Go-Cart Grandma

Go-Cart Grandma

From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul

Go-Cart Grandma

The best hearts are ever the bravest.

Lawrence Sterne

When Grandma Emma Kobbeman’s husband died during the Great Depression in 1932 she was just forty-two years old with five children ranging from twelve to twenty-three years old. From that day on, she struggled with poverty, single parenting and trying to find work with a fourth-grade education. She struggled, but she never lost her sense of humor or her spirit of adventure.

By 1960 Emma was a grandma with twenty-four grandchildren, all of whom lived close to her in northern Illinois. During the late forties, fifties and early sixties we’d gather often for a huge family picnic in a park not far from her home. This beautiful park along the shores of the Rock River was filled with Indian lore and bordered the home of Grandma’s oldest child, my aunt Helen, and her six children.

One of those family picnics remains crystal clear in my memory. As Grandma’s five children, their spouses and her two dozen grandchildren arrived, carrying enough food for Chief Black Hawk’s entire army, we spread out among the tall pine trees to enjoy the day. Grandma, of course, presided over the festivities from her folding lawn chair, giggling at the antics of whatever baby happened to be the youngest member of our sprawling family.

Perhaps she ate too many sweets that day and was on a sugar high, or maybe it was the sight of her entire immediate family gathered together that made her feel especially frivolous. Whatever it was, we held our breath when Grandma made the announcement with her hands on her hips and a twinkle in her eye that she was going for a ride on my cousin’s go-cart. She walked straight over to the go-cart and announced in a loud, clear voice to her eldest grandson, “Larry, show me how to run this thing.”

Larry had built it from scratch. The body looked rough, but the engine was a piece of mechanical art that would have made Mario Andretti proud. When Grandma Kobbeman plopped her ample backside down onto the wooden seat and then stepped on the accelerator with her heavy brown oxfords, that little engine threw itself into world cup competition.

We cousins watched from a distance as she outran us in the first ten seconds. Grandma whizzed past three dozen giant pine trees, flew across the makeshift track Larry had made and then sailed right into the park’s baseball field. She would have made a home run except she missed second base by fifty feet. She barely missed the popcorn stand and then headed straight for a forested area that led directly to the river. Both arms flailed in panic as Grandma’s heavy oxfords pressed even harder onto the accelerator. She yelled, “Stop this thing! How do I get it to stop?”

As she headed for a row of poplars, narrowly missing two oversized oak trees, she must have experienced total body panic. Both of her legs shot out in front of her as she released them from their death-grip on the gas pedal. She quickly came to an abrupt halt in front of the sacred Indian mounds at the edge of the water. Chief Black Hawk would have been proud.

Grandma walked back to the picnic area, gathering up steam for the next two hours, during which time she barely took a breath while she told and retold the story of her go-cart adventure to all the relatives and even some strangers who happened by.

For a woman who grew up on a small farm in Illinois and watched our country change from horse-and-buggy to men-on-the-moon, Grandma had adapted remarkably well. The automobile, airplane, indoor plumbing, industrialization, mass production, frozen foods, space travel, civil rights and women’s rights were all born during her lifetime. From horse-carts to go-carts, Grandma displayed a keen sense of humor, an unbridled spirit of adventure and a deep faith in God that I will always be glad is part of my heritage.

Somehow, as I walk through this world as a single parent, I draw strength from Grandma Emma. I have raised four spirited children of my own and am now a single grandmother of eight. I’ve ridden an alpine slide down a steep mountain, put my life in my daughter’s hands on the back of her motorcycle on a busy California highway, snorkeled in two oceans, taken a sunrise flight in a hot-air balloon over the Arizona desert, and traveled alone for two days on two planes and two buses to arrive in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to attend the wedding of a woman I’d met only once.

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve just begun. I think Grandma Kobbeman would approve heartily that I hope to go parasailing, explore the African continent, hike the Great Wall of China and go white-water rafting. I can almost hear Grandma up there cheering me on, “There’s no way we want to stop this thing!”

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