Kenai Peninsula Writers’ Contest adult/open nonfiction first place winner

“No Dumb Grandchildren” by Cynthia Atcheson

A Tribute to My Grandpa, Alphabetically Arranged


Grandpa preferred Dutch apple pie, the kind with cinnamon, sugar, flour and butter crumbs on top, fresh from the oven. He ate his pie with a slice of sharp Swiss cheese, because, as he said, “Apple pie without some cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze.”


My grandpa, Leonard Wallace Basinger, met his bride-to-be, Agnes Anna, at a hymn sing for Mennonite young folks in North Lima, Ohio. He said, “When I walked in, I saw the most beautiful girl in the world. I knew I had to meet her.” He asked to drive her home, she said yes, and her brother came along as a chaperone. They were married in August of 1941 and raised four children together. Later, when she was bedridden with multiple sclerosis and had to wear a patch to keep her eyes from crossing, he still teased her and tickled her feet.


As a Mennonite, Grandpa was a conscientious objector to war. So instead of enlisting during World War II, he joined the Civilian Public Service and volunteered as an orderly at Lima State Hospital (a mental institution). One inmate there had a thumbnail so sharp he could split a wooden kitchen match in 10 pieces with it.


When Grandpa was working at the state hospital, some of the patients tried to make Jell-o but didn’t use enough water. The staff was going to throw it away, but Grandpa asked to take a couple squares of it home. There, my grandma heated the Jell-o with some water, thinned it down, and they had dessert for a week.


One time my uncle Ed caught a lame pigeon in the barn. Grandpa put the bird on Grandma’s stepstool and told Ed it was a “stool pigeon.”


When Grandpa was in his early twenties and just married, he worked at Bucheit’s, a construction company in Youngstown, Ohio. One day his coworker and friend, Jim, left the construction yard and drove to Eisley’s Drugstore to get a drink. A truckload of guys in town accused Jim of putting a dent in their vehicle. They jumped onto Jim’s running boards, and when he got back to Bucheit’s, they pulled him out of the truck and beat him with two-by-fours and cement blocks. My grandpa heard Jim hollering for help and came running. He tried to shield Jim from the blows. When it was over, Jim was dead and Grandpa was unconscious. At the hospital, the staff put Grandpa’s bed in the hall because his head was so swollen they didn’t expect him to survive. He was hospitalized for several months, and after that he and Grandma stayed with Grandpa’s older sister until he recovered. Grandpa didn’t talk about it, but my mom showed me a yellowed newspaper article about the incident that Jim’s mother had snipped and sent to Grandma years ago.


Grandpa grew most of the food he ate in his garden: sweet corn, green beans, potatoes, sweet peas, watermelon, cantaloupe, and tomatoes. He planted roses all around his house.


Grandpa always made ham for Thanksgiving instead of turkey. I was his helper. First, we cut the net off of the bone-in ham Grandpa had bought. Next we stuck whole cloves into all of the intersections of the net lines. Then we covered the top of the ham with pineapple rings and used toothpicks to secure maraschino cherries in their centers. Finally we basted the ham with pineapple juice and put it in the oven.


This is what he told us at the end of the summer to encourage us to work hard in school.


Grandpa would walk between my brother and me with his arms draped over our shoulders. Every once in awhile he would hike a foot up behind him and kick one of us in the rear. When we kissed him goodnight, he would rub his whiskers over our cheeks till they glowed like Red Haven peaches.


Grandpa dressed all in tan on the weekdays, wearing work shirts and pants from his days doing maintenance at Hesston College. He wore a tweed cap when he drove. He had one pair of dress pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a tie, and a felt hat for Sundays, and a brown suit for weddings and funerals.


My little brother wasn’t so good at following the rules. One time Grandpa got fed up and yelled at him, and I had to take him outside while everyone calmed down. Later, when I complained to my mom about how mean Grandpa was, she explained that his mother died when he was only seven years old. Later his father remarried, but his stepmother killed herself, his father started drinking, and he had to go live with his older sister. So he probably wished he’d had a mother to listen to.


This is what he would say when he loaded us up for a drive. Then he would hold up his left index finger with the blue bump on the side of it so we could see what would happen if we didn’t pay attention.


I don’t remember Grandpa talking about much other than family, Grandma’s health, and the misuse of his tax money. He had a whole shelf full of National Geographic magazines beside his recliner, though, so he must have been interested in other parts of the world. I’d page through pictures of Mayan ruins and the Great Wall of China while he complained to my mom about the aides at Grandma’s nursing home.


As far back as I can remember, my family drove the 2,000 miles from Ohio to Kansas each summer to spend a week with Grandpa and Grandma. They had moved to Hesston, Kansas, because my mom’s sister found a nursing home for Grandma and a job for Grandpa there. When we visited, we would bring Grandma home to Grandpa’s house for a “vacation” from the nursing home. My cousins and I would take turns pumping the Hoyer lift to transfer Grandma from the hospital bed set up in Grandpa’s bedroom to her chair. We got to feed her breakfast in bed, but at dinner time she sat beside Grandpa at the head of the table and he fed her himself.


Grandpa drove a bronze, wood-paneled Ford Pinto. He built a custom cabinet for my mom that just fit into the station wagon when he laid the seats down, and he drove all the way from Kansas to deliver it to her.


Grandpa and Grandma were both singers, and they had a quartet of children: my mom, the soprano; aunt Norma, the alto; uncle Ed, tenor; and uncle Paul, bass. When our family got together, we would all sing the blessing before meals. After dinner, my mom and her siblings would sing hymns late into the evening, until it was time to take Grandma to bed.


Grandpa would drive to the nursing home every evening to have dinner with Grandma. He brought a brown paper bag with a surprise for her on every visit, maybe a sliced ripe tomato from his garden, or a yellow rose, or a letter from a grandchild.


“No one in our family speaks Spanish!” Grandpa spluttered when I told him about my choice of a foreign language to study in high school. “We’re German!”

But we’d lost our heritage language with my great-great-grandparents’ generation. Grandpa knew enough Low German (he called it Dutch) to understand his grandparents when he was growing up, but the only German I’d heard from his mouth was, “Ach, du yummer, nach ein mal!” when he dropped a glass or cut himself with a knife. (A German friend told me it means something like, “Once again, I’ve been an idiot.”) My mom has shortened the exclamation to “Ach, du yummer!” and uses it when she makes a mistake, and now I’ve caught myself saying, “Ach!” when I’ve done something clumsy or stupid.


Grandma was having more health complications due to multiple sclerosis. Grandpa, who couldn’t stand to see her suffer anymore, demanded that God either take her or heal her. She died of a heart attack within a week.


As soon as Grandma’s funeral was over, Grandpa sold his house in Kansas, packed up his wood working equipment, and moved back to Ohio. He towed his Ford Pinto behind the U-Haul truck.


“It’s awful to get old,” Grandpa told me more than once. He was renting a house from my uncle Paul near the town he’d grown up in. Friends and relatives had either died or stopped visiting. When my mom and I went to his house, one of us would distract him while the other scrubbed grease from his stove and took the rotten vegetables out of his refrigerator. Having spent so much on Grandma’s care, he worried about outliving his savings and being a burden.


When I’d leave for Alaska after visiting Grandpa in Ohio, he’d always say, “Watch out for those big white bears!”


The last time I saw Grandpa alive, a stroke had taken away his ability to speak, but he looked into my eyes and squeezed my hand tight, so hard that I had to pull it away when it was time to catch my ride to the airport. “I’ll keep an eye out for those big white bears,” I said.


All of us grandchildren came to Grandpa’s funeral in North Lima, Ohio. We drove from Oklahoma and North Carolina. We flew from Florida and Kansas and Alaska. We took time off from our flight instructing, nursing, counseling, bank auditing, teaching, and real estate brokering to tell stories about Grandpa. We sang his favorite hymn:

When I walk through the shades of death, thy presence is my stay

One word of thy supporting breath drives all my fears away

Thy hand in sight of all my foes doth still my table spread

My cup with blessings overflows, thine oil anoints my head


Grandpa always had a couple of prolific zucchini plants in his garden. He only had one way of using zucchini, though. He peeled and sliced them, salted the slices, and put them in a bowl of water. He dipped the slices, one by one, in a mixture of flour and brown sugar, then fried them golden brown in a cast iron skillet. They hardly ever lasted long enough to serve for dinner. We grandchildren would snitch them from the platter while Grandpa was looking the other way.

In late summer, when I’m standing over my stove in Sterling, Alaska, flipping zucchini slices, I can be sure that my brother in Ohio, my parents, my aunts and uncles and cousins all over this zucchini-producing land are doing the same thing, and probably hollering “Ach, du yummer!” when the grease splatters.

Tags: ,