The memory sticks in my mind. I’m guessing I was in my mid teenage years and my family and I, along with my grandparents and some aunts and uncles, were at a restaurant.
I was not a surly teenager, but I’m assuming my parents might remember that part different. My grandma was sitting near me, reached up, and took my cap off. I shrugged away, and she said something along the lines of, “Jim Jam stop that.”
Not in a mean voice, but in the strong voice she used every now and then. I rolled my eyes, removed my hat, and got embarrassed,because she used her pet name for me – Jim Jam.
I can’t honestly say when she came up with the nickname, but I can’t remember a time when she didn’t call me by it. I’m sure there were several times during my teenage years that it embarrassed me or caused me to roll my eyes.
As I got older, the nickname didn’t bother me anymore. About a year and a half ago, something happened. My grandma, now in her 90’s and living in an assisted living facility, stopped calling me Jim Jam. My wife and kids would visit with her but the last three or four visits came and went without her calling me by the nickname.
A couple of visits, I wasn’t 100 percent sure she knew who I was. She knew I was family, but I wasn’t sure of much else. She did call me by name in the most recent visit, but the nickname my teenage self seemed to loathe and my grown self wanted to her so bad wasn’t spoken.
While the nickname seemed lost to her, my grandma didn’t have any issues recounting stories. Her husband, my PaPa, was one of the most naturally gifted storytellers I’ve ever met. When he passed away close to 20 years ago, I penned a column talking about how my writing still tries to emulate his stories.
When I taught a sports journalism class for Berry College a couple of years ago, I told each of the aspiring journalists to find a good storyteller in writing and in talking and try to find ways to weave the elements that make their stories good into their own.
While my Pa Pa was a great storyteller, Grandma was no slouch. And her stories are classics. Of course, she grew up in a different time and a different place. I’ve always loved my kids’ faces when she tells her stories. For a generation that grew up on computers, the internet, cell phones and more the talk of 1920’s ranch life in Wyoming seems far removed from anything in our lives today.
My grandma had a pet black bear named Teddy. Teddy wasn’t a traditional pet, as it was kept in a pen and away from the youngsters. My great grandfather, Grandpa Bill, had found Teddy when he was a cub after his mom died. Grandpa Bill had a soft heart and instead of leaving the cub to certain death, brought it back to the ranch. Grandma tells how Teddy loved honey, and that Grandpa Bill would give the bear some honeycomb.
Like many of the ranch stories, it doesn’t have a great ending. Poor Teddy got loose one day, and the ranch hands had to put him down.
Growing up in Wyoming, my grandma was taught from the time she could walk to fear rattlesnakes. Remember this is the 1920’s. A rattlesnake bite was almost a death sentence at the time. The snakes prevalence around the ranch caused several run ins. One time my grandma, realizing she couldn’t stop a younger boy from running past a fence where a snake sat rattling, began screaming.
The ranch hands came running and scooped up the wayward child before he could get bit, probably saving his life.
It gets cold in Wyoming and the ponds and streams and lakes freeze in the winter. Although I never got to see her, my grandma was a good figure skater. I’m not talking Olympic good, but word from the family that saw her skate said she had talent. During one of her ice-skatingforays, she hit something sticking out of the ice, causing her to fall. At first, she thought it was a tree limb, but it looked strange.
Come to find out, she had discovered the fossilized skeleton of a Wooly Mammoth. The fossil was a rare find, was dug up restored and placed in a museum.
There are too many tales to recount here, and I know you don’t know my grandma. However, you do know someone like my grandma. In an age of busy, hurry up, get it done, know ease, we sometimes forget to stop and listen to stories. I guarantee that some of those people you know have some great ones.
My journalism professors at Auburn told us that everyone has a story. Apparently, they never met my family, because we have more than a story. We got enough to fill up a set of books and then some.
If you truly want to make someone’s day, ask them to tell you those stories. When you ask them, do me a favor. Turn your phone off or put it away in a place where you won’t reach down and look at it 20 times while they’re telling the story. Instead, give them your undivided attention and listen.
During an interview session with a World War II veteran several years ago, he recounted a harrowing story on the island of Iwo Jima. I won’t go into the details here, but when he finished the people in the video studio were shocked. We reminded him that it was on camera. He told us that day it was only the second time he had ever told the story, but that he wanted everyone to hear it.
Honestly, I’ve spent most of my career looking for those stories. The nuggets of information that give insight into who people are and what shaped them.
In many ways, the stories I heard growing up from my grandparents and great grandparents shaped me and the way I write and tell stories of my own.
A few weeks after my grandma turned 94, her health began deteriorating. Enough to the point that she was going to need a feeding tube to survive. Long story short, she didn’t want to be kept alive with a feeding tube, and she moved into hospice care.
I’m selfish. I want my grandma for another 20 years. But I know that it’s not right. And she misses my Papa dearly. So, in mid-October we trekked to Alabama and said our good byes. My grandma looked very frail in her bed. She talked to us, and I again got the feeling that she knew we were family, but she couldn’t call us by name.
That was rough. She got tired and fell asleep, and we went to grab lunch. When we returned, my uncle and cousin said their goodbyes and left, leaving my wife, daughters and I alone with grandma. I sat down beside her and held her hand. She locked eyes with me and said, “Jim Jam.”
Needless to say, I lost it, but I gathered myself as quick as I could. For the next 20 to 25 minutes, I told her our stories – from our daughter’s homecoming dance the day before to my wife’s and mybrief encounter with three black bear cubs near Asheville.
She hung on every word and looked around the room making eye contact with my wife and my two daughters. Of course trying to fit in everything I wanted to say was impossible. After one story, she squeezed my hand hard and said, “Isn’t life wonderful. Enjoy it.”
I’ve had a few days to process everything. By the time this piece is published, my grandma will have passed away. I’m fighting tears and losing while writing this. It’s funny how the little things can mean so much, and hearing my grandma say my nickname for what will be the last time will be a memory that lasts with me forever.