On Life-Altering Artifacts
In 1983, we traveled to Duluth for Christmas to visit with my mother’s side of the family, staying in my grandmother Virginia’s home. I had achieved the ripe age of ten years old the previous month and was very excited to see my cousins and play in the deep Minnesota snow. I was expecting a haul of new Star Wars figures (from Santa or my parents; I wasn’t quite sure).
Christmas morning came and we children destroyed reams of wrapping paper revealing a series of molded chunks of plastic inside cardboard boxes: toys and talismans that would possess brief importance in my life before being later supplanted by a different toy. Packages containing clothing (ugh, corduroy pants) were small disappointments hidden behind smiles but we knew what to open based on the shape of the package.
I didn’t know it then, but Virginia’s gift to me would become one of my most treasured possessions: a boxed set of the Lord of the Rings. I had seen the Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon and had already developed a deep love for Dungeons & Dragons.
I started reading them immediately and voraciously. This was sometimes a confusing process. Someone gave me a dictionary to use after becoming exasperated at my questions about the meaning of words. I felt terror for the Hobbits on Weathertop, sorrow for Gandalf in the depths of Moria, and deep betrayal by Boromir. The books changed my life and I re-read them every year for almost two decades, committing huge swaths of them to memory.
My copies are dog-eared and sun-bleached now, held together with scotch and packing tape. I still read them. Despite their fragility, I still lend them out to anyone who asks because books are made to be read and loved.
Virginia was born on May 7th, 1920. She was an orphan (as was her husband, Howard) though we believe that her adopted father was also her biological father. The word “gumption” best described her personality – or perhaps “piss and vinegar”. She made up her mind and that’s what was going to happen and that’s all there was to it.
She died this morning, January 19th, at the age of ninety-seven.
She was a lioness, fearless and true.
I remember being scolded one year for trying to clear her walk of snow. Despite being in her 80s, she wasn’t going to let anyone else do her chores. She continued to shovel her own snow deep into her 90s, too; it just took her longer. She would bundle up, step out into the heavy Minnesota weather, clear perhaps a foot or two, and return inside to rest for a bit before beginning the exercise again.
She loved games and word puzzles. She taught me to play Rummikub and was one of the few people who could routinely defeat me. She even once played a session of Dungeons & Dragons with me, though I imagine she found it confusing.
Recently, she once again ignored the pleadings of her children to “slow down”. She slipped on a patch of ice and shattered her arm, requiring surgery and a promised long road of rehabilitation and pain. There came a day when she was simply done and events unfolded from there. Implacably. Mercilessly. Shakespearean.
My heart has been clenched for weeks. It has been a long time since I have felt this level of grief.
I find myself running my fingers over my tattered copies of Lord of the Rings. I reach for any volume and read random passages, each one evoking tiny memories and soothings. Here I am drinking cocoa and trying to keep the names of the Dwarves straight in my head. There I am laying on my back, waiting to be called to dinner, as Sam and Frodo escape from Amon Hen. Look! I am being thrilled as Eowyn destroys the Witch-King of Angmar during fifth grade recess.
For Christmas in 1984, Virginia gave me a boxed set of The Dragonlance Chronicles, further cementing my love for fantasy and adventure. It was her way, to recognize the things we loved and to share our enthusiasms.
I will miss her terribly.