An ode to Grandma Joan

Apr 20, 2021

On March 31, 2021, my last living grandparent passed away.

Grandma Joan Enloe was 89.

While her death was not shocking (the woman had stage IV breast cancer on top of other health issues) the reality that she is gone has brought about a myriad of emotions. Emotions that are complicated and, well, messy.

First, some background.

Joan Enloe was born Joan Drake in the cold confines of Duluth, Minnesota. If there is a bitter freezing hell, Duluth might be it. It is stationed on the shores of Lake Superior where temperatures can fall in the negatives in the winter. The wind that whips off the lake can make it seem even colder. My grandmother, a wonderful and impassioned storyteller, described stomping on frozen snow six months of the year, and literally buddling up to combat a bitter breeze that could literally freeze your face. Grandma Joan was barely 5-feet tall and probably was under 100 pounds for most of her childhood. 

She grew up modest with five siblings, including a severely disabled brother. My great grandmother was a bitter, angry woman and my great grandfather, though very handsome, was slow mentally. Like everyone in the depression era, the Drakes scrapped for food. My great-grandmother was fairly adept and was able to keep her family fed and housed. When Joan graduated from high school, she took a trip to California that summer to visit a cousin. She fell in love with the sunshine, the mountains, and the energy of the West Coast.

She also fell head over heels for my grandfather Richard Enloe.

My grandfather was raised in a very affluent house. My great grandfather was an engineer with the Edison Company and had worked his way into a high position. He was in charge of one of the major plants, which was stationed in a small mountain town just outside of Fresno. Big Creek was home to these engineers and many had large houses.

Richard Enloe, or Dick, was not conventionally handsome (he looked just like his mother), but he had a very outgoing and engaging personality and was, according to my grandmother, very muscular. 

Joan was immediately smitten. As was my grandfather who took notice of the small, midwest girl with a tiny waist and big buxom. Someone snapped a picture of that day at the lake when they first noticed each other. My grandfather, with his bodybuilder body, and my grandmother, all boobs in her 1940s style swimsuit. 

A whirlwind romance began. My grandmother briefly went back to Duluth, but only to collect her possessions. She traveled back west and never looked back. She and my grandfather defied both sides of their families and were married just outside of Las Vegas in the summer of 1950.

A year later, they had my mother.  

As my grandfather tried to establish himself as an electrician, they moved several times before settling in Talent, Oregon. My grandfather started his business and together, they raised four children.

My grandmother, once a shy, insecure, introverted girl, was becoming a confident, outgoing socialite. In a community of farmers and orchardists, the Enloes stood out. They had more money and often flaunted it. They were not necessarily better, they just like having nice things and that tended to rile the locals. 

Grandma Joan went to college and got her degree in Accounting in 1972. She would become a franchise owner of a Diet Center, actually opening two centers in the Rogue Valley.

She was highly intelligent and quite astute.

While most grandparents view grandkids as simply extensions, my grandparents invested in me. Not just financially, but also emotionally. My early memories include Saturday mornings going to my mother's work and having my grandmother get her hair done and then take my brother and I to her house for the night. Along the way, she would stop by the market and allow us to pick out anything we wanted. Richard and I would often get sugary cereal and other fun items that my mother would not let us get.

We then made our way to her house on 2271 W. Hillside Dr. That house was like a second home to me. There were lots of areas to run and explore for a kid. My grandfather and I built a treehouse in the large tree in front of their property. My grandmother and I would walk to the neighbors and swim in their pool during the summer. We walked the country roads, picking cattails, petting the camel and llamas in the fields, and, generally, just enjoying the serenity as my grandmother regaled us with stories. Wonderful, wholesome memories.

Growing up, I considered my grandmother to be the second most important person in my life behind my mother. My grandmother was very much a rock and she didn't just help me through my childhood and into my teens, she literally invested in me. 

As a kid, you really don't know or understand gratitude, so as an imbecile teen, I did not understand why my usually sweet and meek grandmother started taking potshots at me. At first, it was subtle, like making comments about my weight, calling me lazy, or poking at me. It was hurtful.

When I graduated from college and landed a job in newspaper, the comments become more pointed. She questioned everything from my career choices, to how pathetic my salary was. I worked nights and often came home late, so I would sleep in the mornings. On one of those occasions, my grandmother not only called me lazy but also a bad father to my three kids. 

Each comment was a knife being shoved into my body. So naturally, I started to pull away.

Disappointed and disillusioned after eight years in the newspaper industry, I went back to school to study multimedia marketing. When I asked my parents to help me secure a better loan, they declined. This caused a bad break with them. My grandmother got involved.

This is where things get messy.

Grandma Joan was a huge influence on my mother. As she questioned why I would want to go back to school to study something "that didn't pay well" my mother echoed those sentiments. This was a critical time of my life, and I felt like I was drowning. The relationship between my parents and I eventually shattered and my grandparents stepped in. 

Under the guise that they were going to pull me out of my despair and support me, I clung to them. It was a desperate time for me and my grandparents represented a light. They were going to help me with my school, but there was a catch. I needed to be pliable. 

Weekly lunch dates with my grandfather so he could help me get established were fine. We met at the Apple Peddler in White City, often eating tuna sandwiches and ending each date with a hug. On Tuesdays, this meant dinners at my grandparent's home. Again, these were nice and the conversations were often about school and work.

As 2004 neared an end, and with the holidays coming, my grandmother had a plan. She was going to bridge the gap between my parents and me. The Tuesday night dinners would steer into how I should come to their house for the annual Christmas Eve festivities and how it would mean a lot to my mother. 

By this point, the relationship with my parents was pretty fractured. It had been more than a year since I chatted with them. I was simply not ready.

When December 24, 2004, came and went and I defied my grandmother by not showing up that night as requested, the proverbial atomic bomb was dropped. There was one more Tuesday night dinner, the one after Christmas, where both grandparents angrily confronted me and shamed me. There was the threat of stopping the payments to school. 

I was crushed.

I still remember sitting at the dining room table and having my grandmother pace in front of me telling me what an awful son I was. My grandfather was more subtle and understanding as he was simply trying to quell a situation that was now out of control. 

When I left that night, that was the last time I stepped foot on the grounds of 2271 W. Hillside Dr. It was also the last time I would see my grandmother for six years. 

An email came days later from my grandmother informing me that they were done paying for school. What followed was a barrage of emails and voice messages from my grandmother reminding me how foolish I was. Already leveled, she was burying me further.

I replied with a nasty email of my own, which only seemed to fuel the inferno. My grandmother sent a package of hate to my house. After several more calls, the ex-wife stormed down to my mother's shop where my grandmother was getting her hair done and blasted her.

That was it.

My grandparents, whom I was so bonded with and who I have cherished memories, were gone. I mourned their loss in 2005.

I reconnected with my grandfather following my contentious divorce in 2007. He even testified as a character witness for me in a nasty custody fight in 2009. Two years later, he passed away.

I cried. I sat in my apartment and sobbed. Because life is too short to be angry at someone you cherish. Though he and I let bygones be bygones, we never had closure and I blamed myself that day. In an effort to make up for it, I wrote a heartfelt memory I had of him and read it at his service. I know he has forgiven me because, over the course of the past 10 years, he sends me subtle messages. 

I spent six years avoiding my grandmother. 

As she grew older, she began unleashing on others in the family. She offended everyone from her own kids, to her in-laws, to her grandkids, shaming them, or as my brother says "being rude and bossy." 

I saw her for the first time in 2011 at my grandfather's service. We hugged, but the bond we once had was broken completely. Though she tried to extend that branch, it was not the same. It was never the same. I watched her age dramatically in the next 10 years. She went from a vibrant woman to a confused and befuddled old lady who could barely move. 

When she passed, which was remarkably 10 years to the exact day my grandfather passed, I felt nothing. Memories flooded and have flooded in the weeks since she passed, but I mourned her loss 16 years ago. 

It does make me sad that she was isolated and suffering in the final year of her life. It does make me sad that she died alone in the middle of the night instead of surrounded by family. It does make me sad that this woman who was a huge part of my childhood simply faded away. And it does make me sad that a woman who did so much and had so many connections, had just a few family members attend her service. Hell, there were several who simply did not come because they had better things to do, which sums up her legacy, at least for her family. 

I'll choose to spend the rest of my life trying to relive those childhood memories of her. I want to remember the car rides where she would tell one of her amazing stories or the trips to the fair, or how she would let my brother and I pick out something and she would purchase it. I want to remember her midwest cackle and how her cheekbones would nearly cover her eyes. I want to remember the mid-summer evening walks down her country road or how she taught me how to make a mean chocolate milkshake. 

You see, that's the thing about memories, you can be selective. 

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