Monday, January 14, 2008


A while back I had a conversation with someone who had spent years in therapy, partly because of an unhappy childhood centered around her father. She confessed to me that she had few memories of her childhood.

This weekend we went to a play, premiering here in the heartland, containing stories told by a man about his grandmother, stories he fondly remembered and turned into a sweet morality play. The play was a little slow-moving and the grandmother was a typical Southern belle but all during it, I kept remembering my own grandmother.

My father's mother died when I was young -- six, actually -- and I have only vague memories of her. She was quite old and somewhat stern, but the feelings that surround her in my memory are of a kind woman who liked me. It's my mother's mother who stands out most vividly. I don't seem to have detailed stories about her life or about our lives together, but I have very strong emotional recollections surrounding her.

Though I have a lot of emotions tangled up with my childhood, I seem to have very few actual concrete memories. The ones I have almost all center around my granny that adored me, made me the center of her life, and helped me to create the person that I am today.

I know exactly how she looked. She was an old-fashioned woman who never cut her hair and wore it entwined in two braids around her head. She didn't wear make-up, except maybe a little powder. She always had a chapstick handy but I never remember her in lipstick. She wore a dress every single day. I never saw her in pants. She wore a corset -- not a girdle. The corset had stays and laces that she pulled tightly, even under her house dresses. She wore hose attached to the corset and lace-up mid-level heeled shoes, almost always in black. These, too, were worn even with the house dresses. She was dressed by six every single morning. Until she got sick in her early 60's, she prepared breakfast every morning of her life, unless she and Grandfather were traveling.

She lived next door to us when I was in grade school and I walked to her house nearly every day for lunch. On Saturday she fixed pancakes for lunch and would let me drop the batter onto the griddle and flip the pancakes. On Sundays we had dinner at her house after church. These were formal affairs, eaten in the dining room, with Grandfather carving and the Haviland china place settings.

Nearly all holiday dinners were at her house. During Christmas week we ate every dinner there, in formal splendor. Christmas presents were opened in her living room. Easter dinner was at her table. On Valentine's Day she had a special box in which we deposited our cards to be opened after the family dinner. Every holiday and special occasion brought me tiny treasures, a new outfit, a bag of licorice drops, and a special piece of jewelry.

Granny didn't drive but those were the days of the milkman, the egg man, and the Manor bread man. They delivered, as did the grocery story Granny would call twice a week for her roasts and fruits and vegetables. As super markets became more prevalent, sometimes my family drove her to the store and once Grandfather retired, they went to the market often, dropping the expensive delivery stores.

I was her only grandchild and she invested all her love and ambition in me. She made me dresses and costumes. She bought me all the pretty clothes I owned as a child. When I failed in school, she tutored me. It was Granny who found that in the eight grade I had never learned to multiply and thus couldn't do long division either. She taught me, hour after hour, after school and on Saturdays and Sunday nights, until I could pass both Algebra and Geometry.

She was very religious. She didn't have more than a high school education. She came from a very poor family. She was older than most her age when she finally married into a working class family that had made money during early part of the 20th century and continued to make it during the Depression. She never lived in luxury but she was comfortably well off by the time I came along. She didn't like to travel, but because her husband and her son-in-law did, she saw to it that everyone had wonderful summer vacations.

Granny died during my 17th year from a brain tumor. My grandfather thought she was having a nervous breakdown and the doctors couldn't find out what was wrong. My family kept me away because Granny was having hallucination's and doing odd things. I remember, though, being in her hospital room at the end, being told to rub her hands because she was so cold. We couldn't warm them, though, and my clearest memory was of how frightened her death made me. I'm not sure, but I think I was standing there rubbing her hands when she died.

I wish now, that I had some of the knowledge of life that I have now. However, I think Granny had left me long before the rubbing. I hope so, anyway, because if not, I failed her at the end. I couldn't love her in that hospital room and I was totally selfish -- I was only deeply afraid of how empty life would be without her there to love and care for me.

My own childhood memories could never write the play I saw this weekend. I don't know the stories of my childhood but I do clearly remember the love of my grandmother. She was, and has been, the anchor of my life.

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