She wasn’t my grandma. I should probably start with that. Officially she belonged to my cousins. The matriarch on their father’s side.
But Grandma Knapke’s screen door always opened just as wide for me as it did for her verified grandchildren. On those blazing blue summer days, the five of us would spill out of the van and pour into her house, stirring up small whirlpools of chaos and sound in our wake.
She was a small but vital part of my childhood, her face looming large in my memory. And her laugh. That very distinct laugh is forever seared into my brain. I loved that laugh. I remember wishing I was funnier as a kid just so I could hear that laugh more often.
This was the angel who introduced me to Tang. The drink of the astronauts. Flashy space juice. It was the most exotic thing I had ever had. No one in my life up until then had loved me enough to let me have Tang. Grandma Knapke let me have it by the pitcherful.
Her house smelled completely different from my biological grandma’s familiar smelling house. It smelled foreign and therefore fancy in my eyes.
My very intense but short-lived skateboard career began and ended in her driveway.
She took a bunch of us into town one day. Her hair was in curlers, secured in a hair net. She didn’t care. That was the day she became my personal hero.
Her kitchen is the kitchen I always think of when I’m reading a book and the characters are standing in a kitchen. She’d probably be surprised to know it was featured in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” and “Little Women.”
I remember one lunch in particular, a mob of us sitting around her table. My plate was piled comically high considering I was 7-years-old. She cocked an eyebrow at me and said “your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” I nodded sagely at her, like I knew what that meant. I had no idea what she meant. But I remember thinking how wise she sounded right before I spent the rest of the day with an agonizing tummy ache.
I got the news a few days ago. Grandma Knapke passed away at the age of 93. Leaving behind a large and loving and wonderful family.
And one freckled stray whose eyes are still too big for her stomach.
It takes a special kind of person to open their doors to kids that aren’t theirs. To make them feel loved. Make them feel like they belong. It’s hard being a kid. It’s so easy to forget that as an adult. Which is why kids need all the open doors and hugs and special astronaut drinks as they can get.
I was luckier than most. I had the best grandma in the world. But I also got a Grandma Knapke. A woman who took in an only child whenever she showed up and made her feel like one of the pack.
And as I get older, and raise my own family, I can only hope I have it in me to emulate her love and spirit. That in the end there is a person who, when they hear my name, thinks back with a smile and remembers sitting at my table in perfect happiness. Fancy astronaut drink optional.