Rare were the summer days when babysitting duties fell to my Grandma Helen. My parents had full-time childcare and even in the unlikely event of needing a back-up, we lived quite close to my maternal grandparents. So when mom and dad had to go further into the nannying bullpen to Helen, they were special days.
Helen never cared much for sports, but she indulged yours truly to a great degree. We could play baseball, only if she got to hit, mind you. Her base paths too were fraught with exceptions to all normal rules of the sport for they were just a yard or two long. We could go outside and play, sure, but any time not on the swing set or climbing a tree meant, “I’ll time you running around the house to see if you get faster!” Little did younger me know this exercise was, quite cleverly, designed to tire me out, though I do think to this day she took some joy in seeing those times go down.
She only required that she be able to watch her soap operas every afternoon. This being the day before DVRs and her lack of how-to with a VCR meant that live was the only option. I didn’t care much for the shows, but it meant I got to spend time with grandma, and that was just fine with me.
My grandmother, dressed in fleece no matter the weather, trotting around her six-foot base paths as I ran back giggling and trying to tag her, was the first thing I thought of after she passed away peacefully in her sleep Monday night.
We are only a week or so removed from 2020, yet it likely goes without saying it was the longest, more arduous year in most of our lifetimes. What last year took from us likely will remain incalculable into the middle of this decade. Be it people, jobs, happiness, stability — whatever — it’s hard to imagine a year in my life condensing this much pain and anguish into 365 days. Hell, it didn’t even need the full compliment of days available, merely from early March onward.
Some wonderful things did some out of it, to be sure. Our daughter Rylee was born this past summer, though navigating both pregnancy and new parenthood during the largest pandemic in a century has been an interesting journey, to say the least.
It’s cliché, but in this case, it’s absolutely true: at some point, she’ll sit me down for a school project of some sort covering this year. She’ll ask what it was like to be in it, to be learning how to be a mom or dad while taking in and dealing with ... everything.
I’m not sure how I’ll answer yet, I only know it will start with a, “Weeeeeeeell ...” and me getting up to pour some bourbon.
It seems trivial against a backdrop of so many other, more important things but I — like you, I suspect — realized this summer and fall just how deeply important Washington State Cougars athletics are to me. How much it provides something to be passionate about, to care about, to use as an escape, albeit temporarily, from the world around us. How much it provides a sense of community with a group of people I might not otherwise have anything in common with.
How much I had really begun to take it for granted.
Those Friday afternoons signing off of work early to hop in the car and belt across the state. Cresting Snoqualmie Pass and really feeling like the journey to God’s Country had begun. The crawl up the hill on 26 from the Columbia River because if you were speeding by the time you saw the Washington State Patrol Trooper, it was already too late. The way the sun gently runs over what wheat is still standing by the time football season starts. The way those same rays bathe the red brick of campus in soft light as you head into town. The Friday night downtown bar crawls, the Saturday morning red beers. The giddiness with which I practically skipped towards Valhalla before every game and then to the tailgates with a freshly purchased rack of beer from Bob’s. The gut-wrenching losses, the ecstasy of a win and the sprint to the bars to make sure you could actually make it inside.
I’ll say it: I even miss the hungover drive home.
I took all of it for granted. That every year, five to six times a fall, it would happen. We would be in Pullman, surrounded by friends, even ones we only see while 290 miles from home, basking in the warmth and familiarity of a town, university and team that mean so much to the very fabric of who I am.
If we are lucky enough to be in Pullman this fall, there is not a single moment from the time that I roll up to the stoplight on Grand Avenue to the time we turn up the hill again that I will take for granted. No matter the result of the football game, no matter how long our food takes to get to us at The Coug, no matter how throbbing the headache is shortly after dawn the following day, I’ll cherish it all.
Because I’ll remember how easily it can all be taken away.
Helen’s wit was legendary. All the way up to the last time I talked to her just a few days before she died, her one-liners and humor could not be beat. Though her body had betrayed her over the course of many years, her sharpness never did.
Her jokes, to the grandkids at least, were always gentle. The daughter of Norwegian and Swedish immigrants, she never really had an affinity for Christmas, so what the holiday provided was a perfect time to have some fun.
For the life of me, I cannot remember what Nintendo 64 game it was that I so desperately wanted so many years ago. What I do remember is that the box my grandmother gave me was larger in size and had quite a substantial heft. Not knowing what to expect, I opened the box to find ... that game, cartridge only. In a move of incredible subterfuge, it had been surrounded my rocks my grandmother taped to the bottom of the box to increase the weight — and my suspicions.
The next Christmas, she used the game’s box to wrap my birthday check.
In 2021, make me a promise: Be it the Cougs, be it a dinner with friends you’re finally able to have, be it your final living grandparent ... don’t take anything for granted.
I love you, grandma. Skål. Tell grandpa it was actually dad who drank all his Wild Turkey.