Growing up there were two things I was utterly terrified of tornadoes and my Grandpa St. Martin.
Tornadoes frightened me for all the obvious reasons. C’mon I’d seen Wizard of Oz every year since I was a wee thing. I knew the power of tornadoes. They could pick up my house and deposit me, away from my family, in the middle of munchkinland. For me the tornado was the scariest thing in that movie — not the wicked witch or flying monkeys.
My fear of Grandpa St. Martin was something completely different. I really had no reason at all to fear him. He never did anything mean to me. I don’t think he even ever yelled at me. When I think of him, I remember lots of books about cowboys and Indians, and his height. Maybe it was his height (the very same height that I inherited).
He was by far the tallest man in my life. He loomed over everyone in the family. A tall, broad-shouldered man, who didn’t say much. . . at least not that I can remember. He had dark, dark eyes and a military crew cut that I am pretty sure he was born with. He served in WWII. A tall, proud man who looked much more Native American than his bloodlines would indicate.
People called him Cub, even his own children. I was always dumbfounded and amazed that my mom called her dad by his name, granted his name was really George, but everyone called him Cub. When my mom and her siblings were younger, the six of them (the seventh one wasn’t born until much later) would line up in the living room and kiss their mom goodnight and shake their dad’s hand and say, ‘Goodnight Cub.’
I spent a lot of time at my Grandpa and Grammu St. Martin’s house. My aunt Cathy is two years older than me, so I spent many a summer hanging out with her and doing not much of anything.
When we were real young, and they still lived in the tiny town of Savage, Minnesota, I remember Grandpa bringing us orange sodas as we stood on chairs across the street from their house. We were standing in front of a fence and watching the baseball game going on just behind it.
I remember playing in the creek (always pronounced crick) not far from their house. We played in that crick everyday until Grandpa told us to watch out for the bloodsuckers. He quickly put the kibosh on our watery hijinks.
Hardly anything worth fearing, right? But fear him I did, and one night my two worst fears collided.
It must have been the summer I was 10, Grandpa, Grammu, and aunt Cathy had moved to Shakopee. I was up for a week, hanging out with Cathy. Our summer consisted of going to the pool, walking to Eastman Drug to buy candy and magazines, and staying up later than little girls should probably stay up.
On this particular night we were sitting in the living room giggling over something when I heard the beep, beep, beeps of the National Weather Service warning. It was a tornado warning and Scott County was included. I immediately freaked out and begged Cathy to go into the basement with me. I was sure the house was to be blown away at any minute.
Cathy insisted on waking up her dad (the very grandpa I was so terrified of) to go downstairs with us. I urged her to just let him sleep. I didn’t want to wake the sleeping giant and incur whatever wrath might be in store for us. Cathy laid down the smack, an ultimatum was issued, either she got to wake up her dad and we all go downstairs to safety, or we stayed upstairs and faced the tornado above ground.
I pondered my choice for about 23 seconds. I tried not to cry as Cathy crept into her dad’s room to wake him. He emerged from the room blinking. I was so scared at that moment I could have peed my pants. I thought for sure a lecture at increasing volume (like the ones my dad always gave me about tornadoes) was to follow as soon as he finished rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
He stopped in the hallway and grabbed some blankets from the closet. Then he followed us down the stairs to the basement. He spread the blankets out on the floor and directed us to lay down. He sat in a metal folding chair, close by.
I am not sure how long we were down there. I am not sure how long I was down there before I fell asleep. I do remember waking up at some point and seeing my grandpa sitting in that metal folding chair watching us sleep.
At that moment in my life, I knew what unconditional, total complete love was. I felt safe and protected. I knew that this man, this giant, quiet man I had been so afraid of would never let anything happen to me. I’ve never felt that safe since that night in the basement with him.
Sadly, my grandpa died the following May, not even a year after that night in the basement. He died of a heart attack in his sleep. My aunt Cathy found him. After he died, I heard stories of how I was his favorite. How he adored me, his first granddaughter, even though he had his own daughter only two years older than me. My heart still swells with pride when I hear these stories.
Even though he’s been gone for nearly 20 years, I wonder what he would think now. I wonder if he’d be proud of me. I wonder if I’d still be his favorite. I am pretty sure that he’d be proud. My three younger sisters envy me, because I have that one brilliant, sparkling memory of this man none of us really knew. I have this memory that comes and comforts me whenever the lightening flashes and the thunder roars. I have this memory and it makes me not quite so scared.