Throughout our lives we encounter so many people that shape us. Some have minor roles only appearing for a brief moment and others last a life time staying with us in spirit long after they are no longer physically present. My paternal grandmother Lula Mae (Cook) Hickman falls firmly in the second category for me. My parents were young and irrational constantly fighting or working so when they split my grandma stepped in and filled many of the paternal roles I needed as a kid. I think it's safe to say that no other outside force had a greater impact in the shaping of my personality (good and bad) than her.
Lu, as most people called her, was a long time widow with 3 grown kids and a lifetime of challenges making her very worldly and tough as nails. Her husband, my grandpa, passed away before I was born and her oldest daughter up and disappeared one day despite have 3 young daughters at home leaving Lu to help raise them too. Born just before the great depression she had a lot of life experiences at a young age that shaped who she was. The only child of hard working mom and an alcoholic father she lived on a block with more than a dozen boys and no girls. She ran, jumped, played baseball and fought with them all to prove she was as tough as they were.
When grandpa past away and she was the sole breadwinner she got a job with Stanley Cleaning products as a sales person. In a couple short years she worked her way up to regional director and was constantly traveling for work. I remember as a young man being dropped at her doorstep and riding along to shows big and small from North Dakota to Texas and all points in between. She would often setup at a Western Sizzlin' or Shoney's and give a passionate speech complete with examples to 30 some odd housewives. We rarely had time for site seeing but this was yet another example of me traveling with family and likely a contributor to my wanderlust.
When she retired we spent a lot of time at her house just watching TV. It was my love of 70s/80's TV that manifested here. We'd watch MASH, Golden Girls, Cheers, Family Ties, Who's the Boss?, Silver Spoons, Murder She Wrote, A-Team and many more. I remember the antiques and decorative throw pillows on the couch in her basement like I just got up and walked across the blue shag carpet.
When I was 13 my parents decided to build a house outside of town but needed more money than they had to make it happen. They convinced my grandma to move in with us so they could use the money from her house to fun the building. We lived in a small 3 bedroom house in Raytown at the time. The master bedroom was of course taken by my parents and my 1 year old half-sister Katie and I had the other two. It was decided (without my input) that since she would need a room I had to give up mine and ended up sleeping on the couch for the next 18 months. I was allowed to keep my clothes in my dresser in "my" room but I was otherwise a couch surfer till we moved.
I was pretty jaded by this experience and even more frustrated by the fact that I wasn't allowed to express my feelings per my fathers firm stance on the matter. This boiled over one day when my grandma accidentally knocked my B-29 Superfortress model off the dresser and snapped the wing in half. I knew it was an accident but seeing what few belongings I had literally fall to pieces I got vocal with my emotions. My father, never one to handle disagreement very well found non-verbal ways to get me to stop talking.
Eventually we moved and I ended up in the basement with a massive room and count them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 closets! When I got into sports it was more often my grandma that would pick me up from practice when my parents wouldn't /couldn't. She was often the one person that could talk my father down off a tirade (although not always) and when I got older she treated me as an equal even though I was 50+ years her junior.
In 2001 her health began to fade and she started to show signs of dementia forgetting names for common things. She made us all a Pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving accidentally swapping cinnamon or nutmeg with cayenne pepper. It certainly had a kick and I got the whole thing as the only one who liked it but it was yet another example of things not being quite right. Sadly only my oldest son had the opportunity to meet her while she was with us and he was a baby at the time. I remember her holding him on her lap as she sat in her La-Z-boy rocker in her room. She looked sickly and withered from time. It was both a touching moment and a sad one at the same time.
When I heard she had passed I bawled like a baby. (And again at the funeral.) She was the kind yet firm parental figure I needed as a developing young man. She taught me the value of a dollar and had some of the most fun expressions. She would say things like, "it's raining out there like a cow pissing on a rock" or "if I had that <thing she wanted> and he had a feather we'd both be tickled". Her cooking was top notch and she didn't take gruff off of anyone. On multiple occasions she embarrassed me by demanding a server correct a problem with her food or a store clerk honor a price on a sales flyer. She was loyal, honest and kind. I quote her regularly and remember her fondly. I tell my wife all the time about adventures we had and ways in which she shaped who I am. In my book she's an unsung hero and I miss her dearly. She would have been 97 years old today, happy birthday Grandma!