My grandma, Frances (Copeland) Wilt, looked like Bob Dylan and laughed like Popeye. Two inarguable facts that I’ve kept to myself until now.
She died on Monday morning in Rockford, Illinois, while I was eating donuts and drinking coffee in Muncie, Indiana.
The smell of coffee reminds me of her and Grandpa. They were the only reason our house had a coffee maker growing up. When the coffee maker came out, I knew they were on their way and grandma would be loaded down with paper bags of garage sale toys–He-Mans and Han Solos and some of the weirdest toys you could imagine.
They’d pull up in their multi-Brown RV and it was like a whole planet just showed up in the driveway. When it wasn’t another world, the RV was the least aerodynamic spaceship of all time. If you’ve seen Spaceballs, it was exactly like LoneStar’s Eagle 5.
Grandma was an explorer. She and Grandpa traveled the nation in that RV. We received postcards from all over, and once even pens full of ash from Mt. St. Helens. My brother, Kyle, and cousins, Brice and Brandt, and I joined a few of their expeditions to Myrtle Beach, Disney, and the Smokey Mountains. I wrote about the RV for a piece that was published in the CS Monitor 11 years ago. Grandma helped me factcheck the story.
I can’t help but think those trips in the RV and postcards and trinkets from all over, had something to do with me wanting to travel. Grandma was a traveler.
She traveled in books, reading more than anyone I knew. Clive Cussler, James Michener, Panther in the Sky, It, Dean Koontz. She’d recommend books to us that were more mature than our parents were comfortable with. I learned a lot about sex from witches and Anne Rice.
Grandma escaped into Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris films. I watched a lot of Walker Texas Ranger shows with her. Makes me wonder if Grandma wanted to be someone she wasn’t or somewhere she never could be.
Her dad was an alcoholic. Her mom worked a lot of jobs to make ends meet. I traveled around the world to meet garment workers to write a book about them, and then when I got back, Grandma told me she was one. As a kid, Grandma worked at a factory making bibs in Versailles, Ohio.
After Grandpa died, she traveled to Branson, Nova Scotia, and Alaska with friends.
When I, or my cousins graduated from college, she gave us each a $5,000 gift. I spent mine on a one-way ticket to Australia that was the first leg of a six-month world tour. I’m not sure Grandpa would’ve approved, but Grandma was proud. I traveled just to travel. I never knew it would become something. Eventually I started to write about my travels and Grandma loved reading my stories that became a weekly column in a newspaper. She read them all.
Society told me that I should get a real job, and start a career, but Grandma told me I should write a book. I wrote two, and she read them both and kept them in her apartment after she downsized from her house.
She could bake the hell out of a pie, but she wasn’t the stereotypical warm-hearted grandma who you could talk to seeking wisdom. She cheated at board games. She was more of a friend than a grandma. She didn’t have to worry about us running off at a museum; we had to worry about her following her curiosity away from the responsibility of watching her grandkids.
She wasn’t warm or gentle. One time she gave me a suppository. One time…and…never again… she gave me a suppository.
She called me Kels. I called her Gma.
In an age of housewives and homemaking, when women were supposed to fill a certain role, I wonder if she wanted more. Action? Adventure? Travel? Follow her curiosity wherever it took her?
Grandma put her head down and never looked back. No apologies. No deep reflections. Life was ahead of her. It was a flaw and a strength.
I’m glad that she’s gone; she didn’t belong tethered to anything let alone oxygen. She suffered from emphysema but didn’t act like it. Bob Dylan wrote a song titled “Death is not the End.” I always thought grandma would literally die laughing . . . laughing like Popeye.
Wherever Grandma is I know she’s got better places to be than looking down upon all of us.
She was proud of me when others weren’t, and I am proud to be her grandson.