Thursday, November 14, 2013

My Grandpa's Honey Bee

November, the month of our birthdays, Grandma's and mine.

We were in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, in some off-price women's retail shop, and I was bored out of my mind, as ten-year-old girls tend to be when shopping with adults for anything other than toys. I was out of earshot of my mom and grandma, while they were trying to find the perfect dress so Grandma could have her picture taken.  I pushed my way through a rack of clothes, feeling the fabric squish me tightly, and then I was in the middle of the circular rack, hidden by all of the blouses.  I hoped they'd be done soon.  Maybe we'd get to go out to eat. Finally, I pushed my way back out of my cozy hiding place, and wandered back to where they were holding up dresses under Grandma's chin.  I let out a long, slow exhale. "Are you almost done?"

"What do you think of this one, Denise?"  My Grandma held up the brightest, orange-est dress I'd ever seen.  My mouth dropped open, and my eyes went wide.

"Grandma!" I protested.  "You can't wear THAT!"

"Why-ever not?" her eyes sparkled, as she feigned shock.

"You don't wear...colors!  And that's a lot of colors!  You only wear black...and grey.  That's so...ORANGE!  And YELLOW!  And BRIGHT!"

"I think it's perfect," she said, returning the plainer dresses to the rack. And that was that.  I followed the two of them to the cash register, dumbfounded.  Seriously, Grandma only wore plain clothes. When my mom was young, she remembers that her mother had only two dresses.  They were simply designed, and plainly dark, one grey and one black is what I remember her telling me.

My grandpa had passed away just recently, and I think my mom encouraged Grandma to go shopping for a new dress, to get her hair done, and have her portrait taken to cheer her up.  It was like as soon as Grandpa was gone, my grandma blossomed into a woman who was even more of who she was.  She was more funny, more silly, more fun, and more happy.  Theirs had been a patriarchal family, for sure. Now she was the lone matriarch, and she ruled her dominion with frivolity and joy.

Grandma started to enjoy life.  She went out to eat.  She traveled.  She took an apartment near Washington, D.C. to work at the Mormon temple there, and she built a new home in Waynesboro to live closer to my mom and most of her grandchildren.  She bought herself a new car.  She still ate salads every single day, but there seemed to be more candy at her house.

The summer I came home to live with her was a wonderful summer for me.  I had just finished my second year of teaching in Richfield, and wanted to spend more time with my family.  Still feeling independent, I suppose by living with Grandma, and not my mom or dad, I felt like we'd be more like roommates.  She let me take the guest room with two twin beds.  The biggest shock of all?  She allowed my black Lab Gordon to stay in her backyard.  Gordon was still a puppy, and I knew he would not be allowed in the house. Grandma was a real trouper about letting the two of us spend the summer with her.

Early one morning, I'd taken my young pup for a run up Grandview Drive in Amherst.  On our way home, the Jennings' black lab followed us home.  Their dog Hoss was a big, black Lab with the identical safety orange collar my dog had.  After I chained Gordy up outside, I snuck Hoss inside the basement, and pulled him up the stairs.  Opening the door to the kitchen, I yelled, "Grandma! Come here! Quick! I think living in Virginia has been good for Gordon.  Look how big he has grown!" When that large, lumbering dog entered the room, I thought Grandma would faint.

"He's gotten so BIG!" she laughed nervously.

"Oh, Grandma, just kidding.  This isn't Gordon; it's the Jennings' dog.  Gordon's outside."  We both laughed.  She seemed so relieved.   Over the years, we both got a chuckle out of retelling our versions of the story.

Today is November 14, and I am overcome with emotion.  Beatrice Clara Jorgensen Engelhard would have been 103 today.  Happy Birthday, Grandma!  Oh, I miss you so much, especially during November.  I miss celebrating our birthdays together.  I miss your laughter.  I miss your candy bar stash in your bedroom.  I miss your soft hands.  I miss the sweet almond smell of Jergen's lotion.  I miss your loud whispers in church.  I miss you so much it makes my cheeks wet with tears.

My grandma was not a very typical grandma, but she was a great grandma.  She wasn't a cookie baker. She was always slender until she started taking Prednisone for her leukemia.  I just realized that orange is the color chosen to represent the leukemia survivors.  Grandma could rock orange better than anyone, couldn't she?  She was not a stay-at-home mom, like many women of her generation. She had a head for numbers, and was a contributing partner in her husband's businesses of owning "five and dime" stores back east.

Grandma wasn't much of a cook.  I got to thinking about that just recently, and asked my mom about her traditional German cookies, Pfeffernuse, pronounced, feffernussa. They were a mildly, sweet, kind of dry cookie, coated with a white glaze with a hint of anise flavor. If Grandma didn't bake, how did they end up having any cookie as a Christmas tradition?  My mom said they always had them during the holidays, but only because her mom would take her recipe to the baker and request he have them ready for her before Christmas. Smart lady!  Grandma made a killer fresh pork roast, and always served it with red cabbage and applesauce.  The only other things I know she could cook were potato pancakes (German-style) and Engelhard special (a one-pot dish consisting of hamburger, rice, peppers, and Velveeta cheese.)

Grandpa called her his Honey Bee. Beatrice drank coffee and smoked cigarettes from the time she was a teenager until she joined the Mormon church in the seventies.   Her family came from Germany; her maiden name was Jorgensen.

As a child, I always shared my birthday with my Grandma.  Beatrice Clara Jorgensen Engelhard was 50 years and four days older than I.  Her birthday is on the 14th and mine is on the 18th.  I loved sharing birthdays with Grandma.  Our favorite birthday cake was chocolate cake poked with holes and filled with red Jello and topped with a frosting made of chocolate pudding and Cool Whip.  Heaven! Grandma would have been 103 this year.  She has been gone too, too long, and today my sweet memories of her make me weep.  I'm not exactly sad, just so grateful for her influence in my life, and for her wonderful, happy way of viewing the world.  I hope it's a good day for you, Grandma. Remembering you with so much love...
Our last Christmas with Grandma Engelhard.
So grateful that my baby boy Dylan was there and
that she got to know him.


  1. Grandma's certainly are wonderful & depending on your age they are invincible and you think they will live forever (as well as some other special relatives & friends). Thanks so much for sharing this--it is wonderful!

    1. Thank you, Noelle. I guess that's still shocking to me, that she didn't live forever.

  2. What a lovely tribute to your sweet Grandma. I know all about that Jergen's lotion scent. My babysitter wore it...every time I use it I think of her.

    1. Fragrances are such a trigger. Thank you, Susan.

  3. Truly a lovely tribute to your grandmother, Denise. You are blessed to have many wonderful memories. Thanks for sharing!

    1. My memories are some of my favorite blessings. Thank you, Carol.


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