When I was a kid, my grandma, Mildred Wilguess, worked for Columbia Records in Terre Haute, Indiana. Part of her job, as I recall, was listening to the "master" record. It was kind of like a photography negative - the "master" was used to make all vinyl records (for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about - records were the CDs of the old days).
We were living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, then, as my Dad was finishing his doctorate at the University of Arkansas. Grandma would usually bring records for me from her work. It wasn't unusual for her to arrive with a bag of interesting 45s (the smaller records with a big hole in the middle) and, occasionally the bigger albums. She once brought me a special "Bat Out of Hell" album by Meatloaf, which had the album cover image printed into the vinyl itself.
But the one that I remember, and appreciate, the most was Pink Floyd's "The Wall."
I would sit in my bedroom for hours, listening again and again to the story that was told through that album. This was at a time (I know this is weird) that I would sit and read newspapers aloud - in hopes that I would one day be a radio reporter (which I then did!). "The Wall" moved my thinking about music into an entirely different realm and I came to understand a sophistication I had not heard before. I suppose it helped to more finely tune my ears for an appreciation of the connectedness of the mood of an entire album as one story - rather than separate songs made for mass consumption.
And it happened because of my Grandma.
She died today.
My parents sought a different life for our part of the family many years ago - Dad, pursuing higher education and, eventually, a very successful teaching career at Oklahoma State University. Mom worked to help make that possible and then found success and satisfaction in real estate. So we moved in 1976 away from Terre Haute.
We made many visits over the years - every Thanksgiving and then Christmas - finishing classes, loading up a cooler with ham sandwiches and sodas and hitting the long road to Indiana. Sometimes in snow and ice, sometimes with sleepy drivers. Always with the intent, by my parents, to help us know who our family was and where we came from.
But, as happens, our lives become our own lives. Jobs, marriage, kids, illness, school - all of those caused me to turn my time in other directions. The trips to Indiana became more infrequent. Then, non-existent. My parents would decide to go and ask if one of us wanted to go with them. I would always say "no" just too busy.
Except for funerals. To say goodbye a final time. And then, somehow, we make the time to drive the 14 hours to go.
Grandma had a stroke on Wednesday afternoon. I learned about its devastating effect on her the next day. I began saying my "goodbyes" in my mind all day yesterday. Remembering some of the things that that I associate with her and have made me the man I am today:
- incredible hand-made noodles
- the first time they had a shower/bath put in their house
- running in their backyard and the smell of frying bacon coming through the screens on the kitchen windows (there was no air conditioning at all)
- the shiny Christmas tree with a spotlight and rotating color wheel that made it green, red and maybe yellow
- the weird sound the clock on the living room made and seemed to be really loud on nights when I slept over
- the records of all kinds that she would bring me - many that I still have in a box that my wife is always ready to get rid of but that I insist on hanging on to. My wife makes a great point about those records: we don't have anything to play them on. No ability to listen to them on any of the devices on which we listen to music.
And this weekend, I will begin the long drive to Indiana to say goodbye. To thank her for the part she played in helping me become the man I am today.
Our greatest legacy should be found in our children and grandchildren. They provide a window into what was important for a family. From Grandma Wilguess that legacy is rich in noodles, records and expanding my thinking by introducing me to Pink Floyd.