I had a few requests to put together a writeup like this on Grandma Bell after I did the same a few years ago for my other grandma, Cleo “Granny” Glanzer. Granny, however, was probably a lot easier to write about, as she was one of the most eccentric characters I have ever encountered, and had lived directly next-door to her of nearly half of my life. Nevertheless, Grandma Bell deserves a writeup, and a writeup she shall have!
Grandma and Grandpa Bell lived in the small town of Doland, a 30-minute drive from our house, from well before the time I was born in 1982. Uncle Stuart also lived in the Bells’ house with an adjacent bedroom. Going to their house in Doland was always quite the excitement. Despite Doland being a town of about 300 people, it was still 290 people more than Carpenter had! Visiting the Bells meant trips to the Doland school playground, the park, a big gravel pile near the park, the local cafe, the post office, the Cenex, and even the bank, where Grandma Bell worked during much of the 1980s. I distinctly remember Grandma Bell bringing us home big reams of green and white striped bank printer paper to draw on! Doland had some eccentric stuff of its own, from a house down the street from the Bells that was mostly built underground to the childhood home of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
Doland aside, the Bells’ house was always full of adventure too. Any occasion we would visit, Grandma Bell had presents for each kid. Even if it was Jordan’s birthday, you could be assured Alex and I would have a present to open as well, possibly due to a past meltdown, or maybe out of sheer kindness. Of course the big annual highlight was Christmas Day at the Bells’. Grandma Bell usually went above and beyond with her Christmas decorating, topped off with her fake snowy white tree. After our own Christmas mornings at home, we would head to Doland for the daytime. Us kids would race out of the car and upstairs to open our stocking right away, with the rest of the gifts to be saved for after we’d eaten. Every year Stuart captured the gift madness on video camera, and every year was pretty much the same. The kids tearing into gifts. Dad spending all afternoon long on the floor assembling the gifts. Grandpa Bell, Great Grandpa Bell, and any other elderly male family members passed out cold, snoring up a storm on the couch. And Grandma Bell in the kitchen, first preparing the meal, barely sitting down to eat a single bite, then serving dessert, cleaning the table, and doing dishes. Just as she would finish, someone would want more cake or something and she’d be back on serving duty. Before we knew it, she would be preparing the next meal. She really did seem to enjoy being in the kitchen. She was a very good gift-giver! I remember her striking out on finding any San Diego Chargers gear for me locally, so she made me a homemade Chargers sweatshirt. No Christmas or birthday was complete without the gift of a US savings bond. Getting $25 or $50 savings bonds seemed boring at the time, but I wound up cashing them in in 1998 and buying my first car! I remember one Christmas one of us kids getting a sled, and having no nearby hills, Grandma took us out for a ride by pulling all three kids down the side of the road on the pavement on a thin layer of snow. Even in her prime she was a pretty dainty woman. I was probably only 8 or 9, but I remember feeling a little guilty making her pull us as she huffed and puffed, the sled scratching down the road with us.
Going up to Doland and staying with the Bells for a couple nights, for whatever the occasion was, was always a thrill too. Much fun could be had on their upstairs bannister that overlooked the basement steps. We could drop toys or balls back and forth down that staircase for hours! They would fold down the couch bed upstairs for us to sleep on. They lived along a highway, and it was always fun to hear traffic going by at night. Us having grown up on a farm, of course, there was no traffic, so by comparison it felt like we were in a metropolis! We would also be awoken by the donging of the Bells’ grandfather clock at the top of each hour. A big perk of staying with the Bells was they had more than just two TV channels! I don’t recall if they had cable, but they at least got PBS, which meant they had access to shows like Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock—stuff that did not make its way to our Carpenter antennae. Another highlight of the Bells’ house was hide and seek. I must have had Grandma Bell hide me in her broom closet hundreds of times over the years. Jordan mentioned it on her Facebook post, but her little tea parties were fun for all. She had a nice set of tiny doll-sized plates and stuff and it was fun for even the boys to enjoy the miniature sized meals. They always seemed to have some amazing toy stashed away that we’d only get to play with on rare occasions, like Omagles or giant Tinker Toys. They had so many things that seem ridiculously normal now that were just totally foreign to me back then and seemed really impressive—a bathroom scale with the little centering bubble, rain barrels, a roll-down desk, TV trays, a stock room with canned good to last out an apocalypse, and Grandma Bell’s bedroom closet with hundreds of dresses and business suits all covered in plastic.
As for Grandma Bell herself, she was a fairly reserved lady, at least by comparison to her husband. While Grandpa Bell always had us in hysterics with his funny voices, songs and jokes, Grandma Bell was mostly just a very nice, sensible, frail lady who was good for conversation and was great at feigning immense interest in any little thing one of us kids would do (or maybe she really was genuinely interested?). She was very sharp and never showed many signs of deteriorating mentally, that I saw, though she did always stumble on names—she always thought I had a friend named Edward for some reason. Amongst Grandma Bell’s most memorable talents and traits was her cleanliness. Like I said, the kitchen would never be anything but spotless. Every nook and cranny of her house was well vacuumed and dusted, probably weekly. She also was a good cook, known especially for her angel food cake and rhubarb desserts. She always seemed to have a cup or mug or thermos of coffee in-hand at any time of day. Despite her tiny frame, she knew no limits when it came to manual, physical labor. Anything from pushing a lawn mower to shoveling snow to repairing shingles on her roof was a normal occurrence, well into her 80s. But with it came constant injuries. To get a huge cut on her leg, gouge her eye, burn herself or break a bone seemed like normal, almost expected things to happen to her. And of course there were her beloved Denver Broncos. Me being a Chargers fan within her division, she and I struck up a bit of a friendly rivalry, one that she usually came out ahead on. I don’t know too many old grandmas who religiously followed pro football, but she sure loved the Broncos, as well as Peyton Manning even when he was on the Colts. So she was really head over heels when Peyton went to Denver and won a Super Bowl late in his career. In my fifth grade class project where we all had to cover an NFL team, Grandma Bell would be sure to clip any news about the Chargers out of her Aberdeen newspaper.
The very most memorable occasions with Grandma and Grandpa Bell were definitely the summer trips up to Aberdeen to StoryBook Land. Aberdeen, a city of 20,000 people just 90 minutes away, was nonetheless a major trip for us. Once per summer, probably from 1987 through 1994 or so, we would pack up the Bells’ Oldsmobile with a picnic lunch and make the trek up to Aberdeen. StoryBook Land was the most magical place on Earth, as far as I was concerned. You could go into all the storybook houses like the shoe from The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, the pumpkin from Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, and a big castle. One year I went to get into their car after it sat in the hot sun while we were at StoryBook land, and when I sat on the scalding leather seats in my shorts I leapt up and yelled “Holy Toledo!” quoting Pokey from Gumby. For some reason that really stuck with Grandma Bell, who I had never seen laugh harder, and she would bring it up year after year. I have been back to StoryBook Land once since those good old days, and it actually holds up! It isn’t one of those places that seemed amazing then, but is kinda lame, or small by comparison now. I was very excited to take baby Johnny in 2015 and look forward to returning with Edie someday!
In 1997, we went on a big summer road trip caravan to Gatlinburg, Tennessee with the Bells for Uncle Brian’s wedding. In our Chevy Lumina minivan was our family, and in the other car were Grandpa and Grandma Bell and Stuart. The Bells did lots of big driving trips in what little healthy retirement years they had together, and were pretty predictable on the road. They wanted to make good time and weren’t very interested in stopping off anywhere, and would generally only pull over to fuel up and eat Burger King, then get back on the road. The same was true of 2000, when we went on a very similar road trip to Steamboat Springs for Grandma’s family reunion. Being nearly 18, I was allowed to bring two friends on the trip and chose my classmates Brandon Hanson and Kathy Brower. Grandma sure took a liking to those two, staying in touch with them personally after the trip.
The one big difference between Granny and Grandma Bell is that there are simply way more memorable, crazy Granny stories. She was far more quotable and had way more odd, eccentric behavior. No doubt decades from now we could be sitting around talking about all the crazy things Granny did. Part of that is because she was of course our next-door neighbor, but it’s mostly that she was just an over-the-top Cosmo Kramer type of character. With Grandma Bell, on the other hand, I am struggling trying to think of many particularly funny or interesting stories now! With her there are fewer individual moments that stand out, but broader personality traits or mannerisms. She was of course along on those big road trips, but never did or said anything that stands out much outside of the many predictable coffee spilling incidents!
After moving to Minnesota after college in 2005, I probably only visited her house in Doland five or six times after that. Grandpa Bell passed away in 2007, and I visited for the memorial service. In 2010 there was a family reunion of sorts at Stuart’s house. And I remember stopping by in 2013 and again in 2015. That quick stop on the way back from Aberdeen in ’15 with Lauren and Johnny was likely the final time I would ever visit the old house! In 2009, Grandma Bell was able to venture to Minneapolis to be a candle lighter in our wedding ceremony, along with Lauren’s grandma Joyce. Grandma continued to live by herself at her house with Stuart nearby up until a couple years ago, when she was forced to move in with Mom and Dad on the farm, unable to care for herself anymore. There is a memorable picture from recent years of me and Grandma Bell standing side-by-side: me hulking over her, as I do most everyone, at 6’7”, 255 lbs., and she, shrinking seemingly by the day, down to around 4’10” and well under 90 lbs, nothing more than skin and bones.
Much like several other family deaths in recent years, this one too happened while we were amongst friends or family. When we heard the news of Granny’s death in 2015, we were in Mexico with the Walshes. When Lauren’s grandma Joyce died in 2018, Aunt Alice was in Austin staying with us. This time, Grandma Bell’s passing coincided with Dad and Emmy visiting us in Austin. She was my last living grandparent, and John and Edie’s last living great-grandparent. Edie would have met her only as a tiny baby when we were back for Christmas.
I guess in the end, Grandma Bell lived 90 years and just barely hung on to see her 11th decade, bookending both 20s decades. She will be best remembered for her extravagant Barbie doll collection, lavish Christmas celebrations, coffee drinking, unlucky injuries, and disdain for Donald Trump. She shall be missed!