The Lifelong Value of Surrogate GrandparentsMar 14, 2017 08:17PM ● By Melanie Heisinger
By Millie Baker Ragosta
My brother, Bud, nearly 3, and I, a scrawny girl of 5, the two youngest of Dad and Mother’s five kids, found surrogate grandparents in next-door neighbors, septuagenarians, Mr. and Mrs. John Gipple. The value of these relationships spanned a lifetime.
When I was born—long ago at the start of the Great Depression—it was not unusual for three generations of a family to reside together, which provided kids with a relative, who was not as busy as mom and dad, to share their joys and sorrows with. But one of my grandparents had already died by then and another, soon after, before I was old enough to remember him. The other two—my father’s old and frail father—preferred his own quiet home to our noisy one, and my mother’s mother—who had been widowed for many years and was fiercely independent—stayed in her own home where she supported herself by boarding three young girls who worked at the Huntingdon Silk Mill. Neither of them was available to provide the companionship of a beloved grandparent.
As old as the hills
But my brother, Bud and I found surrogate grandparents in next-door neighbors, septuagenarians, Mr. and Mrs. John Gipple. They seemed old as the hills to me at the time, but now that I am even older, I remember them as . . . sprightly. He closely resembled Teddy Roosevelt (under whose command he had fought in the Spanish/American War) and she, like Mrs. Fezziwig from Dickens’s Christmas Carol, was “one vast, substantial smile.” Bud and I loved them as though they were our grandparents. We begged so often to “go see Mr. and Mrs. Gipple” that Mother feared we were becoming pests, but Mrs. Gipple insisted we were their honored guests.
They had married later in life than most couples so never had children of their own but they cared for a perpetual child, Mr. Gipple’s severely intellectually challenged brother, George. At first, Bud and I were a little wary of him, never having dealt with an adult who seemed younger than we were, but Mrs. Gipple’s kindly, firm way of speaking to the poor old fellow taught us oceans about human compassion.
Their house always smelled of good things to eat and of old things . . . like books in a library. A big iron stove dominated the back wall of the kitchen. On a flanking wall, a kitchen cabinet bristled with clipped recipes sticking out from behind every canister and box. George’s favorite perching-spot was on a tall stool in the kitchen but, when he discovered that I liked it, too, when we visited, he insisted I take it.
Every six months, Mrs. Gipple would stand us in turn against the kitchen door-frame and mark our heights, no timid mark that would wash off at the first housecleaning, but deep gashes that are probably there still. Next to each mark, she’d pencil in our names and the date.
Sharing a gift from heaven
Mr. Gipple’s chair was positioned by the window, as close to his garden as he could get and still remain indoors, while Mrs. Gipple’s old rocker—in the adjoining dining-room—sat beside an end-table, piled high with reading material. A series of portraits of biblical heroines, Rebecca, Sarah, Ruth and Esther, hung on the wall facing the chair. The china closet, placed on the back wall, contained her pitcher collection. The dining-table always held two bowls, one full of Mr. Gipple’s gingersnaps, the other Mrs. Gipple’s hard candies. George kept his private stock of candy in a tin box in his room. When Bud and I appeared at the back door, George would run to his room to fetch his cache to share with us, Mr. Gipple’s grandfather clock chiming melodiously in the tiny front hallway.
Summer evenings we spent on the front porch, smelling the honeysuckle that twined over the pillars and watching hummingbirds gorging themselves on the nectar. As if anticipating the start of a wonderful movie, we waited for the sunset “to start” and when it did, no one spoke except to point out a particularly beautiful color formation. To this day, I can’t view a sunset without thinking of the Gipples, who always enjoyed sharing the daily gift from heaven with two little kids.
We loved winter evenings, too. Mrs. Gipple always had a special treat for us, a slice of her coconut cake, cookies or popcorn made from kernels she shook vigorously on the stove in a long-handled, covered wire basket. When the last kernel had popped, she’d fill our bowls, and then douse the puffy treat with the butter already melted in a battered tin cup on the back of the stove. Mother could make better pies than Mrs. Gipple, cakes just as good; she and our older sisters could make better fudge, but no one could make better popcorn than Mrs. Gipple.
As we munched, we would listen to their ancient radio: “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “Amos and Andy,” and—the static adding to the spookiness—“Inner Sanctum Mysteries.” Sometimes we’d play Parcheesi or Chinese Checkers. We had to be home by 8 but I remember the evenings as wonderful and endless.
Positive sounding board
When we started to school, Mr. Gipple insisted we show them our report cards.
“They couldn’t be better!” he’d say and Mrs. Gipple would give each of us a shiny dime. Either of us would have faced a room full of Bengal tigers rather than show the Gipples a bad report card.
Bud, who—almost from his birth—loved being outdoors, trailed Mr. Gipple in the garden, picking Japanese Beetles off the roses and helping him feed the hens they kept in a well-roofed shed, while I—the bookworm—stayed inside, regaling Mrs. Gipple with the plot of the latest book I’d borrowed from the town library. When my compulsion to retell each wonderful story I’d read kicked in, my older sisters would groan; Mrs. Gipple always listened entranced (or at least, hiding her dismay at my long-windedness!) The Christmas I was 10, she gave me one of her own cherished books, Gene Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost and a subscription to Ladies Home Journal. As I devoured each serialized part of Anya Seton’s first novel, Dragonwyck, in the Journal, I began dreaming of, one day, writing my own historical novels.
We grew into teen-agers, got part-time jobs and our parents bought a house in another part of town. Visiting the Gipples involved a long walk, but still we visited when we could. Mr. Gipple, now in his early 90s, was still so robust that his death came as a shock to us. His grandfather clock, just like the one in the old song, stopped when he died. He’d left instructions that Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar be read at his funeral and as the minister read “. . . And may there be no sadness of farewell when I embark . . .” I clearly understood it to be my old friend’s last message to those he loved. Mrs. Gipple took her loss exactly as he wanted her to—though her dear old eyes were brimming—like mine and Mother’s, and she went home to care for George.
Worthy of my trust and love
I was only 17 when I fell in love, too young, really, to be a wife. But Vince understood that I had to have Mrs. Gipple’s approval before I said yes and so went with me to meet her which convinced me he was worthy of my trust and love for a lifetime.
We married shortly after I graduated from high school and settled in Vince’s hometown, Sharon, halfway across the state, without an automobile, which meant I seldom got to see Mrs. Gipple, now well into her 90s. George’s physical condition was deteriorating rapidly and, despite her determination to look after him, she had to put him in a home for the aged. By now, my brother was serving in the army in Germany and wrote to her often. I hoped his letters would evoke for her the small boy who had followed her husband around the garden and watched the sunset with her.
As my own family grew, we finally acquired our first car and, so managed a yearly visit to my parents which also included taking my little ones to see Mrs. Gipple. I brushed their hair and checked their fingernails, insisting they be on their very best behavior. They were quite certain “Mommy’s Mrs. Gipple” had to be one of the most important people in the world. My parents always accompanied us because the gentle old soul forgot the faces of those she seldom saw. Mother would finally convince her that the young woman with the nice husband and all the pretty children was really Millie, the little girl in pigtails who used to recount the plots of every book she read to Mrs. Gipple. With tears in her eyes, then, my old friend would hug me as hard as her waning strength allowed.
When she died, I couldn’t go home for her funeral; my husband was at a business conference a state away. But, all day long, I thought of her and her husband being reunited now . . . and thanked God for my wonderful surrogate grandparents.
Millie Baker Ragosta is the author of 13 historical romances (Doubleday) and of “Baker’s Dozen,” a family humor column, for Twin Circle, Los Angeles.