I read this tribute to my Grandma Kowalik last weekend for her 90th birthday celebration:
Itchy red bumps and a quarantine worthy disease don’t usually lend themselves to the start of a good birthday tribute, but for a Grandma’s birthday, it’s kinda perfect.
At 6 or 7 years old, a classmate gifted me with a bad case of the chicken pox. I wasn’t too concerned and would’ve kept showing up at school every day had it not been for my mom rushing me to the doctor and then calling for reinforcements, a.k.a. Grandma Kowalik.
“Yes! Grandma’s coming!” I shouted with an exclamatory fist pump after my mom heralded the good news. At that point in my life, I knew two things about Chicken Pox. It felt really good to scratch them even when mom and dad told me not to, and if you got them, Grandma Kowalik would come to Michigan! When I found out that most kids only get chicken pox once, I was pretty darn disappointed.
During the next two weeks Grandma Kowalik spent every waking minute spoiling me in the ways that Grandma’s spoil best. I soon discovered that if I said, “Please,” with a certain pity- inducing look on my face, I could get almost anything! She piled on extra scoops of ice cream, slipped me more candy, and even turned a blind eye when I obviously stacked the deck of cards for Candy Land. I was a competitive little cheater, but she still loved me. Once after stacking the deck while Grandma was in the other room, I bet her four dollars that I would win. She wisely grinned and told me that she didn’t believe in gambling.
Besides her anti-gambling stance, grandma was the best! She even permitted me to watch the cartoons that my parents said I couldn’t watch. I can vividly recall Grandma mischievously saying, “As long as you don’t tell your parents…” What a cool phrase! That settled it! Over the next two weeks, I knew that if there was a “Coolest Grandma Ever Award,” she would definitely win the golden trophy. Not only did she let me taste the forbidden fruit of animated programming, she made the “bestest” chocolate chip cookies ever. The chocolate chips and nuts embraced like lovers in the exquisitely crunchy dough and softened to perfection when they took a sailor’s dive into the wonderfully white ocean of milk inside my glass. But at that age, I didn’t sport the kind of vocab necessary to describe those cookies of miraculous goodness. I just knew they were the “bestest.”
Those two weeks cemented my love for grandma. From then on, I always felt as if grandma understood me in a way that most people didn’t. While I don’t claim to be her favorite, I do claim that she always made me feel like I was her favorite. Growing up, Grandma & Grandpa always seemed to have their ear to the ground. If I needed or desperately wanted something, often my parents would announce that Grandma & Grandpa had sent the money for it. When I visited Eden Prairie with my family, Grandma would spend what must have been either the most amusing or the most boring hours of her life picking out basketball shoes with her adolescent grandson in The Mall of America.
I was pretty thankful, even at a young age, for all they did for me, but as I’ve grown into an adult, I realize that every minute and dollar spent on me was a sacrifice for Grandma & Grandpa. They chose to invest much of their time and hard-earned dollars into me. They didn’t owe it to me. They made an intentional choice to love me wholeheartedly without any strings attached. As a kid, I used to think that was pretty cool. Now “Cool” is a relatively shallow term for it. Grandma & Grandpa’s love for me was and is “awesome” in the most meaningful sense of the word.
In high school and early college, when I visited Grandma & Grandpa Kowalik with my mom, the small, mostly brown kitchen in the old townhouse often served as the backdrop for late night conversation and cookie dunking with Grandma. During those nights, I unearthed how Grandma & Grandpa fell in love. When I asked the right questions, stories and laughter flowed out of grandma as naturally as water from a newly discovered spring. Her smile was only interrupted by joyful lip smacking and paragraphs that ended with “Oh my! Well… I haven’t thought about that in a long time!” On those nights, I felt like a pioneer, who was helping grandma rediscover her fountain of youth.
As we cut through the overgrowth of the years that separated her from her childhood, she shared tales of home made root beer, a windshield wiperless windshield on her brother Andy’s car, and a host of other old-fashioned stories. I used to picture my Grandpa Vischer’s oral autobiography in black and white, but for some reason, I always imposed a sepia tone onto the screen of my imagination for Grandma Kowalik’s short vignettes. The part I dreaded about those evenings was when grandma would genuinely yawn, begin to slowly pack up the cookies, and regretfully declare that she was “getting too old to stay up this late.” Even at an older age, the toddlerish question of “Just five more minutes?” would inevitably burst out of my mouth in a more refined form.
So, Grandma, as you’re nearing your 90th birthday, I have a special request of you that falls into the “Just five more minutes?” variety. When I meet the right girl, I want you around for my wedding. The love and commitment you gave Grandpa Kowalik over 58 years of marriage served as one of the main examples that inspired romance in my heart. Grandma, I’d be blessed to have a woman like you. A woman that shows me the same love and respect that you showed Grandpa. The way you stayed by his side and faithfully centered your day around his hospital room until he passed away was the kind of stuff that great movies and novels are made of. Your commitment and love for God, your family, and your husband is a blessing that’s been passed on to each of us. In Proverbs 31, the writer talks about a woman who fears the Lord. It says very clearly in verse 28, “Her children rise up and call her blessed.”
Today, you get one better than that. Your children’s children are here to stand and call you blessed. Grandma, you spent your time and money caring for my needs and deeply held desires. For that, I call you blessed. Grandma, you loved and cared for Grandpa for 58 years. For that, I call you blessed. Grandma, the smell of turkey soup, purple borsch, and halushki will always remind me of you. For that, I call you blessed. Grandma, you passed on your love for Jesus to my mom, Aunt Jeane, and Uncle Tim. For that I call you blessed! Grandma, you loved me when I was a greedy, little cheater with chicken pox. For that, I call you blessed! You are blessed, and you are beautiful.
I’m not sure that I still wield my elementary school chicken pox charm. But I do have one honest request. Grandma, I’m praying that you stick around long enough to be at my wedding and have some late night kitchen conversations & cookie dunking with me and my bride. If need be, we’ll bring the chocolate chip cookies.
Epilogue: Grandma cried as everyone at the table including me stood and called her blessed…