Elaine Lucille Armer
The most important lesson my grandmother ever taught me was that there is never one single answer to any question. To her there was always but one truth – it was how you looked at that truth that made all the difference.
My grandma loved to tell me about her childhood. A simple, magical time in which she was often in the care of her older siblings Don, Bob, and most especially, my aunt Dorothy. The kids roamed the hillside picking wild flowers, having picnics and reading poetry.
The gentle guidance of her siblings gave my grandma an early, extensive appreciation of the arts. She kept the sketches of her brother Bob in a keepsake box near bed. If I was on my very best behavior she’d take it out the box and we’d hold those impossibly thin sheets paper up to the streaming sunlight of her bedroom as if they artifacts in the Smithsonian. Don, she’d tell me, was mechanical genius, the kind of guy who could and would take apart anything and put it back together better than before, just for the fun of it. Dorothy, strikingly tall, eternally gentle – unless you moved her stuff – my grandma’s true soul sister, never have a more quietly mischievous pair existed. Least we never forget the infamous wrapping paper fight of Christmas 2004 -- in which aunt Dorothy most subtly gathered up one perfect ball of wrapping paper, wound up her arm, and fired the first shot – to which my grandma finally threw up her arms and sighed, “Well, ok, then.” Armery chaos as usual.
Of course, like so many of their generation, caught in the harsh shadow of the Great Depression, my grandma and her siblings grew up poorer than poor. Non-Mormons on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, the mixed family was often isolated by the societal misunderstandings of a different era. Christmases of perfect Orange Oranges actually meant the only fruit the children would see all year. “Magic butter” was just lard that needed to be colored by hand via a yellow dye packet that came with the bucket.
She’d always hold a place in her heart for Salt Lake but when she’d moved to Tempe as a teenager, the spirited presence that we always knew and loved truly blossomed into something of its own. She met truest lifelong compatriot, Merle, and the inseparable duo shook up the sleepy desert town. They appeared on radio shows, in school assemblies and even at high society events delighting the crowds with their smart humor and sweet harmonies. They had big dreams, they were going to Hollywood, they would be darlings of the stage and screen. Reality had other plans though. Merle went off to college and my grandma enrolled in nursing school.
I often wonder if the sisters at Saint Joseph’s began to question their vows when they took on my grandma’s class of mischievous students. Along with her kindred spirit, Anna, my grandma tested the nuns' faith and their medical knowledge with a stunning ability to sneak out undetected, stay out all night, and “sleep with their eyes open” in class the next day. Still, my grandma’s time at Saint Joe’s instilled in her two unshakable devotions; she was from then-on forever committed to both the church and to medicine.
Nurse McMaster was sharp and dependable, and she quickly worked her way up the ranks of the hospital. It was during her patient rounds in her early career that she met a quiet cowboy with eyes as blue and endless as the Sonoran sky. My Grandpa Frank instantly fell in love with my grandma’s sharp wit and love of all God’s creatures. They connected over a shared belief that the best cure for anything was quiet contemplation, wide open spaces, and clean, fresh air.
It wasn’t long before my Uncle Tom was on the way, and then, one right after the other, five more boys joined the crew. The Armery was born.
What can I say about this ragtag group of kids for whom clothing was always optional and property lines non-existent?
Uncle Tom, the ringleader, who took it upon himself to deliver the most spectacular display of pyrotechnics any neighborhood had ever seen each 4th of July. There was no greater thrill to my grandma than to call up to his office and have the secretary transfer her to DOCTOR Armer.
My Uncle Steve, our family’s representative member of the counter culture with an uncanny intuitive understanding of classical music which he shared with his mother.
My Dad, Jim, the gentle giant, who would begrudgingly try to take charge of his brothers because it's not like anyone else was going to do it.
My Uncle Pat, definitive proof that mischief is a genetic trait. If he's got that Elaine twinkle in his eye, just, uh, stay alert.
My Uncle Dan, the only person with the distinction of nearly being killed TWICE for mouthing off to my grandma. Who would’ve have thought that when he’d left his Mardi Gras bead collecting days in N'Awlins to come home to Albuquerque he’d become such a consummate caregiver for his mother? I will never in my lifetime see such an act of total love, complete devotion, and absolute compassion as the care that my Uncle Dan gave to his mother in her later years.
Tim. The baby of the family. He thinks he’s the favorite, but we all know he was just shielded from the repercussions of his outright Armerness by my grandma’s sheer exhaustion. His youthful exuberance provided the comic relief to an otherwise challenging existence.
If you’re keeping count that’s six. Boys. If you know the Legend of the Armer Boys, you already knew that.
Maybe another thing that got lost in the story is that my grandma raised those six fine boys all on her own. My grandfather’s rancher’s lifestyle meant that he was only in town for brief visits throughout the year, his untimely death made my grandma a widow with nothing but her wits and her kids, all at the age 39.
Should I also mention that this was all BEFORE women’s lib?
My grandma, of course saw that one truth. She had but one goal: to survive. She gritted her teeth, put on some pink lipstick, held her head high, and just laughed it off. She refused to look on anything but the bright side of things, because even God she said, had a sense of humor.
And, maybe just to see if she could make God laugh, my grandma would, every Sunday, attempt the impossible and try to reign in the chaos of those six boys. Making it to church just barely on time, the only pew left was that one in the very front row. So, she’d stick out her chin and sit with her in that front pew with those six boys like it had been reserved just for them.
My grandma always told me she liked the front row because it was the best way see everyone’s shoes when they went to communion.
It was my grandma’s way of tackling those larger things in life.
A few weeks after my cousin Sarah’s wedding, I asked my grandma if she’d heard from Sarah:
“Well, she’s got my fertility,” she said.
When she dropped sandwich during a picnic at White Sands:
“Welp, it’s not that different than salt,” she said.
“Well, I guess those nurses are doing an alright job without real training.”
She taught me to focus on the good details, the finer things in life. Petit fours and tiny glasses of Kahlua at Christmas. The delight of warm cashews on an unexpected first class flight. The importance of good seats in a well-designed space – it helps to have buddy like Gil in the orchestra to get those seats comped. The way the sun ends each day by shattering itself on the Sandias. Lilacs in the spring. Humming birds buzzing for nectar. The laughter of children outside your bedroom window – after you’d finally just decided to lock them outside for the rest of the day.
Today, as I find myself in the throes of incomprehensible grief, trying to to figure out how to say goodbye to the incredible spirit who shaped me in ways I have still yet to understand, I will try my very best to focus on the bright side of things. I will embrace the gift of my grandmother because it’s the only way I know to survive her profound absence.