Laughter fills the small kitchen as all twenty-one of us try to squeeze to get close to the big pot over the stove. The room smells like a sticky, sweet day, and we are all trying to get over to Grandma to sample her famous jam. No matter where you turn, there is a relative who is engaged in some conversation. To the kids it sounds a bit like the adults in Charlie Brown, “Blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah…”.
It gets too crowded with all the kids running around, and one of the uncles, most likely Uncle Dan, yells at us to scram. We burst out of the small doorway like water from a dam. We run into the adjoining living room and most of the younger cousins go upstairs to push the little red button on the singing fish Grandpa Merle found somewhere. “There’s a little song I wrote, might want to sing it note for note…” plays in the background as the girls go into Grandma’s closet, try on all her pretty dresses and pretend that we are queens going to a ball. It is how we see her, and sometimes if we are lucky, we can drag the boys in to be our princes, but not today. “Take me to the river, plop me in the water, take me to the…” We dance and sing along with whatever song is mumbling along in the background. Someone bangs on the ancient piano. Finally, we are adorned with old aprons that Grandma’s mother made for her and some that she had made for Nanna and her daughters. We all file back into the kitchen and squeeze together to watch the process of the jam being put into jars, and after, we shuffle to the table for Grandma’s homemade veranika, a dish that we have all grown up learning to make, and one that we all love.
Once we are all seated, we pray for the meal and begin to enjoy the food Grandma worked so hard to make. We are not disappointed. We all talk and catch up about our crazy year and how we have been, the kids bragging about all the cool things they got to do trying to one-up everyone else. These kinds of meals are periodically sprinkled with quiet moments, which are almost always broken by an antsy cousin who complains that he is bored of sitting and waiting for the fun to start back up again. It’s funny that there is complaining even though this is the most looked forward to event of our entire trip.
Slowly we are excused from the table and now the conversation is interrupted by the singing fish, “don't worry be happy now ohhhhhhhhhhhh…” Next we are all called down to the backyard, and we walk with Grandpa Merle as he brings a handful of sunflower seeds and cashews for his friends in the trees. We watch in wonder as he seems to talk to all the birds and squirrels in a way that we have only seen in cartoons. We try not to scare the birds away with any sudden movement or noise, which inadvertently makes us look like we are walking on the moon. Once Grandpa Merle’s pockets are exhausted of sunflower seeds and cashews, we go back into the house where all the dads and uncles are sitting around the living room with a beer, and all the moms and aunts are gossiping in the kitchen.
The sound of buttons spilling out onto the carpet causes a stampede of little feet running from the kitchen, where we were sneaking extra dessert from the pans. We are still adorned with old homemade aprons from long ago, and we all fight to get to Grandma, because this is our favorite activity whenever we are at her house. The button tin has been brought out. We run up the stairs and find Grandpa Merle, as always, sitting on the ever warm chair, reading the paper like he always does while we sneak extra dessert and he pretends not to see. I run into the room first, beating the rest of the cousins, and over to where Grandma is sitting next to a pile of buttons, although I have seen them a billion times, the buttons seem brand new and different than before. We each circle around and carefully sort through the assortment of buttons. We know each button has a unique story. We each choose one that we like, and then we wait until everyone else has taken a turn. Grandma always goes from oldest to youngest, which means that I almost always get to go first (unless Seb, Lizzie, and Kenzie came, but they rarely do). The button tin has a rich history of kids, grandkids, and now great grandkids sorting through it for a story from Grandma as she laughs and watches us with pride and joy. The button tin used to be an old cookie tin. It has since overflowed from that tin into an actual box. We all circle around. My button is a deep blue velvet button with a little ship that is embroidered in gold. I hand it to Grandma and her smile grows as she laughs and starts into her story.
This particular button was from a coat that her mother had made her when she was young. When Grandma was growing up, it wasn't very often that she got a store bought dress, but her family had saved for months so she could have a party dress for her 12th birthday, and the button belonged to a coat that her mom had made to go with the dress. She absolutely loved that dress. On her birthday, when she was running around playing in the forest behind her home, she tripped and her coat was torn. When she got back home, her mother stitched it right up. She took a button that she had found and sewed it on as an extra to help keep the mended part sealed. As she finishes her story, her laughter fills the room like sunlight in the morning, the rest of the cousins get their story told, and we all get to keep the button we have chosen. My cousin Logan asks excitedly like he always does, “Tell us a story Grandpa,” because we never get bored of the stories that are shared in this room, and Grandpa Merle always has the best stories.
“Well when I was a little boy it was very different, and when I was 5 or 6 or so I would hop on a train to see where it went, and packed a sack of potatoes or some odds or ends from dinner the night before that I had stashed away in my napkin, and I would go down to the fires that were all along the tracks and would have dinner with the hobos. We had the best stew and there was almost always music and dancing. It was a good time.”
The story always ended with him laughing to himself and saying, “that was a good time.” He would continue on, and we would all get drawn in as he told the beautifully woven stories of people he had met long ago. I don't think you can adequately describe the joy and admiration that writes itself on all of our faces as we listen to Grandma and Grandpa Merle’s stories. We just enjoy sitting and talking with them. The most important thing about family Grandma tells us, is the fact that even though we don't always get along or enjoy being with each other, we always have each others backs. This has been drilled into me and my cousins since we could talk, and it is such an important thing to remember, especially since as we have gotten older, and we don’t get to see each other every year. We have gotten closer to one another, because we know that no matter how cruel the world can be, Grandma's house will always be a little sliver of heaven.