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Monday, April 23, 2012

Grandmother's Are Dreamy

My grandmother's house in Corvallis, looking not much like
it did when she was alive.  Gone are the perfectly cone-
shaped trees on either side of the walk.  Also, none of the
flowers that she tended herself, all around the foundation,
and the old hydrangeas and irises under the windows.
Recently, reading a post on Susan Branch's blog, I was reminded of some of the fun times I had with my grandmother.  She wasn't what one would call a "cozy" grandma.  Yes, she knitted and crocheted up a storm, but the best you could hope for when it came to any handmade gift was the ugliest pair of crocheted slippers you could ever behold.  I know this might seem cruel - picking on the crafting tastes of the dear-departed, but I sometimes wonder if she knew this fact and was just waiting for someone to call her bluff.  It wasn't that she couldn't make beautiful things.  I can't begin to understand how she could translate complex patterns into doilies of every shape and size.  One of my favorites was bright yellow and green one that, when starched, looked just like a ring of daffodils.  And those pineapple shapes that always seem to be picked into these lace-like table linens?  Unbelievable.

My grandmother was much more than doilies, however.  She was, to me, simply fun.  She had a sometimes raucous sense of humor, laughing at surprising and slightly (and sometimes not so slightly) off-color jokes, and she taught me all sorts of important things.  For example, poker.  I was the only grandchild to spend the night with her in her later years and we'd stay up very late playing cards.  When my aunt or mother were around we'd play Canasta and Aggravation (on the board that my late grandfather had made many years before), but in the evening, it was penny poker.  We'd also watch Saturday Night Live together, sort of.  She'd be in her room and I'd be on the couch and we'd laugh at all the same parts - especially Dana Carvey's Church Lady character.

Her house was an absolute mess.  My mother tells me that for most of her childhood my grandmother was a strict housekeeper.  "A place for everything and everything in it's place."  My grandma once told me how she thought she annoyed her guests by following them around picking up after them (so, that's where I got it!).  By the time I was in the picture, her house was filled to overflowing with "stuff".  Paperwork, yarn, catalogs, piles of finished doilies (kept, rarely given away) bric-a-brac of many generations, magazines and books of crossword puzzles.  In fact, if you could manage to get a break from games, she had so much fun "stuff" that you could spend endless rainy Saturday's just looking.  One of the best things were the tabloids, of which my own mother didn't really approve...  there were often stacks of old  National Enquirer and Star and People magazines to read.  We never had those at home!  But the ultimate fun was heading upstairs with my aunt.  In the unoccupied rooms one could find trunks of family heirlooms to look through.  Boxes and boxes of letters and old pictures and vintage books and magazines.  It was an absolute treasure trove.  My aunt, truly one of the funniest people I know, and I would read the letters aloud, sometimes in crazy accents, sometimes "embellishing" them as we went along.  You could hear our laughter all the way downstairs.  When she was ready for us to come back to the dining room table to resume the games, she'd yell up the stairs, "What are you doing up there?  I didn't say you could go up there!"  She didn't really mind, she just wanted the fun to be where she was.

One of my favorite memories is actually from when I was much younger.  My grandma always had a "hangout".  A particular restaurant that she'd visit every day at the same time.  For ages it was Sammie's.  Sammie's never seemed to have any other customers, although I am sure they did.  You could find my grandmother there every afternoon, maybe with her friend Liz, but often just chatting to the waitress and cook.  She'd sit in the same booth by the window, long brown cigarette drooping from her mouth, drinking coffee out of thick, brown mugs.  I was always fascinated by the cigarette smoke as it spiraled up, up, up into the air, toward the high wooden ceiling of Sammie's A-frame dining room.  I'd sit and watch it curl upward while my mother and aunt and grandma talked.  Sometimes she'd by me an orange juice or, if I was really fortunate, a hot chocolate with whipped cream.  Even better were the butterhorns that I might convince her to buy.  Funnily, in all those years, I can't remember her ever eating anything herself.  Just talking and smoking and drinking coffee.  Years later, after she'd died, one of the waitresses told tell me how my grandma would love to help out, bussing the tables and getting people water or other little things if it was busy.

As I grew older, I think I developed a sort of special relationship with my grandmother.  She could be tricky, though.  I remember once, after she'd made some really good chocolate cookies (this had NEVER happened before in my lifetime), I told her that I'd love to have some for a birthday present.  Her response?  "Well, I wouldn't hold your breath!"  And, she was serious, sort of.  No, she didn't end up surprising me with any that year, or any other year, but I honestly didn't expect her to.  I didn't take it personally, it was just my grandmother being herself.  She'd had a very hard life, it was a wonder that she'd survived it as well as she had, and I loved her for it.

I don't think my grandma ever spent more than $5 on me.  Christmas, birthdays...  a $5 bill in a card.  And I was glad to get it.  There might have been a couple of exceptions - a subscription to Jack and Jill magazine and the most wonderful wooden store, filled with tiny wooden merchandise - canned foods, apples, cheese wedges, bags of flour and sugar, barrels of who-knows-what...  all in unfinished wood.  You really had to use your imagination with this toy, and I played with it for hours.

There is a point to this walk down memory lane...  In Susan Branch's story, she told of her mother's summer visits to her own grandmother - Susan's great-grandmother.  The fun was simple and homespun, and the lessons learned there were about such things as how to dream and how to make your dreams come true.  My own mother's stories of her summers on her grandmother's wheat farm in Washington are similar.  They include tales of helping her grandmother and aunts to cook for the farmhands at harvest time and, always, endless games of Canasta.  I love those stories, even now after I've heard them many times.  My own children will have similar recollections of my mom.  Like generations before, they all sit at her table, playing cards and drinking Pepsi and laughing, sometimes until the tears flow.

For some reason it seems that we now expect grandmothers to be cash cows...  buying clothes, cars and computers, taking trips and affording their grandchildren the luxuries their parents can't afford.  And, I suppose this generation of grandmother's is quite different than the one I enjoyed.  They're not white-haired ladies who play cards and gab with their friends, they're more likely to be career women with entirely different abilities and interests to share with their grandchildren.  Of course, there's not a thing wrong with that, the cooperation of the generations in rearing the adults of the future is a wonderful blessing.  But, afternoons of cards and Pepsi were awfully fun.

The key to this, if one is necessary, is that grandmothers can provide their grandchildren with so many wonderful memories, and the best ones are entirely free (OK, $5, tops).  They occupy a unique place - they knew one's parents when they were young, and just as silly, and they can take some of the pomposity out of them.  There's nothing better than to hear, "Well, when your mother was 12..." followed by some tale of woe and wrong-doing.  They can provide comfort and sympathy, all the time telling you that, in the end, you'd better mind you parents.

For all her idiosyncrasies, I adored my grandmother.  She was terrifically fun, and she was a pal.  I dream about her all the time to this day, and she's been gone for almost fifteen years.  I hope that when our children have kids of their own, I'll have the chance to follow a little of my own grandmothers example.

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