Finding an extra grandma before it was too late

The author is shown with her aunt Lolly in the mid-'90s. (Courtesy of Courtenay Harris-Bond)

The author is shown with her aunt Lolly in the mid-'90s. (Courtesy of Courtenay Harris-Bond)

After meeting Lolly, I suddenly understood that I had a third grandmother — still a sparkplug — someone I may have never really known had my job search not led me to her doorstep in Bucks County before it was too late.

When I was 24, I worked for a lilliputian paper in Manassas, Virginia, miles away from family and friends.

I saw the job as an early step toward a career writing for a metropolitan daily. But after several months of interviewing the garrulous mayor and the town gadflies, I started to feel discouraged and alone.

Soon I was lucky enough to land a position as a reporter at a slightly larger-circulation newspaper in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia sprawled just steps away — glittering with nightlife. New York and friends beckoned from a few miles up the road.

“You know, Aunt Lolly lives not far from there,” my father told me when I moved.

I hadn’t known. In fact, I had rarely met my widowed great-aunt.

Mostly, I knew about her feistiness through stories my grandmother had relayed about their escapades — like the time they barreled the Buick through a snowbank to skid around frozen White Bear Lake on one of my great-aunt’s visits to Minnesota.

I had been close to my grandmother, Claire, who died when I was in high school. I eagerly anticipated our visits from Seattle to her rambling White Bear house, with its game closet, its rickety elevator, its coffin-shaped, old-fashioned freezer — and my grandmother’s fierce hugs.

My other grandmother lived even farther away and was not as warm. I saw her maybe once a year.

But after meeting Lolly, I suddenly understood that I had a third grandmother — still a sparkplug — someone I may have never really known had my job search not led me to her doorstep in Bucks County before it was too late.

After moving there in the mid-1990s, when Lolly was in her late 80s, instead of heading toward the city lights on my days off, I started driving to my great-aunt’s farm.

Sick of urban life, Lolly and her husband had settled on a large parcel in Lahaska more than 50 years prior and had taught themselves to raise corn.

Her barn was full of feral cats. Lolly, like my grandmother, was full of stories.

She told me about the time she and my aunt Nancy had driven the temperamental tractor around the Bucks County farm, scattering my grandmother’s ashes.

They toasted the occasion with gin and tonics. The wind was blowing the wrong direction. So instead of gusting off across the fields, Claire’s remains wafted back across my aunts’ legs and chests — just like my grandmother to get in the last word.

Neither Lolly nor I liked to cook but we both loved movies, so I would bring takeout and videos in the evenings to her farm. One night I rented a copy of the original 1939 “Wuthering Heights” with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.

“Isn’t it romantic,” Lolly kept sighing, leaning in toward me in her book-lined library.

I didn’t even mind that we had to keep the volume at a deafening level so Lolly could hear the dialogue.

She brought me to cocktail parties, introduced me to her crew. I remember fireworks igniting the humid air one July 4 above me and Lolly and a gaggle of her pals, sprawled with arthritic elegance on their beach chairs in a field.

Sometimes, when I felt extra lonely, Lolly would set me up in one of her farmhouse’s many cozy rooms.

Two years later, I moved away from Bucks County to seek fresh opportunities at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. I kept in touch through weekly phone calls, asking Lolly for relationship and career advice. Occasionally, I visited her Lahaska farm.

When Lolly was 90, however, I got the news that I had been dreading. She had died.

I was overcome with a grief more powerful than I could have anticipated. After all, we had really only known each other a short time.

But something about the fact that Lolly was nearing the end of her life while I was just entering one of the first major intersections of mine had infused our relationship with an intensity it might have lacked had we been peers.

I saw Lolly as a role model, a guide, a mentor. I hoped that if I made it to 90, I would be just as adventurous and independent as she had been.

And I realized that had the stepping-stones of my career not serendipitously led me to Lolly’s farmhouse door in Pennsylvania, I might have missed her altogether.

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