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.