Snow. Lots of snow. Desmond Howard. Jalen Rose and the Fab Five. That's what used to come to mind when I thought about Michigan (the state not the school). Until I met my wife. Her dad grew up in a small town there called Rockford, a stones throw from Grand Rapids. It's the kind of town you wish you'd grown up in. Doors stay unlocked. Friends meet for coffee at a local place every morning. The downtown looks straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, smiling families strolling by a gushing dam, bellies full from one too many hot dogs at The Corner Bar.
This is the first stop on a cross country road trip for my family, the heart of this stop being to see my wife's grandmother, who turns 99 this year. She's better known to us as "Nornie." She's 98, but just today she gave me crystal clear directions as we drove around town, stopping to look (and hear) about the different houses she's lived in. Well into her 80's she played golf every week, faithfully attended her church, gathered with friends and family over meals, and even volunteered at a local nursing home.
She's also buried a husband and two sons, one of them being my father-in-law. He died two years ago of cancer. We went to see him at the cemetery today, my children's feet crowded around the grave, oblivious to the pain in the heart of a mother who's outlived her son. My daughter asked her if she was sad. She said yes. Very.
98 years. That's a lot of good memories. Growing up on the family farm, buying their first house, rubbing my father-in-laws hurt knee on the porch of that house while he cried "Why me?" That's a lot of hard memories too. Just last month she buried her sister, Elaine, who lived just down the hall from her in their assisted living apartments. She recently moved there to live with her only to have her heart broken. Again.
This is only my third time being with her, but I'm always impressed by how she takes this heartbreaking life with such dogged grace. I suppose when you've lived 98 years you get used to the seasons of this life, the long winters and the gorgeous summers. The ones where you pray for warmth and light, and the ones where you go outside and enjoy it.
Tonight we're going to The Corner Bar. Names of hot dog eating contest winners cover the walls. My brother-in-law's is up there. My father-in-law's too. And I know that at some point Nornie will gently ruffle my son's hair and hug him close, even though her heart still breaks for her own. And as I watch I'll think to myself the secret to staying young at heart isn't keeping active, exercising or even eating healthy, as much as that all may help.
The secret to staying young at heart is to keep on loving, regardless of how much you've lost.