A farewell to my grandma

Grandma Hemken with my niece Kate – Christmas Eve 2013
Grandma Hemken with my niece Kate (Christmas Eve 2013)

Venda Hemken died tonight. She was 87 and she was my grandma.

This closes the chapter on grandparents for me. My dad’s mom died while he was in college, but both of my grandpas lived into their late 80’s. I can now say that I miss all of them.

It also marks the first time I was directly told of a death by text message. That may sound crass at first glance, but it was punctuated correctly and appropriately somber. More about this later.

My brother Nick being lifted high in the air by our grandma – one of my first photographs taken with a 110 camera (1991)
My brother Nick being lifted high in the air by our grandma – one of my first photographs taken with a 110 camera (1991)

My grandma had propensity to document all aspects of life. Her knowledge of our family’s genealogy was unsurpassed – thick binders distributed to all family members before each family reunion, most of the information within gathered before the Internet was of much assistance. I took up some interest as a preteen, trying to computerize the tree in crude databases, but quickly grew overwhelmed at the massive amount of data she had painstakingly typed.

I don’t mean to gloss over the fact that she was a mother to six children. That’s mind boggling to me (how does one cook?) but it really made my childhood a lot more fun. Aunts and uncles are those that let you do what your parents forbid.

I’ve written about end-of-life care in regards to my grandpa, Raymond Hemken. Caring for an elderly parent wears and tears and eventually becomes the most selfless act in the world. He died in 2011 at age 87 and I remember picking up on a similar feeling of relief from the family. This time was no different, although the end was simultaneously slower and quicker. From afar, the months of being in and out of the hospital had settled into months and months of relative calm. Even happiness and acceptance of being in an assisted living environment, especially from my grandma.

I was fortunate to see her over the holidays in Wichita. She was in good spirits and health, spending time holding her new great-grandchildren (one of them my niece) and she came over for our traditional Christmas festivities. A cadre of relatives played paparazzi, especially when babies were held.

Reading that older post about my grandpa’s death, I realized that my grieving process this time around is remarkably similar. I dutifully grabbed several shoeboxes of prints, found files from my first digital camera and spent some quiet time sorting through the mess. This set off a chain reaction of memories – and not just related to her. That’s probably one of the better things that death brings us.

I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of accepting death not as some sort of enemy. That’s my struggle and perhaps it will improve as I get older. Seeing the words “grandma just died” flash on my phone’s screen was powerful. I knew she’d been in the hospital very recently, the last trip happening just the night before she passed, but it never seemed like it was nearing an end. And here we are.

I need to call my mom in the morning. Dying makes us immediately busy with the checklist that must take place when someone leaves us and I didn’t want to bother her in those hours. I do know that I’ll attempt to correct a mistake I made with my grandpa’s death. I’ll be trying my damnedest to attend her funeral back in Kansas.

My high school graduation – May 22, 2001
My high school graduation (May 22, 2001)

The seasons according to Adam

Downtown Peoria in autumn
Downtown Peoria, October 2013.

Lots of compromises here. My original plan featured 6 months of autumn and 1 month of spring – I can’t possibly imagine an argument where autumn is not a favorite time of year. Spring exists strictly as a transitionary device. And summer is a dire warning, a reminder that we are primarily water and that evaporation could take it all away. Summer evenings are pretty nice, I admit.

March – April

May – July

August – November

December – February

Cable TV and specific steps for unmitigated terror

Baseball has spoiled our air at 1 News Plaza like a milk carton swollen with semi-solid horror. With that gift comes the death of all banal conversation.

No more talk of office air conditioning hell bent on cryogenically preserving us. No more talk of pizza crusts. And no more natural talk of Shackleton’s great expeditions (I had to force this conversation just today!) Suck all of that chatter away and replace it with bird shit.

Our 160-mile proximity to the Lou imparts a certain tug-of-war on poor Peoria. Look closely enough and you’ll discover gerrymandering rivaling the best in politics, with adjacent neighbors waving battle flags for the Cardinals or Cubs. Genetics seem to play some sort of role in the mess, but I’m not about to bring science into this squabble.

rat's nest of cable TV disaster

Your author was just trying to do his job that’s not his job (maintenance/IT support/counselor) when disaster struck. I’ve wasted so much time getting to the point of this damn piece, so here’s a quick outline for your busy schedule:

  • See rat’s nest of power and coax cable
  • Decide that it can be cleaned up with a simple power strip
  • Unplug wall warts and hear BZZZZZAAAP sound from TV
  • Realize that I’m a marked man – 2 hours until Cardinals/Dodgers NLCS game
  • Panic by reassembling rat’s nest (with extra cord kinks)
  • Flee when stupid box remains in TV heaven

In other words, it’s the closest I’ve come to feeling like a wanted criminal.

Thankfully, you’ve read this far and will be hearing a tale of heroism so great that you’ll call the kids into the room (even those you haven’t fathered or borne yet!) I marched (slunk) back into the lion’s den (sports department), grabbed the nearest sword (remote control) and menaced (button-pressed) it toward the offending devices (cable TV box, wires, television) and conjured it all back to life (you can watch TBS again.)

Editor’s note: Baseball can still be a lovely thing to watch, enjoy and – we presume – to play. Just leave the teams out of it. And please call it entertainment.

Additional editor’s note: Adam loves baseball.

Not photographed: Banana cream pie

There’s a knock at my apartment door and I react the same way we all do – argh, shit, sorry, I’m a loud monster.

The door opens and a frail, hunched-over man stands outside with an enormous silver platter, carrying three porcelain plates draped in pink Saran Wrap with small paper napkins underneath.

Howdy, partner! Would you like some banana cream pie?

This cowboy is the elderly gentleman who lives with his wife on my building’s floor. I’ve unofficially adopted them as my Peoria grandparents, and though I’m not entirely sure they’re aware of this one-way pledge, I like to think that they must have some idea each time I greet them by their honorifics.

The Mrs. will often be doing laundry when I’m leaving for work, always apologizing for tying up the machine. I assure her that it’s no problem, that I’m on my way out (and usually running late.)

There are smells that waft down the hallway on weekends – bacon. I often hear the newspaper deliverer step off the elevator at 5 a.m. and plop down the Journal Star on their doormat.

A small dish of Wint-O-Green Lifesavers is periodically refilled in the common hallway we share.

It’s time to write a thank-you note.

Just one durn thing after t’other

I have “Western Swing & Other Things” to thank for this 1948 song. The show is a Saturday morning staple in rural Kansas, an anachronism of radio that shouldn’t exist anymore. Allen Bailey (Dodge City’s Marshall Allen Bailey, if you want to get technical) and Cowgirl Janey play the best cowboy music for three solid hours, along with a touch of Big Band and classic crooners. It’s probably not for everyone, but if I can convince a girl in Scotland to listen to it, then isn’t that endorsement enough?

This particular song by Carson Robison reminds me of Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl series, of David Carradine as Woody Guthrie in “Bound for Glory“, of every Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton miracle, of wind so strong you can only inch forward. Robison is Kansas through and through, resigned pessimism and all.

Continue reading

Election night at 1 News Plaza

(Hover over image – or use two fingers on touch device – to zoom.)
(Hover over image – or use two fingers on touch device – to zoom.)

This is probably the equivalent of showing how hot dogs are made to most of you, but here’s a portion of the reporting/editing staff at the Journal Star on election night. It’s a High Holy Day of newspapers, a rare instance of free dinner (pizza) and daysiders struggling to make it to midnight.

But 180 degrees isn’t enough to cover everyone. The hard-working copy deskers are just out of frame, as is the sports department.

And though we can easily moan about election nights of yore, where not a desk was empty and the noise was twice as loud, it remains a remarkable machine unequaled by our TV brethren.

It’s a girl!

(photo by Michael Gerik, new grandpa)
(photo by Michael Gerik, new grandpa)

Kathryn Marie Wiens was born at 11:28 a.m. on April 8, 2013. She’s a lovely girl by all counts – 7 lbs., 12 oz. – and both mom and baby are doing great.

They will call her Kate.

That’s a good thing, too, since I had actually picked out The Who’s “It’s a Boy” on YouTube. A song from a crummy musical concept album is no way to begin your life.

Several new titles come bundled with this cute baby girl. Mom. Dad. Grandpa. Grandma. And uncle. I’ll be sharing that last honor with my brother Nick.

Finally, with my newsroom-addled mind on autopilot, I mistakenly scooped the competition (the new parents) by posting an early write-thru of this congratulations. You may have seen it disappear from this blog, Facebook and Twitter just before noon – but it was just a tardy attempt to swallow my excitement and let the subjects of this story make an announcement that comes by so rarely in a lifetime.

Baby vigil

Rachel, Adam, Nick – circa Easter 1993 in Lawton, Okla.
Rachel, Adam, Nick – circa Easter 1993 in Lawton, Okla.

Forgive me if I’m not asleep at 12:30 a.m. Monday. My sister Rachel is having a baby.

Not this very second, no. Or is she? I have my cell phone ringer cranked in the other room, just in case. Firm instructions were given to my family weeks ago: Call. Day or night.

You know what? I better put it on my nightstand. Man wasn’t intended to wake to the pleasant sounds of wind chimes or celestial bells. This calls for a lion’s roar.

The kiddo was due on Easter Sunday but, mimicking his or her soon-to-be-uncle, has decided to be fashionably late. My sister was told to report to the hospital at 6 p.m. one week later to be induced. Some sort of drug with innocent name is to be administered at 4 a.m. Monday in an attempt to coax the kid into The Real World. The gender is top-secret.

This is obviously a big moment for the Gerik family. I’m the oldest, still falling asleep regularly on my sofa with the lights ablaze in my apartment. And my brother is just a few years out of college, slave to the deadline as he follows in my footsteps.

Rachel? She’s a teacher. Her husband’s a firefighter. They own a house.

And so the middle becomes first.

Joel and the mom-to-be. (photo by Doris Gerik, mom of the mom)
Joel and the mom-to-be. (photo by Doris Gerik, mom of the mom)

Madlib love

After less than a week, I’m ready to return my girlfriend.

I already have five girlfriends in my single-person household, including all three previous generations of girlfriends. I thought the smaller girlfriend would fill a small niche in my needs, such as controlling my TiVo or Sonos system. So I bought the low-end girlfriend. I was wrong.

I like her so much that I’m going to return her and get a slightly bigger girlfriend. I expect she will become my primary girlfriend. I’ve had various girlfriends since the very first. I’ve spent a lot of time with Paddy, Nexi and Fire. Paddy is easily the best girlfriend ever. (I haven’t tried out Sandy, so I don’t have her as a basis of comparison.)

My love for the smaller girlfriend over Paddy comes down to one thing: size. She’s perfectly sized for every room in the house. She’s perfectly sized for travel, where every pound counts. My most frequent use is while I’m watching TV. I use her to control my TV, play Pandora on my house’s speaker system, check email, tweet, and update Facebook. She’s much lighter than the previous girlfriend I used to use for these tasks.

I do miss the old girlfriend’s display. Yes, her display is a step down, and I definitely notice it. But when I have the old girlfriend in my hand, I now notice how heavy she is more than I notice the crispness of her display.

– an original mockery of “Why I’m Returning my iPad mini”

News from Wichita – 1964

My grandma is legendary for her insistence on saving everything. It’s been an epic struggle for my parents to consolidate and reduce her museum-style collection (amassed over 80+ years) as they prepared her home for the market. How do you decide what’s important? What’s merely junk? Strange things occasionally pop up. Rattlesnake rattles. Penmanship awards. And newspaper clippings from Wichita, Kan.

Come with me to 1964 – a time when the Vietnam War was raging, The Beatles were invading and the world was just simply a scary place.

It’s your typical blotter item, albeit one involving a series of attacks on Wichita women with a spray can of nitric acid. The name of a relative is redacted. But what my mom found next caused her to tear up laughing.

Continue reading