On Being a Gramma

Thinking about my position in the family—a grandmother of seven—carries me back to sweet memories of my own grandmother, Gramma Florence. Oh my, she still occupies a deep space within me, even though she’s been gone for nearly forty-five years. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if I fill my grandchildren’s hearts with as powerful a presence when it’s my turn to shuffle off to…wherever it is we go? 

Fingers crossed.

You see, Gramma Florence was a force to be reckoned with. And that’s because she was robust of spirit and body. Body to be sure. Grampa Webster used to say, “Florence, if you ever reach two hundred pounds, I’m leaving you!” I never knew if he really meant it. Figured he didn’t, so I never gave it much mind.  Nonetheless, she was seriously zaftig. Oh, but robust of spirit, too. She had this photo of Jesus over her bed whose eyes were closed, then suddenly—magically—they’d pop open and would follow me around the room. I could never understand that either until years later when I came to understand that all photos with eyes staring at you would follow you around the room. Still, it kind of freaked me out because that photo was scary as hell. Like a New Testament Elf-on-the-Shelf—with consequences. But under that picture every night—yes, well, whenever I was there—I could hear Gramma saying her rosary in a soft mumble as she rounded those wooden beads in prayer. 

Not everything about her was serious though. She laughed often—at herself, at me, and at my mother. The last being my favorite. Her very being made everything more bearable and definitely more fun. One time, she and my mother were in the kitchen preparing the Easter feast: leg of lamb, roasted potatoes, green beans amandine and, of course, Gramma’s orange jello mold with carrot parings suspended inside like muffled shouts. At one point, Mom, in her own inimitable way, sniped at Gramma, “Would you please step away from the oven door, Mother?” And Gramma looked at me as I stood in the kitchen doorway [idle, rarely helping], lowered her eyelids, raised an eyebrow and replied, “Yes, Mrs. Ricketts!” Which cracked me up. Which cracked Gramma up. And when Gramma laughed, she’d hold the bridge of her nose, close her eyes, and shake her head and shoulders like a bobblehead in motion. How I loved that laugh! And understood that Gramma’s sarcastic response to Mother’s snarky request revealed their eternally-engaged, keenly connected, occasionally tense relationship.

My own experiences with Gramma, however, were varied and many. When I was in high school, she taught me to sew, showing me how to work the foot pedal, to create a straight seam connecting scraps of fabric, to inset a sleeve, to insert a zipper and even to work my way around a tricky collar. She was patient and kind and laughed a lot at my mishaps. Even if I didn’t. Somehow her laughter and that maple-syrup love of hers smoothed over everything from my flagging confidence to my oh-so-serious fears. 

Perhaps this is what unconditional love looks like.

When young, I’d sometimes spend the night at Gramma’s house in Glenview. Gramma’s two-bedroom, yellow brick bungalow was small and cozy, and because Gramma and Grampa slept in separate bedrooms, sleeping quarters for overnight guests were limited. I thought it was rather odd that they didn’t share a bed, but I never questioned it. Or them. Children didn’t question adults back then. So, the only place any of us could sleep was up in their airless, musty, roof-slanted attic on creaky beds that lined the walls. My God, it was hot up there! I’d lie, trying to breathe, watching creepy shadows—created by waving branches in front of gold-shedding streetlamps—as they danced across the ceiling. Sometimes while lying there, I’d wonder how I’d ever get to sleep, but, somehow, I always did. If, however, I needed to tinkle during those restless nights, Gramma’s lidded casserole dish became my chamber pot. I’m guessing she put that out so I wouldn’t wake Grampa if I had to navigate those narrow attic stairs in the dark to use the bungalow’s single, first-floor toilet. 

After Grampa passed away, Gramma was ever-present at our Sunday dinners and known to shake up the conversation. “I’m voting for Nixon this election,” she’d say, ceremoniously plopping herself down in her place to the right of my dad. And then all hell would break loose from us flower children who ringed that rest of that venerable oak table. With the ruckus she created, you could see the delight sparkling in her amber eyes. Yes, they were amber. Amber as a nice pale ale or a tiger-eye marble. And, oh, how she prided herself on them! 

But that wasn’t her only physical peculiarity: there was another one built right inside her mouth. “The dentist said I have to take care of my teeth because he’d never be able to fit me with a bridge.” Then she’d tilt her head way back, open her mouth and point to the middle of her hard palate. And there grew a fiddle-shaped bony protrusion. All it seemed to need was a bow. I remember thinking this was a sign, that she was unique, marked like those born with the caul.

Beyond that, Gramma thought some of her anomalies were funny. Later in life, her knuckles became arthritic and bent all cattywampus weird. Even when I’d tease her about one particularly bent index finger—the top knuckle listing so far to the right it looked like it didn’t belong to that finger—she found it amusing. “Gramma, you could hitchhike holding that one finger out!” And she’d hold it out—crooked as a dogleg—and laugh at her aging hand.

And, oh, she had a story or two to tell. Perhaps the operative word here is “story.” Gramma had five children, but her firstborn, Jimmy came early and, as she told it, was small enough to swaddle in a man’s handkerchief. They didn’t have incubators in their small Tomahawk, WI town, so they heated bricks wrapped in flannel which surrounded his cotton-lined shoebox cradle. Then they placed him on the open door of a pilot-lighted oven to keep him warm. Oh, but that isn’t all to the story. Apparently, Gramma had inverted nipples after Jimmy’s birth, which needed to be brought out so tiny Jimmy could latch on. Well—according to her—they put a box of puppies underneath her bed, drew one out of the box when it was time for Jimmy to nurse, put the puppy to her breast and let him suck her nipple into ready-shape. 

Puppies under the bed! Puppies at the breast!  Can you believe it?  

Truth be told, we were never sure of its veracity. 

Her next son—Robert—was a lifelong Navy pilot who was stationed in Hawaii after WWII. Gramma and Grampa visited his family at least once. So taken by the native culture was she that she’d start performing hula-dancing hands at the drop of a hat once she came home, loving her own graceful beauty as she did. I could see it in those amber eyes and almost hear “Aloha Oe! We welcome you…” floating in the background when she’d move like that. 

But the rest of her body was note-worthy, too. Because above those rhythmic hands, lay her soft upper arms which looked and felt like Ziploc bags filled with whipped cream. She’d allow me to gently squeeze that sweet flesh, seeming to love that my small hands were languishing in her creamy elegance. And every time I got close to her, I’d breath in her talcum powder scent. If I commented that she smelled good, she’d say, “It’s me own natural smell!” And then, of course, she’d laugh. It wasn’t until I got older, that I discovered her scent came from the jar of Merle Norman cold cream that sat bedside on her nightstand.

One time, after still another Sunday evening dinner, when Gramma needed to be driven home, Dad flipped me the keys—always the job of whoever most recently got her driver’s license. Now, before I tell you this story, I have to explain that there was a lack of moral judgment about certain cultural behaviors—smoking and drinking to name two. No stigma was attached to either. So once we got into the car, Gramma pulled out her pack of the ever-present True-Blues and handed me two. “Light ‘em up!” she said to me. Well, I was thrilled. Thrilled! Safe inside our car’s rebellious sanctuary with Gramma—smoking and laughing—we rode the four miles to her house. Better than that, when we arrived, she invited me in and then—Oh my God, then—she asked me if I wanted a Scotch

Now, I ask you, what sixteen-year-old would turn that down? 

After pouring two, Gramma handed me one. And even though I could barely stand the Scotch’s acridy-smoky taste, I choked it down, sipping slowly, feeling my nose hairs burn, reveling in sharing a nightcap with Gramma.

There are so many more sweet memories of Gramma, but these have me wondering about a lot: is my relationship with my daughters also ever-engaged and keenly connected—if occasionally tense? Probably. Have I forged an alliance with my grandchildren—one of both kindred support and a crazy, kamikaze mirth when confronted by our common “enemy”? Perhaps. Has showing my granddaughters how to knit, how to make those no-sew, fleece TV throws bolstered their confidence or allayed their fear of failure? Lord, I hope so.

But, no, I haven’t offered anyone a True Blue or a Scotch. Not yet. Oh, and I probably never will. Nonetheless, I know the sanctity of doing something in collusion, in communion, with one’s grandmother. And how very special that is. 

I was blessed by my Gramma Florence’s very presence and carry her inside me every single day. Sharing these memories of her, I am blessing her, too. And I hope that my living presence will be cherished by my grandchildren long after I’m gone.

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