Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Missing Grandma

One of the good things about camping out at my parents' house is that they've been telling me family stories I've never heard before.  Maybe they decided I was finally old enough to hear them.  Or maybe they've just reached the age when they're more interested in the past than the future.

Tonight they were talking about my father's mother.  She died shortly after I graduated from college, so she was an important presence the entire time I was growing up.  Grandma came from a large family; she was the daughter designated to remain single in order to care for her father and uber-demanding mother in their declining years.  (My great-grandmother declined for a very long time; she was apparently one of those professional invalids common in Victorian times.  According to Dad, "deciding to die" was her main hobby).  After dutifully falling in with these plans for many years, Grandma kicked over the traces in her late thirties and married my grandfather, a widower in his 50s with three sons, one only six years old.  Dad (her only child) was born a couple of years later.  When the family lost their farm during the Depression, she waited tables at a cafe, babysat, and hung wallpaper to make ends meet.  She was a warm and cheerful person, always ready to think the best of others.  She had a temper, but with a very long fuse.  Half of the residents of her small town called her Aunt even if she wasn't a real relative.

Because my grandfather was so much older, his oldest son (my uncle Clarence, known for mysterious reasons as "Beanie") was only six years younger than Grandma.  Uncle Beanie never married and lived with Grandma until he died in his early 60s.  For as long as I can remember, he always called Grandma "Ma" and treated her as if she was in fact his mother.  What I hadn't known until tonight was that he and my grandmother were actually in school together; it was a one-room schoolhouse, and Grandma's parents kept her home so often (someone had to do the baking and the laundry) that although she was very bright she wasn't really able to keep up with the others in what should have been her proper grade level.

That started me wondering.  Were Grandma and Uncle Beanie friends when they were young, or did the six-year age gap and Grandma's status as a miniature adult preclude any such thing?  How did my grandparents meet?  What did Beanie think when his father announced his interest in my grandmother?  Was he pleased to have an old acquaintance joining the family?  Upset that his mother was being replaced rather quickly after her death?  Jealous of either or both of my grandparents?  They are all long gone now, so I suppose the answers are lost in the mists of time.

The other thing I hadn't realized until tonight was that Grandma had to drop out of school entirely after the sixth grade.  I never would have known that had Mom not mentioned it.  Although she didn't accumulate books the way I do, Grandma was a reader, too, and kept on reading even when she had to hold the large-print books a few inches from her nose.

I hope that when I am gone, people will remember me at least half as warmly as everyone who knew my grandmother remembers her.

"What children need most are the essentials that grandparents provide in abundance.  They give unconditional love, kindness, patience, humor, comfort, lessons in life.  And, most importantly, cookies."  ~Rudolph Giuliani

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