An open letter to The Kid about Ema the Great

Ema the Great and The Kid on adoption day.
Dear The Kid,

I'm warning you now, June 18th is going to be a pretty tough day for your Papa. A year ago, it was one of the happiest days of my life. We were able to celebrate Ema the Great's birthday by going to court to finalize your adoption. I cried tears of joy knowing your great-grandma could witness the day the State of Michigan finally recognized us as a family, and that we could do it all on her birthday.

This year, we will be celebrating Ema the Great's life. If your Papa cries a lot that day, its because he misses his grandma a lot. 

I started calling her Ema when I was pretty little, kind of like the way you call Grandma Roz "Gama Gam." It was a nickname almost everyone in our immediate family called her, no matter how hard she tried to change it. Ema wanted you to call her Great Grandma, but I settled on calling her Ema the Great with you because I couldn't think of her as anyone other than Ema. 

Deep down, I don't think Ema the Great cared what you called her. Once she knew you were going to be a part of our family, she got right down to business being a great-grandma. You were the topic of conversation each phone call I had with her, either through me telling stories about you or her reminiscing about when Gama Gam was your size. You would receive small packages at random from her, either an outfit she thought you could use or a book she was sure you would love. And for your second birthday, she paid for your first swimming lesson, a gift you enjoyed more than she imagined possible. 

Your birthday gift was emblematic of part of Ema the Great's approach to life, practical. Swimming is a useful, lifesaving skill that might someday earn you a college scholarship. 

But she can't be described in just one word or idea, as I'm sure you've gathered by now. She was a teacher, a teacher of teachers, a scholar, a fighter, chocolate aficionado and a champion for Vermontville among other things.

She grew up during the Great Depression, and the frugal habits she learned during her childhood never left her thinking. She would save bread bags, rinsing them out and hanging them above the kitchen sink to dry because they were (and I suppose they still are) perfectly useful bags. Few things were ever discarded because they might have a practical purpose at another time. 

Little Dorothy Carpenter
She was a little girl who loved her dog Mickey, just like you love your dog Barney. One day Mickey got into the neighbors sheep, and as was customary on a farm at that time, the neighbor insisted her father had to put Mickey down. Ema the Great could never love another dog the same way, merely tolerating the family dogs from then on.

As a teacher, she knew few equals. She retired from teaching the summer before I started junior high school, so I never had her as a teacher, but every student of hers I've ever talked will inevitably use the word tough to describe her. She always enjoyed running into students after she had them in class, especially after they had a few years to reflect on her teaching. Those that went on to college would usually remark that she had prepared them well for the experience of a university, which she took as a source of pride.

I appreciated her deep knowledge of classic English literature when I was in college too. During one course where we had to read Beowulf in Old English, followed by The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, I spent countless hours on the phone reading the texts to her. She drilled me harder than my professor did that semester about the meaning of what I had read, making finals week a much easier experience than it was for most of my classmates.

Mind you, I was supposed to be an engineer or an elementary school teacher. I know I vexed Ema the Great by writing for a living, but I understand she got over it. And while she rarely expressed how she felt about me to me, she did tell me she was proud of me for earning my Master's degree. 

That was, perhaps, the part of my relationship with her that took me the longest to understand. No one, myself included, could be that hard on me about anything. If I did something she did not agree with, you could bet I would hear about it from her and continue to hear about it until she was satisfied that I internalized what she was trying to tell me. 

My favorite example of this was when I was hosting Detroit Unspun TV. I had no formal training, I was learning how to host a YouTube news show on the fly. (By the way, the toughest part for me was reading of a teleprompter.) Ema the Great was in Florida for the winter when we started the show, so she took her laptop to the clubhouse of her trailer park, found someone who could help her get online, and proceeded to take detailed notes of what I should correct from the first three episodes. That conversation took almost as long as the episodes themselves took to film.

Eventually I accepted what she was trying to accomplish. She didn't want any of her family to settle for mediocrity. We had God-given talents and we should use them to the best of our ability, which was something she strived to do herself. Ironically, she made incredible use of her talents but always felt like she was a failure.

One thing I know you would have appreciated about Ema the Great was her love of chocolate, Sanders in particular. She always had a stash of chocolate somewhere in the house, usually on a high shelf where us kids wouldn't think of looking, although she would leave some York Peppermint Patties within easy reach in an attempt to keep us from looking for the good stuff. She always had ice cream in the freezer, and a jar of Sanders Hot Fudge in the fridge. I know you like a good Sanders Hot Fudge sundae, because you usually eat a good chunk of mine when I get one. By the way, your great-grandma thought you eating half of my sundae was pretty funny!

Mother's Day 2013
Rest assured little one, she did love you. She was always afraid you wouldn't remember her and was always stunned when you did. Your last visit with her was my favorite. We were in Florida because your Grandma Rosa was dying, and you and I went to visit Ema the Great. I pulled up to her trailer in Port Charlotte, stopped the car and went to your side of the car to open your door. I had just opened the door when Ema the Great walked outside, and you screamed with excitement until I could wrestle you out of your car seat.

As soon as your little feet hit the ground, you raced for your great-grandma. Her expression said it all, she was surprised and grateful in the same breath. That day she accepted you would remember her if she saw you again.

I'm sorry you won't be seeing her again. It makes your Papa sad because Ema the Great was one of my favorite people ever to walk this earth. She would have enjoyed watching you grow up, and making sure I was being the best Papa I could be.



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