Had my grandmother lived another 14 months longer than she actually did, and had that amazingly pedestrian Midwestern chain of eateries, “Bill Knapp’s” survived, she might very well be having her birthday dinner there at this precise moment. The “Happy Birthday” song would play over the loud speaker as the chocolate cake was served, and she’d receive her 95% discount . . . one percent off for every year of her life.

Happy Birthday, Grandma.

It would not have been Grandma’s style to haunt us. Nor would she have had any interest in performing an occasional apparitional visit. She was just way too, well, solid, for that. But I do believe it was either she or Grandpa (dead since 1987) who came back and invisibly and deliberately offered a special gift to me. There’s simply no other explanation for what happened.

The week after Grandma died, I traveled to her home in Morenci, Michigan to be with my family. Her house was in disarray – most items out of place – half packed and sorted for distribution to relatives, Good Will, garage sales, the landfill. Those couple of days in her home were filled with lots of traffic and chatter – practical discussions about which grand-daughter in-law would take which set of silver and how to ship the old post office desk without damaging it. The great grandchildren were set up with stacks of old bills and the shredder; neighbors continued to come and go. The place was noisy.

But the nights were different. My parents slept in Grandma’s room and I slept in the guest room. My brother, his family and the rest of our extended family stayed in nearby hotels and with Grandma’s sister, who lives in the same small town. That first evening after my parents went to bed, things finally got quiet. And by lamplight, the house didn’t seem so taken apart.

Even though I was exhausted from two flights, hours of delay in O’Hare, the emotional high of seeing family after too long apart, and the anxiety of how to comfort loved ones in mourning, my thoughts were running too quickly. It would be hours before I could sleep. I wanted four things: a strong drink, dessert, a made for TV movie, and the lowered brain activity that was sure to come from all of the above.

Decades earlier, when Grandpa had been diagnosed with heart problems, his doctor prescribed periodic nightcaps. Right up until her death, Grandma continued the ritual of sporadically enjoying a spot of Canadian Club at bedtime. It didn’t take much hunting to find her stash. Not far from the bottle of whisky, she had a bag of chocolates stowed as well. I poured an inch of alcohol into a glass, and followed it with Vernors and ice cubes. It was while I stood unwrapping a few miniature candy bars, arranging them on a plate that it happened. An inexplicable thought came. It was simple and direct.

“Go to the back bedroom.”

So I did. And as soon as I arrived in the doorway of the bedroom, I thought,

“Open the bottom drawer of the dresser.”

So I did. Without pause, I somehow knew to lift the blankets arranged neatly in the drawer. The odd thing is that what I saw did not surprise me. There in the drawer were stacks of Grandpa’s journals. Dozens of spiral notebooks filled, each page front and back, with the writing my Grandfather had done every day of his retirement.

I would be spending the evening with my grandparents. Both of them.

“October 6, 1979

“Happy Birthday to Mary!!

“Bob up at nine-thirty and Mary shortly after. . . . after goofing off a while he and Mary went to Toledo. Mary bought a blouse at Lion Store and also some writing paper. Bob bought a Parker refill for “The Big Red”. Then they went to Best and Co. for a Texas Instruments TI-1025 calculator and to Bill Knapp’s . . .”

I knew it!

“. . . for Mary’s birthday supper and cake. Back home quite early (about seven) and to bed around eleven.”

journal1.jpg big-red.jpg

Grandpa wrote his diaries in third person. Page after page, the facts of their lives are chronicled in detail. I sat in Grandma’s chair sipping her Canadian Club and read about visits to the library and games of solitaire. Day after day, there are wake up times and temperatures, golf scores and errands recounted but rarely is there mention of emotions or qualitative judgments. Things simply were. I read for hours, entranced with the peaceful rhythm of their days.

Grandpa titled the cover of each spiral notebook with the words “Mary and Bob’s Journal” followed by the dates. In 1987, when he took ill and was admitted to the hospital, it’s Grandma’s handwriting offering the events. Several pages later, there is this entry:

“March 7, 1987

“Bob died at 1:16 a.m.
“Harlan Correll and Ruth
[her sister] went to Toledo Hospital with me but we arrived twelve (12) minutes too late.”


Grandma continued writing the journals for years after that. She continued using the title, “Mary and Bob’s Journal.”

“October 6, 1987

“Gray – cloudy, misty day.
My birthday. It’s been a nice one. Ruth
[her sister] took me to Toledo shopping and to Bill Knapp’s for a very nice lunch. . . . received several cards today . . . .”

Happy Birthday, Grandma.

Ruth, 38, Los Angeles, USA