My great-grandmother used to make hot chocolate for me by warming milk on the stove and then pouring it into a mug with a bit of chocolate powder inside. Her name was Clara Hammers. She was my favorite person in the world.
• • •
My wife's grandmother passed away on Feb. 3 at the age of 83. Her name was Elnora "Norie" Schindel. She might not have been my favorite person in the world, but she was fairly high on the list.
I knew Norie for about as long as I knew her granddaughter, having met Norie just a few weeks after my wife and I had started dating when I visited the entire family in Naperville for the Fourth of July – my first trip to northern Illinois. Norie was warm and friendly with me that day, and she would prove to be so the rest of the eight years I knew her.
She and her husband, Don, quickly accepted me. Don with a firm handshake and a smile. Norie with a hug and a smile. Being from southern Indiana and away from all my family and friends, it was reassuring to know that these two strangers were happy to have me become a part of their family.
When I became editor of the Kane County Chronicle a few years ago, Norie was proud of me like any grandmother would be proud of a grandchild. She would go out and buy the paper occasionally even though we didn't cover the town she lived in – something only a family member would do. It made me feel special. It made me feel loved. We might not have shared the same blood, but she made me feel like family. And I will be forever thankful for that.
• • •
I've been thinking about my great-grandmother more after Norie's death, and as I pulled the box of instant hot chocolate mix down from the cabinet recently, I knew that I wanted to make it the way Clara Hammers used to.
I usually make instant hot chocolate the lazy way. Put a mug of water in the microwave for about a minute. Pour some instant hot chocolate into the mug. Stir. Enjoy the somewhat watery, chocolaty concoction. The package says you can use either water or milk, but I have a weird thing about microwaving milk – like it would mutate it or something and then I would be drinking mutated hot chocolate – so I always use water. I only have this issue with milk. I admit it's insane.
Since I wanted milk with my hot chocolate this time, I was going to have to do it the old-fashioned way, the way my great-grandmother heated milk. I poured some milk in a small sauce pan, place it on the stove, set the heat to low and waited for it to warm.
• • •
My great-grandmother was my best friend in my pre-teen years, which is admittedly somewhat weird, but I was a somewhat weird child so it worked out. I spent just about every weekend at her house during that time. We would play board games. We would watch TV. She would make me pasta, followed up by a mug of hot chocolate for me and warm milk and graham crackers for her.
I went to church with her every Sunday, the church I would regularly attend until my sophomore year of college. I would sit in the pew with her, rummage through her purse for candy (there was always candy) and doodle on spare notebooks she kept. I would trace over the veins in her hands with my fingers when bored. She never complained.
I never made many friends as a kid – not surprising for a child that willfully spent his weekends with his great-grandmother. My parents divorced when I was very young, and my father moved to Florida. My mother had to work many hours to help make ends meet. So, every weekend, I wanted to stay with my great-grandmother. She was my rock. She was my constant. She was always there for me.
• • •
Likewise, Norie Schindel was there for her four children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. My wife loved her very much. It was heartbreaking when she got the news that her grandmother had passed away after more than a year of fighting leukemia. Just last summer, Norie's husband, Don, had passed away, as well. It's been a rough year for my wife in that regard.
My wife and I went to her parents' house that night, where we had dinner with her father and sister and waited for her mother to come home from taking care of those things that need to be taken care of when a loved one passes. When she returned, she shared the story of how Norie had passed with everyone. I easily could have felt like an outsider in that situation, like I was intruding on this family's grief, but I didn't.
Norie had always treated me like family. In return, I've always tried to do so, as well, with my wife's family. And families grieve together.
• • •
I poured the contents of the instant hot chocolate mix into a mug and continued to wait for the milk to warm.
I usually just pour the instant hot chocolate mix into the mug of hot water after taking it out of the microwave. It never mixes well, and I end up swallowing chunks of instant hot chocolate mix with the drink. It's kind of gross. The only way to properly make hot chocolate is to pour the liquid into the instant hot chocolate mix. My great-grandmother knew this. So my mug was ready, waiting for the milk, which was warming slowly, to be ready.
• • •
It was seven years ago when my mother called me while I was covering a high school soccer regional in Dixon. I still remember driving underneath the arch into Dixon that day. I doubt I'll ever forget. I instantly knew something was wrong when I heard my mother's voice – shaky, uncertain. And I was right. My great-grandmother had just had a stroke. It didn't look good. Perhaps I should drive back down my southern Indiana hometown of Evansville to pay my last respects.
There wasn't much in the way of last respects to pay, though. The stroke had left my great-grandmother unresponsive, a shell of her former self. She was no longer my great-grandmother. She was technically alive, but she felt dead to me. I remember kissing her forehead. I remember walking out of the hospital room. I remember very little else.
It was the last time I saw my great-grandmother. She died a few days after I returned to northern Illinois. I didn't go back for the funeral. I couldn't. I just … couldn't.
A few days after, my grief increased even more. It was then that I found out Clara Hammers died being disappointed in me.
I had written some essays that poked fun of the church I had grown up in – the church where I had sat in a pew with her and rummaged for candy in her purse and doodled in her notebooks – and it had gotten back to her. I had never meant for it to, had never dreamed that it would, but that's how things in life happen. She was very disappointed to find out, I was later told. That church was her life. Poking fun of it simply would not have been acceptable. Not long after, she had her stroke. I never spoke to her in the time in-between. I never got the chance. I wasn't even told that she knew about my writings until after the stroke. I was furious that she had been told. And I was distraught the she had died – in my mind – being disappointed with me.
I'll never know this for sure, of course. But in the seven years since, I've not been able to get that thought completely out of my mind.
My last message from her was a birthday card with two $5 bills in it sent a week or two before her stroke. She didn't have much money, and she had boodles of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It was a very generous gift.
I've never known what to do with the $5 bills. I still have them in the card, which I keep in a drawer in my room. Should I spend them? Should I give them to a charity? Should I buy flowers with them and place them near her gravestone, an act of contrition for disappointing her in her final days?
• • •
Norie's visitation and funeral were held a few days after her passing. Her family gathered together. Tears and memories were shared. She was a great woman. She loved her children. She loved her grandchildren. She loved her great-grandchildren. She was proud of them all, including – I would like to think – me.
Grandmothers are special. Grandmothers are your No. 1 fans. Grandmothers are the first in line to be proud of your accomplishments. Grandmothers keep candy in their purse at all times – just in case. Grandmothers let the young ones play with the veins on their hands – and don't complain. Grandmothers are rocks. Grandmothers are constant. Grandmothers are always there.
Until they're not anymore.
I was asked to be a pallbearer for Norie's funeral. I was proud to accept. She had become my family. It was the least I could do.
• • •
The milk was finally warm enough. I poured it into the mug and stirred it a few times until I was convinced it was well mixed. I sipped the hot chocolate. Rich. Thick. Almost just like I remembered it. Not quite warm enough, but I was kidding myself if I thought I could make it as well as my great-grandmother did.
I can never ask my great-grandmother for forgiveness, but, perhaps, it's time I forgive myself. I think she would want me to. A grandmother's love is not watered-down. It is rich. It is thick. It is warm. She might have been disappointed in me. She very likely was. But she still loved me. She still was proud of me. She still was my grandmother. She still was my favorite person in the world.
I took another sip. I sighed.
• Joe Grace is a writer who lives in Chicago with his wife. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filed under: Columns