandma that I knew. It made me sad that they didn’t have the fond memories that I had. Eventually grandma had taken a bad spill and had to give up her house. I think this saddened me more than anything. That house was my dream house. As a kid I had hoped to be able to live there with my own family. The reality was that I did not plan to live in South Bend as a grown up. I planned to live in Ohio. So when mom and my sisters went to help pack up the house and sell what we didn’t want it really made me sad. Grandma moved into an apartment and after a number of years had to be in nursing home as she no longer could be alone and safe. She was wasting away and was a shadow of my lively and loving Grandma. Every time that I went to see her in the nursing home I came away in tears. This poor little woman was not my Grandma. She was biding her time till she could die and be with my grandpa again. It was depressing to think of her there alone, but I felt horrible every time I went.
When mom or i would go to see her we always called each other afterwards. Usually in tears and just wanting a sympathetic ear to agree that it’s an awful thing to be there. That grandma appreciates a visit and we have to do that for her. I really think that up until she eventually did pass I was already mourning her loss. She meant so much to me that it was devastating to realize that there was really nothing I could do to help her.
My last visit with her was on my way to Chicago for a class paid for by work. I was looking forward to being in Chicago, but I wanted to see her too. I was planning on showing her a scrapbook I had made, but when I got there I realized quickly that she was not present enough to look. She seemed in a daze and drugged up. I knew she had been declining, but had not seen her in several months and when I saw her I almost burst into tears right then. I kissed her forehead and held her hand for a little while. I told her that I loved her and that if she wanted to go it was okay. I kissed her again and said goodbye. I didn’t know that shortly after she actually would go on her way.
After I left the nursing home I called mom as was the tradition. We talked a bit and I told her what had happened and tried not to sob on the phone. Mom told me that grandma had known I was there and that it was okay. Once I had calmed down I got off the phone and went to have lunch with my dad before leaving town. I had a nice lunch with dad and then as I was about to get on the highway, mom called me. It seems that about an hour later my Aunt and her family had come to visit grandma and found she had died. I was most likely the last person to see her before she went. I was floored. I couldn’t exactly do much of anything, but I called my dad and asked if I could come over again. He said sure and I carefully pulled out of my parking space and drove the half mile back to his house.
He hugged me. He told me that he understood and that I should think of my best memories of Grandma. I told him about grandma tap dancing and being the only belly dancing grandma. All the good things I could think of helped me to calm down and feel okay about what had happened. I still was crying and dealing with the loss, but it helped put things in perspective. After all, my dad and I were able to connect on a level that we never had before. He was a Dad, rather than a stranger who I was related to. Of all the things my grandma did for me, this was one of the best gifts. My relationship with my dad has been restored and I now have the relationship with him that I’d always wanted.