Sunday, May 13, 2012

May 13, 2012: "(Grand) Mother's Day"

Like most of you, I knew two grandmothers. My paternal one, Mary, was a tiny, stern-faced, no-nonsense matriarch who ruled her super-clean, "absolutely-no-pets-allowed-EVER!" kingdom with an unsmiling hand. She lived only four blocks away from us, but our obligatory ventures to her house were as infrequent as the count of major holidays on the calendar. On those occasions, my sisters and I sat rigidly on Mary's prim Victorian settee, afraid to move or even blink.

Mary's skill at nurturing was applied solely to her backyard garden, a virtual paradise of perfectly groomed roses, flamboyant irises and sturdy flowering bulbs. When we were invited to trail behind her for a "showing," our little feet dared not stray off the meticulously laid stone path geometrically slicing the garden into military precise rectangles.

Whenever we referred to Mary we were careful to add her last name to the term "grandma."

Amelia was my maternal grandmother but I doubt we would have recognized that name during the years we grew up "across the alley" from the tidy little bungalow she shared with grandpa. It is significant to me today that none of us ever felt the need to clarify which grandmother we meant when we said simply, "grandma." No disrespect was intended toward Mary, but she, quite frankly, never merited that affectionate one-word title.

"Across the alley" was in the city of course, but once we unlatched the climbing wild rose covered gate we were transported into a bountiful patch of "country" that supplied every single one of our childhood needs.

It was perfectly legal then, so a cozy little lean-to chicken coop nestled itself up to the side of the garage. Birds hunted and pecked inside an attached enclosure during summer months, and my sisters and I would step over the barrier to select one for ourselves. Each hen had a name, a place on our laps, and gentle pettings while we studied those curious "chicken eyes" that never revealed whether or not they were actually looking at us! In winter months we bent over deeply to creep inside their toasty warm sanctuary and harvest an egg or two from nesting boxes that lined the wall.

Grandma's yard also had a garden. Unlike Mary's "touch-me-not" acre of blossoming finery, this one was abundant in raspberries, gooseberries (both sweet and sour), strawberries, and rhubarb. Onions and tomatoes thrived there too, although I best remember the fruit. Two apple trees, as well as a pear and a plum, shaded and sheltered everything this magical backyard held. My sisters and I "crossed the alley" whenever we darn well pleased to pick and eat whatever we wanted. Often we enjoyed our selections while moving back and forth gently on grandma's two-seat glider, settled and protected beneath the larger of the two apple trees.

If we wanted to jump rope or draw with chalk, we used an unexpected patch of smooth concrete beneath the pear tree, the remnant of a small tool shed that existed long ago. The backyard garage held rakes and shovels, but never housed a single vehicle since grandma and grandpa never owned one. Instead, the building served as a workshop for grandpa. From his steady hands, gnarled from years of furniture factory labor, were born quaint little bird houses and feeders. After he observed one of our "hen-petting" sessions, three little wooden benches appeared one day without comment inside the pen to accommodate us.

Along one side of the house a happy row of hosta plants hugged the foundation. In front of that was a push-mower-wide swath of lawn defined by a solid wall of thick hedging that discouraged viewing from neighbors. Dolls in tow, the three of us clustered there often to share viewpoints and secrets with content that only sisters need to know.

Beneath the kitchen window at the back of the house was a shaded, sloping rock garden. "Hens and chicks" plants peeped between the rocks, carpeting a shrine for a concrete statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At her feet we laid tulips and lilacs randomly plucked from carefully tended beds, and grandma never once complained about what we did.

It may be hard to believe but the inside of the house was even better!

Loving, welcoming warmth generated by grandma, and compounded by kind, gentle, doting grandpa filled this special place to bursting. It caressed us whenever we came bounding through the back door, never once knocking and always without an invitation. To this grandma, those formalities would have been an insult!

At grandma's kitchen table, with her curly little dog and a handful of cats always at my feet, I helped make strawberry rhubarb pies from the harvest of her garden. I sat there in the sun at breakfast too, eating potato pancakes while hand feeding raspberries to injured sparrows who were brought inside to heal. Their temporary infirmary was a large handsome cage that grandpa made for them in his garage workshop.

A formal dining room held years of Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday, and Thanksgiving Day memories, and an enchanted fairy tale of an infrequently used upstairs offered its own trunk of "old fashioned" clothes. Those had belonged to mother, and she left them behind when when she married dad and moved "across the alley" to begin her own family.

It was grandma who taught me how to sew. Mother did try, of course, but it was different with grandma. She took her time, allowing me to sit on her lap and gently pump the treadle of her antique machine. Under her tutelage I turned out awkward pincushions and crookedly stitched squares of brightly colored cotton fabric that became pet toys once they were stuffed with sprigs of the catnip growing fresh and wild in that wonderland of a backyard. One day, grandma helped me make a dress. Really! A dress! I vividly recall the sleeveless three-paneled affair, cut from lengths of one of her own flowered garments. My dress closed itself down the front with huge buttons that I was guided to sew on by myself. They wobbled perilously when pushed inside the perfect buttonholes that grandma demonstrated for me. I remember racing home "across the alley" to show off what I had made. I think it was then that I decided any woman with a needle, a length of recycled fabric and a patient, attentive grandma could pretty much make and do anything she wanted to in the whole world!

I had occasion to revisit grandma's little kingdom several years ago. Long gone, of course, were the chicken coop, the gardens and the swing we enjoyed so much. I sat on the stump of the once grand apple tree and slowly shook my head, reflecting, "But it's so small very, very, very small!" How was she able to do it? How did she make this plain, ordinary space feel like horizonless rolling acres of carefree joy, teeming with plant and animal life when it was really nothing more than a modestly sized residential city plat?

Today is Mother's Day. To be precise, it is also "Grandmother's Day." Some of these ladies, who were at one time "only" mothers, do not bring magic into our lives. That is just the way they are. The recipes they were made from did not call for an "ounce of patience" or "a teaspoon of creativity." Their job was simply to bring us one of our parents. And that is exactly what they did.

Other grandmothers are different. The recipes that made them demanded cups and cups of all kinds of extra ingredients, "mix-ins" and fancy toppings. These grandmothers emerged from toasty warm ovens as bearers of magic to sprinkle upon ordinary-sized, plainly-shaped city plats commonly known as "life."

Thank you, Mary, and thank you, Amelia. Both of you did your job and you did it well....according to the recipe that each one of you was created from! Happy "Grandmother's Day!" I love you both!


  1. I sure hope when my granddaughter grows up and looks back that she remembers me as one of the extra special grandmas -- like Amelia was.

  2. This is such a lovely post. What a memorable place filled with magic and a grandma to beat all grandmas. I never had a grandma like Amelia; thank you for the glimpse at what every grandma should strive to be.

    Love your writing! I'm delighted you linked to GRAND Social!

  3. My maternal grandmother’s house sounds like your grandma Amelia’s except it was 1500 miles away. It was the best place on earth! she had a cow and chickens in a small barn. My first memory of her house is my dad waking me up early and carrying me to the barn to gather eggs. I remember how a sunbeam was shining in catching the dust in the air, and how the hen squawked at us for disturbing her. I returned to see my grandmother’s house about 15 yrs ago and also thought it was so small! How did she get all those cousins in there and feed us all. Beautiful story, thanks for helping me bring back my own memories.