One of my favorite things to do when friends and family were visiting me in Port Townsend, was to take the ferry across to Whidby Island and walk the four + (depending on route) miles across the Island to Coupeville for lunch, then back to the ferry by a different route that went past a couple of dairies where I could say hello to my favorite cows.  This is a story that my grand daughter, Jena, wrote about my taking her and her sister, Lara, on that walk when they were twelve and ten years old (1990).  I failed to realize neither were the breakneck kid I had been.  She wrote this for a high school class when she was sixteen.


“Well, if you can’t think of anything to do today, I think we should go for a walk.”  The gray-blue eyes of the woman who has just spoken are watching me with a hint of amusement that extends to the creases of her eyes.  Unkempt grey-brown hair falls around her face, partly pulled back by a large pair of plastic framed glasses, which she adjusts as they slide down her forehead.  She has a face that never looks old to me, no matter how many wrinkles it has.  I meet her eyes and recognize my own: this woman is my Grandma Jean, who’s faded T-shirt expresses her philosophy: “Life is uncertain….Eat desert first.”

My younger sister, Lara, and I are spending the week in Port Townsend, Washington with Grandma Jean.  She lives in a white Victorian house built over a century ago, with a peeling white porch and a creaky porch swing.  Some of the house’s furniture is as old as the house itself.  A steel and wood telephone from the early 1900’s collects dust* in Grandma’s kitchen, where we are sitting.  Next to the telephone are shelves full of herbal pills and antique porcelain tea sets.  Grandma Jean is sitting in front of these shelves, the only one of the three of us with good posture.

“I know a great island that we can get to on the ferry and be there in an hour.”  A walk sounds good, so we agree on it.  Lara and I climb up to the bedroom loft, where our bags are, and get ready.  Fifteen minutes later, we meet again at the kitchen table.  Grandma has changed her clothes.  Her new T-shirt (though just as worn as the first) reads: “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.”  I laugh.  We’re ready to go.

Just like Grandma Jean said, the next hour finds us un-boarding the ferry.  I find myself suddenly surrounded by farm land.  We follow a stretching road that leads us away from the harbor and as we walk, I discover that Grandma Jean is familiar enough with the island to know of alternative routes to walking other than the road.  These routes are usually paths along the edges of wheat-fields, where the wheat and bordering grass have been flattened down.  The day grows hotter and I am soon carrying my quilted flannel, and wishing that I had worn a T-shirt and shorts instead of a turtleneck and jeans.  Lara and I communicate with frequent glances:  How much longer?  How far has it been?  Must be miles!  I’m sure we’ll stop soon……

We are burning up under the midday sun, and tiring quickly from walking in the heat.  I look over at Grandma Jean, who does not appear at all fatigued.  She seems perfectly content, telling us about her folk dancing lessons, then about the play she and her friends are acting in.  She plays the story teller, she says.  It seems like Grandma is always the story teller; she’s good at it.  I am amazed with how easily she walks, taking only occasional sips of water from her canteen.  When she offers me a drink, I swallow a medium sized amount, fighting the urge to greedily gulp down the whole canteen.  I can tell that Lara is doing the same.  We walk like this for hours, Lara and I often in silence, while Grandma Jean explains to us why the bales of hay are cylindrical and not box shaped, or about the happenings in her UFO club.  I try to think of something to say, but I can’t, so I focus on thinking of things other than how hot, tired, and hungry I feel.  We eventually come to a small town with a diner, where Lara and I stagger in behind Grandma’s easy stride.  We are each allowed to order half a sandwich.*  My stomach growls at me for not bringing my own money.  As with the walking, Grandma Jean seems unaware of our plight; I think she assumes that everyone is in as good shape as she is.  For the same reason that I didn’t say anything about ending our walk, I keep my mouth shut about lunch.  That’s just how it is with Grandma Jean.  I let myself rest heavily on the table, trying to relax as much as possible.  My legs are numb and feel like they’re sinking into the vinyl seat.  A thousand tiny nerves in my legs begin twitching, so quickly that I’m certain everyone in the diner can see them through my jeans.

All too soon, we leave the air conditioned diner.  Passing by a small candy shop, I see at least a half dozen cats lounging under a tree.  They scatter at my clumsy footsteps.  We keep walking.  The hours melt together.  Sometimes I lag behind, other times I speed walk for a few moments so that I can sit and rest in the shade while Grandma Jean and Lara catch up.

With the ferry dock finally in sight, I irrationally break into a short run for fear that we will miss the ferry and have to keep walking.  My sister and I board the ferry with smiles, my grandma with the same undisturbed air she had about her hours ago.  After napping for an hour on the ferry, we stagger off the boat and climb into Grandma’s car to drive (thank God) back to her house.  Lara and I sit, hidden in the darkness of the car, still only exchanging glances to express our exhaustion.  Our grimaces become more and more exaggerated until we begin laughing and joking around with Grandma as usual.

Grandma Jean stops at the market and buys white corn.  Each cob is like a small white parcel wrapped in pale green fronds.  Back in Grandma’s kitchen, it is comfortably warm and light-spirited as Grandma roasts duck on her rotisserie, basting it with rose water sweetened with honey.  Lara and I pass the time by reading poetry books that have pictures of beautifully drawn fairies for every flower imaginable.  Dinner is finally ready, and the corn is the best I have ever eaten.  Over dinner we discussed many things with Grandma Jean, including the walk, though nothing is offered or questioned about our state of exhaustion.  After our meal, plates piled high with empty corn cobs litter the table.  I go to bed with a warm, pleasantly full stomach.  In the brief moment before sleep swallows me whole, I think about Grandma Jean and the walk.

Years later, I laugh to myself when I think of the image that the word “grandma” conjures: an elderly white-haired lady who bakes cookies and wears sequined sweatshirts.  Grandma Jean doesn’t fit the implied meaning of “grandmotherly,” but she isn’t any less of a grandmother because of it.  She just has a different way of doing things, like strolling the width of an island on her Sunday afternoons.  Ever since that day, walks with Grandma have never been more than a few miles.  Maybe she noticed more than I thought she did.

*1)  Dust?  Surely not in my house!

*2)  I can’t believe that I only gave the girls a half a sandwich for lunch, but Jena said this is so.  Maybe because I knew they still had a long way to walk and didn’t want them to get stomach cramps.  I should have taken some nuts and raisins!  Bad on me!


Haha! This is great. You left out the best part, though. I distinctly remember shortly after we stumbled into the house at the end of the day, GJ asked if we wanted to go see a Shakespeare play that night. I think it was Henry the something.  Jena and I politely fake-considered the offer before declining. Ha!

No need to apologize, GJ – it was a great experience and one Jena and I got to bond over for sure!