Memories.


I’ve been remembering a lot of stuff about my great-grandmother this week, and I thought I’d share it with you. I’d like to have made some beautiful, cohesive post that showcased her strength and character, but I don’t have it in me, so it’s going to be in list format.

+ My great-grandmother had a small collection of dolls that her daughters (my grandmother and great-aunt) played with as girls. Most of them were missing limbs, eyes, or hair; all of them were ancient, dingy, and to a weird kid like me — gorgeous. She offered to find someone to fix them, but I turned her down. We spent hours upon hours playing with those dolls; my favorite game was some combination of doll hospital and doll boarding school, during which the one doll with all her limbs had to rush about frantically taking care of the other dolls, who had tragically been injured. There was a small collection of clothes for the dolls, most of which my Grammy had made herself; a few sets of clothes were modeled after her own daughters’ Bluebird outfits… which she’d also made herself, way back when that was just what you did. When we played the dolls, Gram would tell me stories about my grandmother and my great-aunt; stories about their Bluebird campfires and what subjects they liked in school, what it was like to raise kids in the ’40s and how proud she was of them, their whole lives.

+ I had a deep and abiding belief in fairies as a kid. I spent… oh, almost every waking minute in my great-grandmother’s garden, happily dismantling her flowers to make fairy clothes. Sometimes we’d get up at 4:00 in the morning and go outside to blow bubbles, which I thought were fairy coaches. She never made fun of me or scolded me for tearing up her flowers. She did, however, teach me how to grind flower petals between two flat rocks to squeeze out the pigment and use it for paint… or fairy makeup.

+ When I was a kid I had ridiculously long hair. Butt-length, thick, fine, and weirdly wavy, my hair was a huge pain. I hated to have it brushed because it inevitably took forever and was painful, so when my great-grandmother got the brushing chore, she’d sit me down with clay and paper and a pencil while she tidied me up. I would make something out of the clay, we’d come up with a story about it, and then she’d help me write it down. She insisted that these stories, product of a kindergarten mind, were brilliant, and she even typed some of them and bound them with plastic spirals and laminated covers. I don’t think I’d be a writer today if it wasn’t for her encouragement, which took this form and many others, and was always consistent.

+ She enjoyed a cup of strong coffee every morning and I was fascinated by her favorite mug. My great-grandfather had been a Navy man, and the mug Grammy used for years was blue and white, with a picture of a man in a little rowboat on it. Underneath the picture were the words, “Old sailors never die; they just get a little dinghy!” She explained what a dinghy was and the dual play on words (dingy, as in ding-dong loopy; dingy, as in musty and dim), but the cup was always kind of mysterious to me anyway.

+ She collected old cup-and-saucer sets, real porcelain and china jobs with delicate shapes and beautiful designs painted on them. She kept them in the only honest-to-goodness china cabinet I have ever seen, and she let me take my favorites out and use them during my innumerable tea parties. Aside from that, she bought me a real child’s tea set to use — I read about them in books, but I was the only kid I knew who ever actually had one. She’d sit down with me for these tea parties and let me serve real tea, cheese and crackers, and sometimes cookies.

+ She went to church for several years, though not always, and on Sundays she’d let me pick out her outfit. She had a green blouse with tiny white flowers and a calf-length black skirt that were my top choices every week, and she never quibbled about wearing them. She was small and slender, with regal white hair and bright blue eyes, and she laughed when I told her how beautiful she looked.

+ Of course, she was more comfortable in her standard sweatshirts, t-shirts, shorts, and slacks. She spent a lot of time in her garden, not dabbling but really working, and her clothes were often dirt-smudged and leaf-stained. One of her sweatshirts had a picture of a chocolate Siamese cat on it, which I thought was a marvel because she had a chocolate Siamese cat named Sebastian who was identical to the cat on the shirt. She used to let me wear the shirt to sleep long after Sebastian had died because I thought he was somehow in the shirt and might be lonely at night.

+ When I was about three, one of her friends brought over a little gray Lhasa Apso he’d found running wild. The dog was filthy, with briars tangled in her long hair, and she was terrified. When I came in to see the dog she ran up to me and huddled in my lap. It was love at first sight and my great-grandmother kept her, putting in hours of effort to clean her up and train her (not to mention what must have been hundreds of dollars for her shots and food and care) so that I could keep the little runt. I named her Amanda and she was my dog for years, even years when I was only at my great-grandmother’s house once or twice. She slept with me every night I was there, and Grammy never complained about keeping her.

+ Grammy believed in using Caress soap, Calgon bubble bath, and Mentadent toothpaste. She taught me to be rigorous about caring for my teeth because she had lost most of her own, and she taught me to be careful about hygiene. I still use Caress and Calgon and Mentadent; no matter what else has come out over the years, I can’t shake my trust in these products. She also believed in real (whole) milk, eating good meat or no meat at all, canning your own vegetables and making your own jam, and rinsing her drinking glasses in cold water even though it left spots. Guess how I run my kitchen today?

+ She had a big, sturdy desk in the living room, and it seemed like such a grown-up affair to me. One drawer was full of stamps and paper clips and pens; one drawer contained nothing but hundreds of cards and address labels and things that she had been sent by mailing lists over the years; another drawer functioned as her filing cabinet. She let me play at the desk pretty much whenever I wanted, sorting through the various address labels and marvelling at all the old stamps. She had a set of one-cent stamps that were blank, and she used to let me draw tiny pictures on them and affix them to letters she sent. I thought draw-able stamps were the coolest thing ever, and I half-thought Grammy must be magical for having them — I’ve never seen them anywhere else.

+ She knew how to make killer paper dolls. She’d take a piece of cardboard, make a few quick penstrokes, and there would be a pretty girl all ready for me to cut out. She taught me how to draw clothes to fit the doll, complete with tabs, then color them and cut them out. We could play paper dolls forever, and although I sometimes got books of “real” paper dolls, they were never as much fun as the ones she drew for me.

+ My great-grandmother owned three buildings: her house, a garage/studio apartment combo she called the annex, and a smaller house she rented out. When there was nobody staying in the annex, she’d pull all the furniture aside so that I could roller-skate on the polished tile floor. She brought in her record player and let me skate, sometimes with friends, to Bing Crosby. Roller rinks were never, ever as much fun. Sometimes she let me sleep out in the annex and pretend I was a grown-up with my own apartment, but she always came out to check on me at midnight and at 3:00.

+ For several years she kept a “layaway” system for me out in the annex, too; a set of sturdy boxes where she packed away old toys and left them to languish until I tired of the ones I played with every day. When we rotated the toys, my child’s brain had totally forgotten the ones in the boxes… but I remembered them just enough to know they were fun. Nothing new has ever matched up to the excitement of these old things, rotated every few months. I’ve picked up the habit in my adult life, too, stashing away things I don’t use much and pulling them out on a rainy day for reassessment. It’s still pretty thrilling.

+ When she knew I was coming for a visit, Grammy would stock up on Goldfish crackers, sharp cheddar cheese, pretzels, and homemade cookies. These were my favorite snacks, and things we didn’t often see at home. It was a little thing, but it was so nice.

+ She paid for my swimming lessons every year. Each summer I’d go stay with her for two weeks and she’d walk me to and from the pool for my lessons in the mornings, then to and from the pool for fun in the afternoons. I was a water baby, and she thought it was smart for kids to know how to swim. When I got home from my lesson she’d have a snack laid out on the back porch so I could get comfortable while my suit dried.

…. There will probably be more of these in the next couple of weeks. It’s just a general sort of outpouring, and it’s the only way I know not to be alone right now. Thanks for reading, guys.

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9 Responses to Memories.

  1. dedanna says:

    As always Sara, you speak so eloquently with words, the memories of Gram. I myself have many as well; a lot of them similar to yours throughout my life.

    It’s just that right now, I have so many memories that are all so so deep, and it’s very hard to express in words.

    My own outpouring is coming from my tears, at having lost the one person that I truly could call “Mother” and “Mom”, as that is who she truly was to me. She loved us so much, and what isn’t recognized, is how much we loved her.

    I know she is in a better place now, or so it’s said. The one question I have going through my head right now, is “when someone you love dies, are they gone forever?”

    I truly hope not.

    I feel bad in many ways; for all she did for me, I gave Gram a lot of hell throughout our lives, and am now seriously regretting it.

  2. RockyCat says:

    What beautiful memories! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Adri says:

    I love this entry, Sara. They’re beautiful memories, like RockyCat pointed out, and it’s a real privilege to read them. They’re also really inspiring, though, on top of that. Nine months later and I still haven’t found the words to express the experience of losing my grandmother. But I don’t think it’s the loss that we need to focus on, is it? Not when we were fortunate to have so many years packed to the brim with memories made and lessons learned.

  4. sarawr says:

    I think you’re right, Adri. I think not focusing on the loss is sort of impossible, but it’s important to also focus on the years and experiences and fun and love we had, too. I don’t think ignoring all that is a good way to honor these women who were so amazing. And I think your grandmother would be proud of you for recognizing that, and glad to know you’re still thinking about her and missing her.

  5. dedanna says:

    I think I may be ready to talk now.

    The main thing about Gram was that she was so so strong. She made it through a lot of serious hell as a child, as a teen, and as a grown woman, and through it all, she came out shining like the bright full moon, and the brightest sun. She was the glue that held the family together, even when she was in her own deepest darkest despair. She considered us all, be we cousins, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, as her own, and treated us as such. Imagine keeping a family together that spans the whole of the U.S., literally from Maine to California. She lived to be the first of a 5-generation line many times over. Connor, Sara, and I were in one of those 5-generation lines to her up until she died.

    In some of those 5-generation instances, she outlived people in generations below her, i.e., a grandchild would die, or a great-grandchild would die before she did.

    She was the best wife to a lazy functionally-alcoholic husband (but one can’t discount him; I still miss him to this day. I was the only grandchild that he even liked, much less loved, and he helped her to take care of me, once he retired; I still remember story-telling time and newspaper comic-reading time with him) that one could ever hope to have, and I’m sure he appreciated it until he died in 1988. She took the best care that anyone could of him, as she did all of us, which to me discounts any love-hate relationship between the two of them rumor-mongering. Sure, there were things they disagreed on; this happens in any marriage.

    When I was a child, I lived with her for the majority of my childhood life that I can remember anyway, while my mom went off to school and pursued her own aspirations in life. When I returned to my mom’s, I instantly wanted to go back to Gram’s, because I knew where I was really taken care of, and where I was really loved.

    Every year on my birthday, Gram would hold birthday parties for me, inviting the kids in the neighborhood in California. She would let me pick out the theme of the party, because my birthday is 2 days off from Halloween, so it would be like getting Halloween and birthday in one. Two of those parties stand out most in my mind. When I was four, I wanted to be Raggedy Ann, since she had lovingly made me (ever-so-perfectly, and ever-so-lovingly, I might add) a Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy doll when I was two years old, and guess what? I still have them to this day, she made them that sturdy. I should be so good at making them. She made the costume for that party.

    The other one was when I was 5 or 6 I believe. I was on a Batman kick, so the theme of the party was Batman. Again, she made the costume, and invited all the kids to join in with costumes of their own.

    I also remember how she was always there for me, and how she fought for me. At one time I became literally deaf, when I was 9. My mom thought I was faking the hearing loss to get out of doing chores, but Gram knew better, so she fought my mom to get me checked out. When my mom finally refused one too many times, Gram took me to an ear doctor, and sure enough, they found that even though I had my tonsils and adenoids taken out when I was 5, my adenoids had re-grown back over my eardrums, blocking my hearing. At that point, I was literally deaf. She showed the results to my mom, who finally consented to surgery to have the adenoids removed, and my eardrums opened at the same time.

    That is only one instance of the many many times she fought for me.

    Gram is still to this day, even though she is no longer here in the physical realm, a role model to me, and always will be. I just wish I could live up to that role as well as she did.

    Her own children’s assessment of her being a “martyr” I think are unfounded. She was just a very caring woman, who would go to any lengths for those who couldn’t. When they couldn’t, she would for them. She gave to charity on a regular basis, not just out of obligation, but because she believed.

  6. dedanna says:

    I must retract something I said about me being the only grandchild that my grandfather even liked, much less loved. He also had a soft spot for Sara, in particular when she was a baby. If I made one wrong move with Sara when she was a baby around him, I caught hell from him for it! Gram would just show me how to go about things the right way, but he would just lay down the law and say “you don’t do that; she’s a BABY.”

  7. dedanna says:

    As an addendum, there may be more as time goes on. I have 48 years of memories with my grandmother. It will take some time to put them together in a cohesive way.

  8. Anne says:

    I loved paper dolls as a kid. And my mum made the best (fabric) dolls clothes.

    Thank you for sharing these memories.

  9. lethal says:

    Great stories. I love you. Anxiously awaiting your return. xo

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