Grandmothers don’t always have to be kin

I opened the can and took a big breath through my nose. There was nothing quite like the smell of barbeque Charles Chips. I sure loved those chips as a boy; they were delivered like milk to the house and replenished into that metal can kept in the pantry. I took just one and placed it on my tongue and let the seasoning dissolve.
Then I took out a handful and placed them on my plate and on Millie’s plate beside the sandwiches with thinly cut beef, brown mustard, tomato and lettuce.
It was lunchtime and I was on a stay over with my adopted grandmother – Millie Dobbs.
Millie was our next-door neighbor when I was a youth. When I was about six, our neighbors the Bounds moved to Florida and to the initial disappointment in moved a family with no children – Fred and Peggy Gross and Peggy’s mother Millie.
I am sure in many respects especially early on; I became a Southern Dennis the Menace to the Grosses as they settled in to their new home. Despite the lack of someone my age to play with, I soon found myself the focus of Millie, a retired nurse from New York City. On a side note, she told me about assisting Marilyn Monroe on a hospital stay. In just a short period of time, we had both found our way into each other’s hearts.
Millie was what I would describe as puffy when I hugged her.
Since my folks had relocated to Atlanta for business, I was hours away from my grandparents, so it was wonderful having Millie in my life.
Often when Fred and Peggy went out of town, Millie would invite me to stay over. I would get to stay in the master bedroom suite. It was always an adventure. I remember on one of my earliest visits, I opened the wrong door by mistake and began a head over foot tumble into the basement. I didn’t get hurt though. I landed on my head. So if you wonder why I am still a bit off, that would be the reason. Actually, I limped away from the fall with a stumped toe.
Later I would learn the basement was Fred’s domain where he kept his model train and 78 rpm record collections. I seldom got the chance to see those things, although it was a treat when I was allowed.
Millie was an amateur artist who loved painting and making crafts with her hands, and she often brought me into what she was doing helping to teach me and giving me a try at it. She loved to play cards and she taught me as well – solitaire and gin rummy. We would often pass hours playing especially when my Uncle Waymond came to visit, Millie would always join our family for evenings of card and game playing.
Another one of her passions is still part of my life – mysteries – Agatha Christie among others.
Every few months, Millie would treat us both to a lunch out and we would walk a little more than a mile to Brannigan’s Irish Restaurant and have lunch. I would get this huge hamburger covered with mushrooms and everything imaginable.
As I grew and our family celebrated the milestones, Millie was there, birthdays, elementary graduation, Eagle Scout ceremony, and awards until one day, Fred, Peggy and Millie moved to Florida. I was in my teens by then and our connection remained via letters, cards, and holiday greetings.
One day mother received a call from Peggy to let us know that Millie had died. My initial impulse was to go and be there with them. That is after all what we did in our family, we gathered, sat up with the dead, ate a lot, remembered and cried as they were buried.
Peggy thanked me for the thought but there was no need for us to make the trip down. As best I recall Millie was cremated.
My adopted grandmother Millie was gone. My mom encouraged me to put away the things that she had shared with me, some paintings, needlepoint, an afghan, her letters, a handmade bell she had gotten from her friend Willie. So I did. You know I am still saving them, like I simply put Millie’s things away where I could keep my memory of her just the way it was.
I know that my childhood would not have been as full without the New York prospective that Millie brought to me – an appreciation of seeing more than what was just at my fingertips.
Millie gave me something no one else had before outside my family –  she taught me that unconditional love didn’t have to be born in blood. She became part of my family and shared time, encouragement, some of my greatest childhood moments, and an amazing love for life.