Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2004 | Features

Blame Grandma

By Stephanie Sorensen

I blame Grandma Arlene. If possible, I’d stay at hotels and eat in restaurants every night. I’d love it. And she’s the one who started feeding my little affair; Grandma managed a “Ho-Jo’s.”

I don’t know who Howard Johnson was, but he knew how to make a motel. His orange tile roofs and electric blue siding represented freedom to me and, to a little kid, that was pretty cool. My sister Angie and I had the run of the place—the pool and patio, gift shop, Grandma’s office, the connected restaurant. And we most definitely had the run of Grandma’s heart.

For kids, we had quite the pull. Mom would try to keep us under control and in one area when she stopped to see Grandma on our pass through town. Grandma Arlene knew better. She saw in our eyes the need to run up and down the halls, following close on each other’s heels. Mom would say, “No,” but Grandma would smile down at us, nodding her okay when Mom looked elsewhere. Grabbing a handful of caramels from the dish on the front counter, we would race off to find our next pit stop.

Dashing down the hall on the blue casino-like carpet, I would enter another world. I’d forget about everything and anything else around me. Inside the motel, I had all I’d ever need as a child. Why acknowledge anything outside of it? I was at Grandma’s Howard Johnson’s.

Moving full speed down the hall, Angie and I would freeze when someone came out of a room and smile sweetly. The guest would look past us, searching out our adult supervision, and we’d continue to walk by as if we were innocent. Once the person turned a corner, we were off running again and laughing as if we’d fooled the world.

Arriving at the corner of the L-shaped motel, we would hit the center of all the action—the pool. The trail of shoes and socks we left behind always led Mom and Grandma to find us. If we weren’t allowed to swim that day, Angie and I would wade in the roped-off shallow end with our pants hiked up to our knees. Just getting our feet wet was a luxury.

Grandma and Mom would sit and chat in the lime patio chairs until Mom decided it was time to go. Pool time was never long enough. Pouting while getting out, we would move our entourage into the housecleaning quarters to get a fresh warm towel and a cold pop. I felt on top of the world. Life was good.

Closing my eyes tight, I can see the scene so clearly that I feel as if I’m back at Ho-Jo’s again. I can feel the worn carpet under my feet, hear the ice machine drop a batch of new cubes, watch the hot tub’s steam rise and disappear, smell the pool’s chlorine, and…I can see my Grandma Arlene. So happy, with a smile just busting from her round face, she made it clear how much she loved me. I only hope she knew how much she was loved and needed as well.

The last time I went home to Iowa and drove past the old Howard Johnson’s, I saw that it had been remodeled, repainted, and re-sided. It was the same building, but it might as well have been torn down and replaced with a gas station. It wasn’t the same. As I drove past with a heavy heart, I couldn’t help but wish for one more day inside our old motel.

I wanted one more birthday pool party. I’d invite the childhood friends I haven’t seen or spoken to in years. I’d include all our relatives, those now living far away and those no longer with us. Perhaps Mom and Grandma would make the food like they used to for the celebration. Even though it would take them weeks to plan and a full day in the kitchen to prepare, they never complained for a second that we gobbled it up in minutes.

Dad would be off playing cribbage with the guys at a table miraculously still dry and free from wet towels. Kids would play in the pool, Grandma would snap pictures, the women would gather ‘round in their pool chairs to chat. Sounds would echo off the walls, each noise layering over the last. But it was okay; it was our hangout.

Or maybe instead of a pool party, we’d just go to the motel’s restaurant and eat. Unlike having to be at the kids’ table during holidays, at Ho-Jo’s Angie and I got to sit with the adults: we could order anything off the menu, not just something from the children’s menu. Usually the restaurant manager would come over to sit with us. The cook would come out from the kitchen to say hello. It would take all of Mom’s "because-I-said-so” glares to keep me from standing in the booth to do a happy kid dance. On these occasions, I felt quite important. I wanted everyone in the restaurant to know that it was because I was with my Grandma Arlene.

Or maybe it would be a quiet Saturday, and I’d spend the afternoon in the gift store just being with Grandma. She’d be busy doing the store’s books or dusting the shelves. Instead of asking me to help her clean, she’d let me “shop.” I knew every little thing that filled the small store. That was my job. Magazines and books—things I could read when I was “bigger.” Souvenir mugs, placemats, postcards, and collector’s spoons—all would bear the word “Iowa” somewhere. Things for us—crayons and coloring books, puzzles, cars and dolls, a hand puppet or two. And, at the center of it all, an eye-level shelf stocked full of enough candy to make any kid drool.

Throughout our day together, whether hanging out in the store or somewhere else in the motel, I’d make a mental list of what I’d choose if Grandma had a weak moment and allowed me to pick one or even two goodies from her gift shop. At the time, I thought I was suckering Grandma and getting exactly what I wanted, but as I look back I don’t remember leaving with much more than candy or gum. I guess Grandma was a fast talker, too.

And now as I open my eyes, I realize I’m not there. I’m not back at Grandma’s motel. I’m not chasing my sister down the halls, splashing in the pool, ordering big-people food, or eating caramels. Although it doesn’t seem so, that was quite a while ago. A lot has happened in my life and among my family since those moments of sitting, talking, and laughing in one of the restaurant’s big orange booths. It’s been almost 15 years since Grandma Arlene died, and I don’t know how many years before that when the motel was sold.

As a child, I measured the length of a day or weekend by how much fun I had. A year seemed like eternity. As an adult, I find myself grasping to hold onto time, no matter how it is spent. When no one’s looking, I often count backwards on my hands to determine the number of years passed since this or that occurred.

Maybe I did enter a different world each time I placed my little feet inside that Howard Johnson’s doorway. Greeting us when we walked in and smiling as we began our race down the hall, Grandma maybe knew that as well. She knew we wouldn’t be little kids for very long. Perhaps she even knew she wouldn’t be around long either. I know now that Grandma’s heart was running beside us, her feet wading in the pool along with ours, her eyes lighting up as bright as ours.

After all these years, I have finally realized that it wasn’t staying at the motel or eating out in a restaurant that I fell in love with; it was being with the people around me. The irreplaceable time shared inside that orange building, even though it is gone, is what I now crave and hold dear in my heart. Whether any member of our family knew it, we each left Grandma’s motel with more than a hand full of caramels. Grandma Arlene knew it, too, and it’s all her fault.