It was seven-tenths of a mile from the tavern to Grandma's house on Sixth Street.
Grandma and Tommy ran the tavern for 33 years.
Every summer I came to stay at Grandma's house.
I came so I could play Little League baseball.
I don't know how much a guy's life is shaped by what happens from the time he's 9 until he's 15. Probably a lot. Grandma made that time wonderful. All I'd do every day is play ball. At dark I'd go to the tavern and read books and wait for closing time.
The tavern was a great and mysterious place. Forehand's West Side Tavern sat next to the railroad tracks that run through the center of this county seat town. You could get pie-eyed at Grandma Lena's place. She used that word all the time. Pie-eyed. What you couldn't do at Grandma's is get mean. Other places in town, maybe. Not at Lena's.
She was hell on wheels behind that bar. Anybody who got pie-eyed and wanted another beer might as well move on. Grandma's voice could ruin your ears. She wasn't very big. Maybe 5 feet tall with legs that got more bowed every year. But you could hear her everywhere.
One guy didn't listen. She said leave. He wouldn't. He was going to play the slot maup his chest. She raised up her foot and stomped her heel into the guy's toes. He left then.
I mopped the tavern floor every night. For fun I'd go next door and read the comic books at Hap's restaurant. I listened to ball games. Tommy was Grandma's second husband and he was a Cubs fan. I rooted for the Cardinals so we'd have something to argue about.
What Tommy and Grandma did for me the most was make sure I played Little League every summer.
They spoiled me. I climbed up the candy counters in the tavern. They'd give me some little chore to do. Take these potato chips to Joe and you can have that Milky Way. Every night I would go to sleep in a tavern booth. I'd lay down in the seat and I wondered if I would ever be so big I wouldn't fit.
Grandma always said she didn't have anything to do with it. But a customer gave me a baseball. Said he'd caught it at a Cardinal game. A real major league ball. I kept it until I lost it. The only time I felt worse than after losing Grandma's baseball was the time I lost my father's catcher's mitt. I was at Grandma's house then. She hugged me and said it would be okay.
Grandma was smart and loud and strong and sweet and she gave me everything a kid could ask for and a whole lot that kids don't even know they're getting until they get to be old themselves. She gave me love and time and attention. She showed me a woman can do anything. She showed me anybody can do anything if they really really want to. She made me hope I'm a grandpa someday.
She said she'd give me a quarter for every "A" on my report card. I came home with 13 "A's" because in first grade they gave you a grade for everything including how you comb your hair. This was 1947 and 13 quarters could buy a case of beer. She made it a dime the next time and we kept it up until I got out of college.
This Christmas my mother gave me a box full of my old stuff. Inside a high school graduation card from '59 was a $20 bill. It was from Grandma. She laughed a lot this Christmas when she saw her $20 bill still there. She said it is worth $50 now.
I loved to see her laugh. My sister took a picture at Grandma's 86th birthday party last June. My sister made a cake with writing on it especially for Grandma. In the picture Grandma is laughing like a little kid. You should have seen her when she was young. There's a picture of her when she was 16. She wore a big hat and a dress with puffy shoulders and she was so beautiful.
She was born in 1896. She was 19 when her husband took her to Canada. He was trying to stay out of the Army. She had a two-year- old baby. They lived in a one-room shack in the middle of nowhere. They called nowhere Saskatchewan. They burned cow chips for heat in the winter. She was going to have another baby and so they moved back to Lincoln and had a baby girl who would be my mother.
Grandma was diabetic and old and she had a little stroke in May of 1981. She fell that day. She never walked again. She had a wheelchair and Tommy took wonderful care of her. One day she saw a bug. She hated bugs. She told Tommy in her loud voice to get the bug. Tommy has had two cataract operations. He couldn't see the bug.
Tommy told this story. He said Grandma shouted, "There!" And he said, "Where?"
Tommy sat on the bed. He looked down at the floor. Grandma sat in her wheelchair eight feet away.
"Next thing you know," Tommy said, telling this story, "Grandma is sitting on the bed next to me, pointing her finger down at that bug. 'There,' she said."
Turns out Grandma could walk if she really really had to.
She died Saturday afternoon. Just from being old. Tommy was there getting her something to eat.