by Kim Keller
I used to call my mom’s mom Nonnie, because she didn’t want anyone to know she was old enough to be a grandmother. Her real name was Irene. She had two older sisters, Gwendolyn and Olive, and they all grew up helping with the family business, a chocolate store, in Canandaigua, New York, in the Finger Lakes region.
Years ago, I asked Nonnie about her favorite memory of her own mom. Like most people I ask this question, Nonnie was guarded.
“Oh, I don’t know, Kim,” she said. But a few minutes passed and then Nonnie spoke.
“You know how my parents were very strict people,” she began. “Besides helping in the store, my sisters and I were assigned chores around the house every week. And this particular week, my chore was dusting. Of course, I hated doing my chores, and I always put them off as long as I could. In fact, I hadn’t dusted the house all week.
“One night, when my mother had just come home from the chocolate shop, I ran to greet her and asked how she was. She didn’t say a word. She just looked at me, then looked at the table we were standing next to, then put her finger in the dust and scrawled out the word ‘S H I T.’”
Nonnie chuckled. “My mother never said an unkind or unladylike word — ever. I never heard her swear or even raise her voice. I was shocked! She left that word on the dusty table and just walked away.
“Boy, did I get the message! I always did my chores right away after that.”
My grandmother sat quietly on the couch in her Fort Lauderdale home, reflecting on the memory for a few minutes. A smile lingered on her face.
“You know, Kim, I haven’t thought about that in years. It was so unlike my mother, and it made such an impression on me. I’m so glad you asked me about it.”
I was glad, too. I had never heard that story before — my mother had never even heard it. That was my last visit with Nonnie before she died. I treasure that day and that moment. And now that story lives on, a story that was almost lost forever.
I’m always curious what people remember about the friends and family they’ve loved over the years. I think my favorite answer of all time came from my dad.
My parents were still living on the Connecticut shore, and I was home for a visit. Dad and I were talking over my glass of wine and his non-alcoholic beer, and I asked him about his favorite memory of Grandpa — his dad, Lee Keller.
“Oh, I don’t know, Kim, there are so many good ones.”
“Well,” I pressed on, “tell me the first one that comes to mind.”
My dad, Edward Keller, grew up on a farm in Fulton, New York, about 30 miles northwest of Syracuse, with his parents and younger brother, Richard, and older sister, Barbara. My father always told me that growing up with Grandpa was rough. Lee Keller was a hardworking farmer who ruled with a firm hand, who expected his kids to work hard around the farm as well. The lifestyle didn’t leave much time for just being a kid and having fun.
I could see my father mulling the question I had asked him. He thought for a few moments and then a warm smile crossed his face. I could see a memory coming to life.
“When I was about 5 years old,” Dad started, “my father came into my bedroom one time in the middle of the night and woke me up. I was kind of surprised but he motioned for me to be quiet.” Dad demonstrated the universal “shhhh” sign as he recalled the memory.
“So Grandpa and I quietly snuck out of the house. It was still before dawn but a little light was starting to break. Grandpa got me in the car and we drove in silence. I had no idea where he was taking me. Finally we got to our apparent destination, though it was no more than a little empty hillside. We got out of the car, and from there we looked out over the road, down at a caravan of people and cars and cages . . . It was the circus! Rolling into town!”
I could see the glee in my father’s eyes as the magic of that distant memory played once again in his mind.
“I was thrilled being there with my father, in the middle of the night, just the two of us. Growing up on the farm I had never seen anything like that!”
Then Dad moved to end of the story, which clearly amused him. “At dawn, my grandmother, who lived nearby, came into my bedroom to wake me up, to start my chores for the day. When she saw I was missing, she and my mother panicked! They thought I’d been kidnapped!”
My father laughed heartily at this.
“Boy, they gave my father hell when we got home! I’ll never forget that night.”
I love that story. Odd that I’d never heard it before that visit, but I’m eternally grateful that it finally came out. Over the years, I would mention it to Dad every now and then, just to watch him relive the memory.
I consider this anecdote a gift from my father. The story lives on, even now with both Grandpa and Dad gone.
Our shared memories are the glue that connect our lives and hold us together. Personally, I can never see a dusty table or a circus without a big smile breaking out. For me, these memories keep Nonnie and Grandpa and Dad alive forever.
So, what’s your favorite memory?
Kim Keller is the Co-Founder of In Care of Dad. She lives and works in New York City.
Circus graphic is used with permission by Wild @ Heart Design.