My cousin said it best the day of the funeral–our grandma was born to be a grandmother. It was an amazing thing to come together to celebrate her life because each of us could share our memories of Lillian Camp. And to a person, we each spoke about how much family meant to Grandma. She loved her family well, especially her grandkids and great-grandkids.
From my earliest memories, Grandma made me feel loved and special–not special in the way that made me think more of myself than I ought, just special to her. We rarely got to live near each other in my growing-up years, but when we were together, we made the most of it. She’d play-like with me for hours–house, school, and doctor (with cookie sprinkles for medicine). She’d sew me cute outfits and take me to Target to buy a new 45-record of my favorite single then let me play it over and over on her stereo. She cooked for me–oh the eggs–and taught me to oil paint; well, she at least showed me how it’s done. My palm trees didn’t come close to looking like art, but we had fun creating my one and only masterpiece.
Grandma was my first pen pal. We’d write letters back and forth, sharing about everything and nothing. And I could always count on a single piece of Doublemint gum in my letter. She would call that my “sunshine present.” A present, just because. Sunshine presents weren’t always a stick of gum–sometimes it was a new shirt or a fun set of hair clips–but in those letters, I knew I’d get some gum, so I started sending her one too. Somehow that tiny exchange became a big display of love.
Grandma’s love of the outdoors meant we hung out in her backyard or at the lake a lot. And her backyard was glorious–bird feeders, bird bath, a fun garden swing, and several nice trees. It was not a quiet place because every bird knew where to come for the goods. And the squirrels kept things hopping. I feel like there was always some sort of squirrel skirmish, sending Grandpa outside to shoo them away from the bird feeder. I always admired her gardens even though I didn’t get her green thumb. And to this day, I love bird watching because of her, especially when I’m in Colorado. But the cardinal, in all its red glory, always makes me smile and think of Grandma.
Going to the lake was a regular thing growing up. If we were in Oklahoma, we’d head off to Lake Eufala or Tenkiller to camp and boat. But more often on long weekends or holidays, we’d meet my grandparents at a Texas lake for a camp out–lots of lake swimming, skiing, and fishing. And, of course, eating all the food Grandma cooked for us. When they got the cabin at Lake Livingston, I looked forward to hanging out with Grandma on my college weekends. We loved taking walks, keeping an eye out for wildlife and enjoying the sound of the wind in the tall trees. We’d talk politics, war, and the general state of the world for hours. I knew Grandma would always know what was happening. And when Desert Storm and the Gulf War were happening right in front of our eyes on prime time television, Grandma and I would try to make sense of it all, worrying about all the men and women fighting halfway across the world.
I knew she and Grandpa loved me because they would travel across multiple states to watch me in a cheer competition that lasted all of three minutes. They came for dance recitals, choir performances, and graduations. They knew my friends, and my friends loved them! They would even pickup my brother and me in their RV for a trip to the beach for spring break. Some of my very favorite memories were of us getting up every morning to stroll the Texas beach, hunting for shells and sand dollars. You know you have a comfortable (pronounce every syllable of comfortable for Grandma) relationship with someone when you can walk for miles on the coast in companionable silence just enjoying the waves and gulls.
Grandma introduced me to my first fried mushroom. She gave me an appreciation for art and color, green and blue being her favorites. Her love of reading was contagious, and as I got older we’d laugh at how compulsive we were about reading–we couldn’t even eat a bowl of cereal without reading the box sitting in front of us. We shared a love for a lot of authors–Rosamund Pilcher and Maeve Binchy being two of the most beloved! Now that I think about it, I think Grandma is my reason for loving all things historical fiction–she was the first one in my life to get excited about a conversation on Jane Austen. Love!
When I was married with my own family, I got a huge gift–to live 25 minutes from my Grandma. I could pick up the phone, no longer a long distance call, and ask for advice on everything from what spoiled hamburger meat smelled like to why I felt so blue during the cold, winter months. I could throw the boys in my nifty silver minivan and be at her house in minutes, excited to see my boys enjoy the same house, backyard, and play-time with “Grammy” that I had. And any chance I got, I was asking to hear her stories. I loved hearing about her growing up in Oklahoma on a farm in Sasakwa, of living through the Great Depression, of meeting and marrying my grandpa, of raising my mom and aunt. I soaked-up every family story she’d share.
I don’t know that I would have described my grandma as sentimental, but when it came time to leave her house of 45+ years, she called me to her house when she needed to go through her China cabinet. We had a great time of story-telling, going through the cabinet, piece by piece. I went home with a lot of those pieces that day, a huge smile on my face. I think she’d hoped all along I would. Maybe she was as sentimental as I am after all!
As my boys got older and my job got busier, we didn’t get to see Grandma as often. Yet, looking back I’m grateful we had those amazing years in such close proximity. The boys and I treasure the memories we have of feeding the horse and playing in the den with Grammy.
Grandma never knew this, but when my rap-loving boys realized Grammy’s name was “Lil,” they loved calling her “‘Lil Camp” at home as if she were some rapper superstar. I think the name stuck among the Johnsons because we knew how ironic it was to call this quiet woman in her 90s, who rarely left her home or listened to music, by a spotlight-sounding rap-star moniker. I suspect she’s laughing about her nickname now that she knows about it. Here’s to you, ‘Lil Camp!
In her final year of life Grandma had it hard. Homebound and in emotional and physical pain, she often asked, “Why am I still here?” “How do I get home?” I knew in my heart of hearts that she wasn’t asking about going to an earthly home but her spiritual one. We had precious moments together in those final months where we’d reminisce about family who’d gone “home” before her and laugh about her restless habits, like folding the sheet on her bed–while she was still in it.
Sweet Grandma always perked up when she saw one of us come into her room. Most days she’d reach for a kiss and ask about our day. She never quit caring and was a bonafide grandmother till the very end. Someday I hope to be a grandmother. I look forward to that season and privilege with all kinds of excitement, knowing I’ve been prepped by the best! Thanks, Grandma!
Still remembering, Shelley Johnson