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Good Humor Bar

The summer visits to Grandmother were dutiful – right up until the very last one
Written by Barbara Rodriguez. Photographs by Michael Witte.

Illustration by Michael Witte

In the November issue of Texas Highways, Babs Rodriguez remembers awkward childhood visits to Grandmother. Here’s the full story.

 

Every July, my mom, dad, little brother, and I would set out in the fully packed-station wagon and head due south into the blast furnace of the Borderlands. I remember the drive down I-35 as a slow motion blur, a droning start to the service station-peanut bar-car bingo-stay on your side-backseat battleground-pass me a comic book-how much further-hush kids-eight hundred mile bitter-sweet vacation. To be sure, there were delights along the road to Laredo — the hotel swimming pool, mile-high meringue pies, side trips to caves and snake farms — but they were doled out on the return trip to Fort Worth, rewards for the time spent with Grandmother.

There was no familiarization of that name. As soon as we were old enough to understand, Edna Wiendahl Rodriguez had made it clear we were to call her Grandmother. Grandma lived in Miami, a world where children were met with hugs and encouraged to run outside and play. Grandma was warm and soft and smelled liked cookies. She shared her garden with a pet monkey. Grandmother, raised on a Louisiana sugar plantation and transported to Laredo by my entrepreneurial Mexican grandfather, had been the grandest of Grande Dames. Hat makers called upon her at home. She now lived in a nursing home and wore stiff white gowns and glasses that magnified her eyes. Her hands felt brittle. When we arrived she would whisper, “Come closer, children” and my teeth would begin to chatter.

The first visit wasn’t so bad; there was always the chance something might have changed since last year. Maybe Grandmother would be sitting in a chair or stand to greet us when we arrived. But then, we’d find her propped up in bed, shades drawn, the foggy picture on the black-and-white TV leaping in time to my stuttering heart. I remember being paralyzed with the fear that if I moved I might catch her eye.

She was not cruel or even unkind. She tried to make a connection. Once she mortified me by asking if I had started wearing a bra. On better days, she asked questions about school and pets. She made an effort. And maybe that is what made it so painful. It was like watching the dying spark in a pile of gray ash.

The visits would tick by, day after day, but the last was always the worst. Hellos were easy. Everyone understood if I didn’t talk much. There would be other chances for me to be the apple-skin-bright grandchild. When the last visit rolled around, I’d walk out into the bright sunlight and – from a young age – feel guilty for being so relieved that it was over. I would sigh quietly so my father wouldn’t hear.

At the end of a typical week in the summer of 1969, about two hours after we had left the nursing home, I had already pushed all thoughts of Grandmother out of my mind. We had talked my dad, the world’s best haggler, into taking us for one last shopping trip across the International Bridge. We’d eaten frog’s legs at the Cadillac Bar. And at the end of a long, hot day we stopped for ice cream.

That was when my mother suggested we take an ice cream bar back to my grandmother.

I was stunned. I didn’t comprehend this course reversal. I’d already readjusted my attitude for the downhill slide home. Dad pulled into the driveway of the low-slung, yellow brick facility. Mother handed me the chocolate-dipped ice cream bar. Told repeatedly that given the heat of the day I needed to run for it, I still hesitated. Then, like a cliff diver, I took a deep breath, and stepped inside.

As I entered Grandmother’s room I found her sitting up. In a chair. I was a little shaken. She was not wearing her glasses and stared at me a second before noticing my outstretched hand. I passed her the ice cream. Her eyes grew larger. She touched it gently, stroked the wrapper. She held it to her cheek, then turned it over and examined it like a treasure. I watched her face change with each caress. The years dropped away. And as young as I was, I had a moment of clarity. Of recognition. I saw in her the child that loved ice cream bar warm days, gutter boat races, running barefoot, teasing little brothers. I realized in one shutter click of a moment that she had once been me. I didn’t say a word, but quickly, and not fearlessly, I kissed her cheek. “Goodbye Grandma,” I whispered. She smiled at me. And then I ran.

That was the last time I ever saw her. It was also the first time.

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