“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed
by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” – Mark Twain
Twain, who happens to be buried in the cemetery where I run (where I’ve created some of my favorite poems and young adult fiction), was certainly astute when he suggested the things that you didn’t do could lead to disappointment.
Of course, I didn’t need to wait twenty years to experience for myself that sort of disappointment. I’d only been on the planet about twenty-years (not that I come from another planet, despite what some people might tell you) and I was smack dab in the middle of reminiscing with my grandmother about one specific summer a few years prior to that when I first had an epiphany related to Twain’s message.
My disappointment had nothing to do with unspoken love or with an abandoned dream, however, and everything to do with the squandered opportunity of a lifetime (well, you know, for a fourteen-year-old).
I’m not talking about an affair of the heart, but one of the taste buds. That’s right, I’m talking about food. Cream puffs to be exact. Light, airy, sweet perfection!
Okay, I’m really talking about a lot more than that. Her name was Stella.
Stella Veronica Szadlowski (which, when said with an accent, you know, one spoken with a heavy tongue, all slow and thick – Stani-Shwava Wer-own-nee-ka – the name sounds pretty cool, almost spy-like . . . I’m just saying).
Stella (who was always Grandma D to me) was another member of my family who came before me who was full-blooded – this time Polish.
Despite her short stature, Grandma D was one adult I always looked up to as a boy. Simply put: she was one of my favorite people. Yes, I admit, she may have spoiled me a little. I really have no idea if she made each and every one of her gaggle of grandchildren feel like her favorite, but I do know she made me feel that way.
On top of that, Grandma D fascinated me.
In many ways, she resembled a fire hydrant: short and stout and solid, she was a force of nature capped off by an almost paradoxical no-nonsense expression and a wry, often playful, sense of humor. I still envision her standing there, arms crossed, ready for some hint of mischief she might need to squash and adorned, usually, in a simple house dress (she had a handful of those and if not for my other gram I may have thought the house dress was the official uniform of grandmothers everywhere).
Grandma D was “old school” back when old school was just the way it was.
She was used to working hard, to respecting others and to being treated with respect. You didn’t think about saying, “No,” or, “In a minute,” when she asked you to do something. And you certainly did not talk back.
My grandfather died when I was two, so Grandma D was the only grandparent I ever knew on my dad’s side of the family and I was pretty sure she could take just about every member of the family if she wanted to, including my dad and my uncles who were all twice her size at least and full of man-strength.
She was scrappy and spunky; not in a contentious way but a bulldog-determined way, in a never-give-up way. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that “old school” strength was one of the things I admired most. Especially the way it was juxtaposed with a tenderness I was sure nobody else could see.
Grandma D had a way of letting you know that she meant business without ever uttering a sound. She also had a way of letting you know how much she loved you without having to say a word.
There was a softness behind in her eyes, a gentleness under the rough touch of her overworked hands, a kindness in the smile that often piggybacked a don’t-push-your-luck glance (you know, the kind of quiet warning she’d flash at my sister and my cousins, but never at moi . . . lol). There’s no doubt, with kids like my dad and his siblings and with grandchildren like me and my sister and our many cousins, Grandma D had plenty of reasons to be serious (and also to laugh).
And that one afternoon I gave her a reason to do one of those swat-at-the-young-fool’s-noggin-and-shake-your-head-in-utter-disbelief sort of grandmotherly gestures we’ve all probably experienced (right?!) while we chatted about the summer of my freshman year of high school.
I can’t say with certainty, but I’m pretty suspicious my sister may have played a role in Grandma D’s discovery of my aversion to fruit which is what led to my epiphany (so I can probably blame her and thank her at the same time, which seems to be a common theme from my youth).
Just over halfway through my 8th grade year, I became deathly sick (lost 20 pounds in ten days and was down to 80 pounds). That’s a long story I’ll get to another time, but after I was hospitalized for a few weeks and finally released Grandma D made me one of my absolute favorite things – cream puffs.
If it was possible to live on baked goods three (or four or five) meals each day without, you know, gaining four thousand pounds and developing a dozen different illnesses, I would without hesitation sign up for that meal plan. Twice-over!
I FLAT OUT LOVE BAKED GOODS!
And Grandma D just happened to be very good at cooking and, gulp, at baking.
Well, the summer of 9th grade, I stopped by Grandma D’s house at some point every single day on my way home from whatever mischief I was up to and every single day she made a treat especially for me (I was sworn to semi-secrecy about this for years).
She may have been trying to help me pack on a few pounds, but I looked at this one-way exchange of treats as her going out of her way to do something special for me.
Now, I should probably mention that while I grew up LOVING cookies, muffins, cakes (I could go on), I loathed/detested/was wholeheartedly averse to fruit and veggies. That’s changed a bit over the years, but at the time, when someone would make apple cobbler or strawberry shortcake, I’d fork off all the strawberries or spoon off all the apple chunks. That’s right! I liked the fruit juice, the fruit-flavored residue soaked into the baked item, just not the fruit itself.
I know, weird, huh. Starting to see a slight connection, perhaps, between me and misfits?!
Grandma D’s just-for-me summer-long bake-fest started with a couple apple turnovers she’d made one day and set aside for me. I told her how much I loved them, in part I admit, because she had gone out of her way to do something special for me when she had no reason to do so other than “just because.”
Although I loved that she made them for me, the apples were pretty hard to eat around, tucked as they were INSIDE the turnover, which meant that every delicious bite was also full of unwanted fruit texture and, that’s right I’ll say it, unwanted fruit.
But I couldn’t tell my grandmother that the thing she made just for me wasn’t something I really liked, not as much as say, cream puffs, bread pudding, apple cobbler (with the apples scraped off), strawberry shortcake (sans berries), oatmeal cookies, peanut butter cookies, sugar cookies, any cookies, banana muffins, lemon poppy muffins, graham cracker pie, banana cream pie, (you get the point).
How could I tell her that?
Now, truth be told, I had no idea Grandma D was going to embark on a special summer-long baking adventure. But from that first day forward, for the rest of the summer, EVERY, SINGLE DAY, Grandma D made me apple turnovers.
And I ate them. At first.
After a couple weeks, though, I’d eat one while I visited with her then take the others home with me and, well, eventually I started gifting them to others (including a neighborhood dog once or twice). I ate most of them, though, and there were undeniable moments of deliciousness along with some cringing, sure, and some forced swallows.
I truly did appreciate that my grandmother was going out of her way to do something special just for me.
I’m not sure how we got around to that story one day when I was about twenty, but we did and I do believe someone (I wonder who) volunteered the information that I hated fruit. My grandmother couldn’t believe it. Not the way I ate those apple turnovers.
When I finally revealed to her that, although I had appreciated her making them and although I did eat most of them, I didn’t really like apples.
That’s when she did the “you big dummy” swipe at my head (without intending to strike, of course). “If you had just told me,” she said, “I’d have made you ANYTHING YOU WANTED!!!”
I thought about an entire summer full of those amazing, light, fluffy, incredibly delicious cream puffs. That was the first time I regretted not doing something. Sure, there have been other things I haven’t done that have been disappointing (like taking nearly four years away from my writing just after I had gotten on a roll, but I’m back at that now in full force, thanks in part to a renewed determination to devote at least one hour each day to the page).
Being middle-aged and not following your dream would certainly be much more disappointing than not devouring cream puffs . . . every single day . . . the summer you turned fourteen. Maybe?!
Of course, since I am pursuing my dream, I have to lean toward my first encounter with Twain’s logic. It’s been a lot longer than twenty years, but to this day I’m still disappointed that I hadn’t, at least under my breath, mentioned my aversion to fruit (in particular to apples) so that Grandma D might have heard.
“No apples, please” I might have whispered.
“But what would you want?” she might have replied.
“Oh, I dunno,” I might have mumbled while looking down, working the toes of my right foot into the dirt, “cream puffs, maybe?”
That could have been known as the Summer of Cream Puffs. The Summer of Light, Airy Goodness. The Scrumptious Summer. The Summer of Endless Delight!