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Jodi Anderson


The Anatomy of GraceJodi Anderson

In “The Summer Day,” a poem by Mary Oliver, there’s a line that reads:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  My suggestion is—and my blessing has been—to live with a Grace-filled heart.  Quite simply, like no other person I’ve known, my grandma—Grace Ohnstad—embodied her name, which is anything but simple when you consider all the dimensions the quality of grace holds.  Besides meaning elegance, beauty, dignity, decency, tolerance, and forgiveness, grace also implies a reverent connection, whether in the form of a prayer or God-given goodwill.  Undeniably, Grandma lived all these forms of grace and more, and made every one of them her own.  In a world often torn by the disconnection of wars, poverty, misunderstandings, and inaction, grace may seem difficult to find.  But, whenever I felt the weightiness of the world or my own personal worries, I had only to look to my grandma for solace.  With a warm smile and open arms, she could melt away any problem.  From the inside out, she glowed her spirit.  Symbolically, then, her body manifests reminders of how to find that grace-filled joy for our lives.

Being a down-to-earth, well-grounded person, tracing the anatomy of Grace starts with her feet.  Whether using them to run errands for neighbors who paid her in plums leading up to and during the Great Depression, or using them to travel to school or church events for Mom or me, Grandma’s feet gave her initials meaning—G.O. stood for go.  Even when in her wheelchair, I’d often spy Grandma’s feet tip-toeing the Charleston while watching re-runs of The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday nights.  Suddenly, her stories about dancing as a young girl to songs like “Baby Face” for pumpkin pie at town hall dances would come to life in the living room.  Swept up in the music, she’d hum along with the lively tempo of her ageless, dancing feet.  It says much for a person’s inner-joy when it exudes even from the toes.

Grandpa, however, was swept off his feet by Grandma’s ankles.  Although, as the story of their meeting goes, he actually swept her off her feet by tripping her with a broom as he swept the front entrance to the Owatonna Leutholds/St. Clair clothing store. Grandma’s version, though, was that she spotted him by a pinball machine in Sander’s Bakery, across from the clothing store.  Despite their different interpretations of how they met, and even how to live, they both broke off prior engagements and spent 66 years together.  Through many ups and downs that brought commitment and forgiveness, their love, like any love if it is meant to last, grew into grace.

One of the most lasting loves I’ve ever known is couched in Grandma Grace’s lap.  As a little girl, I loved curling up against her soft, cool frame on the porch swing.  Cocooned by Grandma’s arm around my back, her hand gently stroking my head lying in her lap, I’d fall asleep, tucked in by the love-fortifying perfumes that wafted from her.  Grace for me will always be the fragrance of cooking grease, flour, and flower-scented detergent mingling with country air breezes.  Lap-love was also found in car rides, as I nestled up against her silk blouses and fresh rouge, though she never needed any with her peaches-and-cream complexion.  One night, when I was about six, my family was riding home from the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.  Just as we were pulling out of the parking lot, Grandma pointed out a single falling star visible from our back car window.  “Oh, look!  Hurry and make a wish,” she encouraged.  As the summer night air washed over us, though, and I cuddled into my Grandma, I remember I had nothing to wish for, not from a lack of imagination but from a lack of wanting anything more.  The magic in the stars seemed merely a reflection of the lovelight in my Grandma’s eyes. 

A consummate cook, a major part of Grace leads to the love juices of the stomach.  Tupperware Love, my family calls it.  Doughnuts, lefse, potato dumplings, and potato salad; chocolate chip cookies, chocolate drizzled Rice Krispie bars, homemade fudge, and hot dishes.  Food has always connected Grandma and me.  In particular, I recall Grandma’s “best-laid plans” to have a spaghetti picnic for the two of us while she watched me when Mom and Dad were out of town.  After many trips in and out of the house and setting the old wooden picnic table just so, she proceeded to sit down next to me.  Suddenly, feet skyward, the two of us were lying on the ground, drenched in tomato sauce and wearing stunned expressions.  “Look at me!” I sighed in dismay to Grandma.  Without missing a beat, she swept her hand down her noodled body, Vanna White-style.  “Well, look at me!” Grandma laughed.  Without swearing, without turning grumpy about her tipped-over dinner, without even taking much time to change clothes, we uprighted the picnic table and salvaged—no, savored—our meal.  Grace is knowing how to find humor in the unexpected and enjoy it just the same.

All her food, though, came from the patient grace of Grandma’s hard-working hands. Cutting out cookies, grating potatoes, and washing dishes were so willingly done, a quality that also allowed her to keep the books for various businesses and help out as a well-respected assistant cashier at the Ellendale Security State Bank.  Having buried an infant son and many other loved ones over the years, her hands also knew the importance of living large.  Blotting out bingo cards, cupping the dice container, and tearing back pull tab cards with more luck than most, Grandma appreciated game-playing and a little healthy dose of risk-taking for the pay off of surprises.  Indefinitely, though, I will treasure the sight of her hands blowing me kisses at the farm’s front room window as my family departed on the weekends.  We would wave and wave, giggling at the various hand-waves we invented.  More than play, though, this time at the window was a longing to stay, to extend the time we had together, to cover the ache of parting, for even a few days.

To stay connected, then, the grace of the last four and a half years was especially in the sound of Grandma’s voice on the other end of our nightly phone calls.  Just the sound of her youthful lilt, brimming with the inflection that made her stories so captivating, could soothe and reassure me.  No matter what the stresses of the day had wrought, I was cheered up by my grandma’s sweet voice and inquiring questions about how the day had gone, how Marshie (our dog) was doing, and what would make up the next day.  It was her great capacity to care and her affectionate cooing over the people in her life that made her my “lover dover.”  Her laughter was the voice of her heart, flowing out and vibrant, as colorful as she was, as a gambling banker and storyteller extraordinaire.   

Some of her best-loved stories reveal her mischievous tomboy side via her antics with animals.  Once, as a practical joke when my grandpa stayed out too late, Grandma dressed Oskie, their English bull terrier, in a man’s white dress shirt and tie before bringing him to bed with her, coyly placing Oskie’s head on Grandpa’s pillow and tucking the sheets around his body, stretched length-wise.  Needless to say, after some “What the”s, Grandpa got the message.  Another time, when a cousin visited the farm, Grandma whispered with a girlish glint in her voice, “Hey, Carl.  See that bird up there?  I’m going to take its tail feathers off.”  Rifle cocked against a pearl necklace and clip-on earrings, Grandma fired, sending the bird squawking from the treetops.  “Too bad, Gracie.  Looks like you missed,” Carl gloated.  But, as the story goes, “The next day, they found a bird down on the driveway by the barn,” Grandma would recount, sometimes holding up her pointer finger for extra emphasis, “without any tail feathers.”  Other times, she’d reminisce about losing treasured fur- or feathered-companions.  In particular, I can picture my grandma as a little girl, about seven or eight, down by the banks of the Straight River in Owatonna.  She had stolen away to bury and memorialize her dog, Beans.  “I didn’t know what to do,” Grandma’d say.  “In school, we were always practicing marches or reciting patriotic verses, so, I stood there belting out My Country, ‘Tis of Thee with tears streaming down my face.”  She’d usually start chuckling at the end, but with a distant tenderness in her marble blue eyes.  Grandma Grace was a crack shot storyteller who could crack anyone up with a magical mixture of laughter and tears.

What will forever amaze me about Grandma, though, was her extraordinary ability to “see beyond the ordinary.”  To her, Owatonna and Ellendale were not known by street names or house numbers; the map of her mind reflected the topography of her heartfelt memories…of people and their celebrations and sorrows.  She could tell you the backstory to almost every family and their extended family. She remembered who baked her the red velvet cake for their fortieth anniversary, who broke his leg at what street corner, and who was graduating, getting married, and departing this world.  She was so genuinely interested in others, ready at the very least to beam you that warm smile or extend a hand-pat in passing.  I will always love her ability to see with ever-fresh inner-eyes, as was shown many times by her playful yet sensitive nature.  In particular, I recall her telling me in 2003, “It must have been about three years ago when I came out here to the living room, and there in the clouds above the trees was my dad’s face.  So I says, ‘Dad!’”  Her eyes teared up as she gazed out the window.  “It was just perfect, with the chin and the hair.”  She fingered both features on her face while explaining this, before lowering her head.  She fell silent, crying.  I remember getting up and hugging her, crying with her because I knew our time together would come back to me in dreams and aching-quiet moments when I, too, would look for vanished loved ones in the clouds. 

On September 6, 2007, a few minutes past five, I held my grandma’s hand and stroked her still-thick, curly hair, trying not to concentrate on her breathy gasps and coughs from gagging on her dentures.  Instead, I transfixed my eyes to the chest of her lavender-knit nightgown where, on the slow pulsing of two stars embroidered in blue across her heart, my own heart hung in the balance.  A beat and “I love you, lover”; a beat and “I love you, lover,” slower, slower, until the strangled silence of breathlessness.  Stroking her head and trying not to sprinkle her with my tears, I willed her closed eyes or mouth for movement, anything to let me know my grandma was still with me.  Suddenly, she gasped a quick, shallow breath and I peered down to once again see the two stars beat.  “Lover, you came back to us,” I half laughed out loud, so thankful she was surely going to pull through.  I kissed her on her cheek, nuzzling just a bit, and I thought I saw the slightest reflex of a smile that would have come if it could, but the stars had stopped.  In a matter of five minutes, she had streaked out of this world, like a comet.  Though I always thought her plucky spirit would persevere long enough to hear Willard Scott wish her a happy 100th birthday, her body’s final grace to its 94-year-old self may have been a quick release from the cancer doctors had only discovered the week before.  Still, I return to another line from “The Summer Day”:  “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” 

Almost a year since, my family is selling my grandparents’ Century (Plus) Farm.  I used to think such a decision would somehow sever my mom and me from the Ohnstad “land legacy”; we would be self-made outcasts of our own lost homeland.  And though I instinctively wanted to chase buyers away from our estate auction, shouting orders like my territorial five-year-old self would as I ran the neighborhood boys off my lawn, the essence of what I treasure was in the people who made our farm a home, and the essence of that home was my grandma.  But, there is grace, too, in new beginnings and the couple who has fallen in love with the history of the homestead and the possibilities it still holds.  There is grace in clearing out attics, finding sepia-toned pictures of my grandma as a girl climbing trees and as a striking, youthful teen, glancing coquettishly over her shoulder.  Grace, too, in stumbling upon “Love in Disguise,” the play she proudly told me she wrote in high school, and grace in knowing I have time yet to discover more about my grandma.  To love someone enough to keep laughing with her beyond the dimensions of her time, and to keep talking with her without needing words, is to be blessed by a deep love. To keep her stories alive as much as her spirit lives on in the home of my dreams—sometimes so real, I wake with the breathless gift of astonished closeness—is a dear source of never-ending grace.