By Jane-Ann Heitmueller
Our grandma was a sponge. Well, that’s what she use to tell us. “Life is short,” she’d proclaim. “You’ve gotta soak up every last drop!” Due to her well known philosophy she affectionately became known to everyone as Grandma Spongy. She was one unique and interesting lady who was truly saturated with life.
Grandma liked to call herself a spiritual, not religious person, and had a firm belief in a power far greater than mankind, though never could figure out just what that might be or if there was a true hereafter. “Until I know for sure, I’m gonna consider each day as all there is to life.” Grandma accepted her days as precious gifts that she eagerly unwrapped and relished.
“Sleep is overrated,” she always said. “There’s too much to see, hear, do and accomplish. Why waste all that time with your eyes shut?” She greeted every new day with joy and anticipation, rising while she could view the sun’s brilliant rays beginning to silently peek over the horizon and the moon slowly fade from the brightening sky overhead. Contentedly sipping her morning coffee, while rocking on the front porch of her old farmhouse, Grandma would almost burst with appreciation for the beauty around her, eagerly making plans to fill the next twenty-four hours she had been allotted. She held no pity for slackers. “How on earth can anyone say they are bored? Why everywhere you look there’s somethin’ to do, new things to learn. All ya gotta do is open your eyes!”
“People never stop to listen or look at their surroundings any more,” Granny could tell us. “Do ya hear that mockin’ bird? Look, there’s the mother wren takin’ fat, juicy worms to her babies. Watch out… don’t step on that frog! Boy, that chatterin’ squirrel sounds really upset. Let’s stop the car and help that poor, slow turtle crossing the road before some fool driver comes along and smashes it. Just imagine…when you watched that calf bein’ born in the stable yesterday, you were the very first person on this earth to ever see this brand new life!” I can’t recall the number of times I heard her insistent reminder to us, “You must remember to walk lookin’ both up and down, up and down, not just straight ahead, and keep those things on the side of your head wide open!” She so respected and enjoyed nature and all it had to offer, often saddened that so many folks seemed unaware of the magnificent world at their very fingertips.
Although she genuinely liked people and had numerous acquaintances, always showing them kindness and concern, Grandma never felt the need to get too close to another person. She was a solitary soul, quite comfortable in her own skin. However, I once heard her remark that she would sometimes dearly love to get away from herself. “It’s like I’ve got some pesky Siamese twin draggin’ around behind me. Seems I’ve got no other choice in the matter, so I guess I’ll just have to put up with the old gal…but she sure does get on my nerves sometimes!”
“Maybe in another life I was an animal,” she’d ponder. “Animals don’t have ulterior motives. They’re just what they appear to be.” We loved to hear her stories about various pets she had enjoyed since childhood. “Mercy, I can’t imagine a home without a pet…gotta have my critters around. If ya’ll ever just can’t put up with me any longer and decide to send me away to a nursin’ home some day, please be sure it’s one that lets the residents have animals.” She poured love and care onto her animal friends, knowing that in due time she would sadly have to bid each good bye, yet knowing that “next in line” was always on the way. One day Grandma sat down in her rocking chair with a pad and pencil, trying to name all the pets she had had during her lifetime and even surprised herself at the length of the list. She had a pet cemetery out behind the old wash house and knew exactly where each of her little friends was laid to rest. Sometimes we could hear her out there just before sun up, walking from grave to grave, patting each one gently and whispering to her babies. “Good mornin’, Snitz. You were such a sweet little girl. Betsy Marie, I really do miss you. Hope you’re restin’ well, Tinker. Are you comfy in your little red coat?”
“I sure can’t understand why folks seem to think they have to have so many clothes these days. They just go on buyin’ more duds when they’ve already got a closet packed full o’ the things.” Her philosophy was that one needed only three outfits in their wardrobe; one dressy outfit, one warm winter outfit and something loose, comfortable and cool for warm days. Shoes were considered a mere necessity for safety. Not only did she preach these ideas, but practiced them herself.
Black dress pants and a nice blouse seemed appropriate for church or funerals, her one piece, zip up, gray flannel jumpsuit was perfect for the frigid days of winter and a lightweight sundress was exactly what she needed for spring and summer. She never varied in the first two choices, but splurged when it came to the sundress, occasionally purchasing a new one, but only if it suited her fancy and requirements.
As the cool days of winter subsided, Grandma scanned the local newspapers for upcoming yard sales. She detested shopping at “regular” stores and thought it was plain foolish to spend so much money on such shoddy seamstress work that the stores sold this day and time. “My Lord,” she’d say in disgust. “They’re nothin’ but a bunch o’ rags. I could do better with a roll o’ duct tape and a stapler!” I imagine it had been twelve to fifteen years since she darkened the doorway of a real store. “Heck, let the other fellow spend the big bucks. When they get tired of those clothes and put ‘em in a yard sale I’ll buy ‘em for little or nothin’. Besides, breakin’ in a brand new pair of shoes will might near kill a fellow!”
Over the years Grandma ended up with three wearable sundresses. The red, black and while flowered one suited her fine, but didn’t allow her to get enough sunshine on her shoulders when she was outside digging in her beloved dirt. I never quite understood her thinking there, because she didn’t dare go outside without her old, floppy straw hat and sunglasses to protect her from the bright sunshine.
The second sundress was a cotton frock decorated with bold purple and white stripes and string like shoulder straps The left strap kept falling down and bothered her while she attempted to complete her daily chores. She’d grumble under her breath about the constant aggravation, “One of us is lopsided. It’s either me or this dang dress.” Needless to say, Grandma didn’t wear that dress very often, only when the other two were drying on the clothesline in preparation for wear later in the week.
Her very favorite and most frequently worn sundress was perfect! It was bright orange, the exact brilliance of that early morning sun she so anticipated, and splattered with tiny, delicate blue and white flowers, much like the field of wildflowers flourishing behind the horse barn. It hit her just above the knees and the bodice was snug, yet comfortable. We always laughed, saying that “Comfortable” was Grandma Spongy’s middle name. “Life’s too short to go around in a bind!” she’d proclaim. We came to the conclusion that she loved this dress so much because it vividly displayed the scenes of nature that brought such joy and comfort to her life each day. Grandma loved to wear this sundress and once she wrapped it on, along with her ever present apron, floppy hat, sunglasses and flip flops, she was “ready to roll”. Watch out world…here she comes!
When the brisk, crisp days of winter approached it was difficult for Grandma to give up that orange sundress. For a few weeks she would simply put on her favorite paint spattered , but warm, sweatshirt over the top of her dress. When the days grew even more chilly, she’d add some leggings underneath. As you can imagine, this was a rather comical…what she would call, “ratty”, looking outfit. If someone happened to unexpectedly come to the door Grandma Spongy took it all in stride and promptly greeted her bewildered guest with her best model’s stance, a cheerful smile and welcoming “Trick or treat”! When the temperatures grew uncomfortably cold for her she’d begrudgingly break down, pack her beloved dress away in the trunk at the foot of her bed for the season and pull out her cherished tattered, flannel jumpsuit… which the family had threatened for years to burn. She just couldn’t imagine living through a winter without that well loved garment encasing her body like a cozy cocoon. “Yummy,” She’d say, closing her eyes, sporting a huge smile and hugging herself in a big bear hug. “This feels sooooo good!” Grandma Spongy and her winter uniform were prepared to face the frigid days ahead.
“You know, I woke up the other day and realized I’m an old lady! Well, actually, all I have to do is look in the mirror to know that. The exact reason I don’t look in the mirror much any more. Gotta remember, of course, I’m only gonna be around till I’m seventy-four , so I’ve got to pack lots o’ livin’ into my next four years. Death doesn’t scare me , it’s the dying I sorta dread. I’m not a fool about pain, but no use frettin’ over any of it, we’ve all got to die sooner or later and we gotta take whatever comes our way. When you stop to think about it, I suppose you could say that life is a terminal illness. After all, the minute you’re born you start dyin’. When I leave this earth I hope I’ve used up every last bit o’ me! I’m lookin' at death as my next big adventure…might as well.”
“If I had my druthers there’s only one thing I’d like to happen the day I’m buried. I sure do hope it rains. I wish the sky would open up like that big mouth on Jonah’s whale and dump down buckets and buckets of fierce rain… big splashy drops. I love rain! There’s nothin’ more fun than runnin’ around naked in the lower pasture in the cool, refreshin’ rain, ‘specially after a long hot, dry spell.” Puzzled by her request, we asked, “But why would you want that to happen, Grandma?” “Two reasons,” she would answer. “First, it’s my favorite kind of weather day, and after all, since it’s suppose to be my big day, I believe I’m entitled to that one final request I’ve always heard about. Secondly, for those folks who feel obligated to come to the cemetery, but don’t really want to, bad weather will be a wonderful excuse and we’ll be left with a gatherin’ of only folks who truly love me!” Made perfect sense to our grandma… made perfect sense to us.
Sure enough…Grandma’s prediction came true. One lovely spring morning in her seventy-fourth year she didn’t wake up to greet the sunrise. Instead, I like to imagine that Grandma Spongy awoke with a huge grin on her face, running full speed with outstretched arms, barreling headlong with eagerness into that amazing next great adventure she always spoke of with such joy and excitement!
Many years prior, in preparation for this day, she had set a small box on her bedside table. Although she never locked it, she made us swear on all that is right and good that none of us would open it until she was gone. Surprisingly, yet out of our deep love and respect for her, we all kept that promise. No matter how much we were tempted over the years, no one ever dared peek inside that sacred vessel.
Gathering reverently around her bedside that glorious spring morning we were anxious to finally receive Grandma Spongy’s legacy. Gently, the oldest grandchild lifted the lid and suddenly gasped in surprise at the contents. Inside the little brown, wooden box was a yellow, faded, well worn piece of paper with the handwriting of a young child, bearing the words of a poem our grandmother had written. It was dated July, 1935, when she was just ten years old. As Susan quietly read the poem aloud we were immediately touched to learn that her poem contained Grandma’s wishes for what life should be. Her life goals were set, even at such a tender age. A little note at the bottom of the poem instructed us what to do next. It read: Please read this at my funeral. It’s all I will need that day. I know you will honor my wishes and I love and thank you all.
So honor Grandma Spongy’s wishes we did… no frilly words, pricey flowers or showy coffin, no tears or wailing, rather joyous smiles and hearts filled with numerous lessons and abundant memories of our colorful grandma… who laid peacefully before us wearing her cherished orange sundress, but no shoes. Folded carefully and tucked lovingly under the pillow at her head was a little something for the cold days ahead…we’d dare not let our Grandma Spongy go to her big adventure without her beloved snug, gray jumpsuit!
Struggling to hold our umbrellas securely over our heads, as they whipped around in the slashing rain, we each listened intently as the minister read these words spoken from our grandmother’s heart so long ago:
Today I‘m gonna laugh and smile and learn and love and play,
‘cause what’s important is right now…not any other day.
I’ll soak up sights and sounds and joys and fill my soul with glee,
Because this day’s the only one …that’s truly promised me.
No time for past or future thoughts, no worries and no fears,
I’ll live my days in happiness… without sadness or tears.