My grandma would be 101 years old today, if she were still alive. Last year I tried to write the centennial tribute she deserved, but I was recovering from a brain injury, so not only was everything a struggle but I felt really terrible and inadequate about everything…and also, I realized, “Grandma meant so much to me that I can’t cram it all into one article.”
So here is another article with some inspirations from Grandma that have struck me over the past few months.
The school I attended in seventh and eighth grades closed this year and will be torn down. That’s fine with me–it was poorly designed in the first place and was in bad shape when I was there 30 years ago. I was reminiscing to my son about the bleak concrete courtyard in which we were forced to hang around until the first bell rang, and about how I was on the first bus to arrive and therefore had to sit there for 40 minutes, often getting bullied. In particular, there was this one eighth-grade football player who made my seventh-grade mornings miserable by yelling insults at me across the courtyard while his friends laughed.
Suddenly I remembered telling Grandma about that, when she called after I’d spent the whole day wincing shamefully over what that football player had yelled when he noticed that I was sitting with my legs crossed at the knee. I couldn’t bear to repeat exactly everything he said (the gist was that I was trying to control my urge to be raped by him); what I told her was his opening line of sneering, “Who sits with their legs crossed?!” in a way that sounded like it was a totally stupid, wrong thing to do. Grandma said, “Hmm, who sits with her legs crossed? A graceful, elegant lady with impeccable manners!” That really turned it around for me. That bully and others continued to hurt my feelings, but it did help to notice how often their insults boiled down to, “You’re behaving too well! You think you’re better than us!” which implied that, for all their frightening volume and vitriol and violence, they actually were afraid that I was better than them–and gee, maybe I was. It depends on what your standards are, and I’m glad that Grandma nudged me to consider mine.
In the novel Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (reviewed here), a high school teacher introduces the concept of portage, carrying one’s canoe over land from one body of water to another, and says that American Indians traveling this way had to consider carefully what possessions they would pack into the canoe. The students then do a project asking older people to reflect on the question, “What did you keep, and what did you leave behind?” This reminded me of two small, oval pictures that were hanging on the wall of the third-floor bedroom one summer when I came to visit Grandma in New York. She explained that she’d bought them to decorate her first home away from her parents, just because they were cheap and she liked them (not because of any special connection to the buildings depicted, which I believe are at Oxford or Cambridge?). Over the next decade, she moved frequently as a nursing student and then as a young mother with a husband serving in World War II, and she always hung these pictures in a place “to make it my home.” But then they’d been put away for years–I forget whether she said she’d never gotten around to hanging them in the house where they finally settled in 1947 (immediately after having their third baby in less than four years) or she’d had them up but taken them down when redecorating–at any rate, they’d been in storage for all of my lifetime, and she’d just then decided to hang them.
Those two pictures are among the things I kept after Grandma died when I was 15 and Grandpa sold the house when I was 17. They were in storage while I lived in dormitories, but when I got my first apartment, I hung them up. They have hung in every home I’ve had since.
Looking fondly at the pictures after reading about portage, for a moment I felt bad about letting my son decorate their frames with yarn. It looks kind of silly. But then I saw it through Grandma’s eyes and realized how glad she would be that her pictures are part of a thriving family home where her great-grandson is allowed to explore his ideas for decorating, even if they’re not what the adults would have done. Grandma would have thought it was wonderful that, when Nicholas was four, we let him stick a Band-Aid to a sheet of aluminum foil and tape that to the wall above our bed, and after tolerating it for a week we took it down very carefully and put it aside in case he asked after this artwork! I thought that the yarn had been allowed to stay on the pictures for years because I’m picking my battles and I’m tired and busy, but when I look at it as an expression of my growing child’s aesthetic sense, craftsmanship, and ability to repurpose materials–hey, it’s kind of nice.
Grandma was very pleased that wild petunias were growing out of the cracks in her driveway. It was just one of many situations she admired in which something alive and beautiful was happening despite the grittiness and concrete of New York City. I’ve always been drawn to that, too, so I was happy to find a morning glory growing in a crack of my sidewalk this fall.
This morning glory must have grown from a seed dropped by the morning glories in my yard, which I planted on purpose–but I originally gathered the seeds from morning glories that were growing over the remains of torn-down houses in the Hill District, a struggling neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I planted them at the place where I was living at the time, then gathered their seeds in the fall to replant each year, at the next place I lived and then at this place. So this is an example of portage, too! And you might say the morning glories have gone wild now, because the year before last I forgot to gather their seeds before I accepted a friend’s offer to rip down the dead vines after frost and throw them onto the slope in the back yard for me, so there were no seeds for me to plant in the spring, yet the morning glories grew abundantly from the seeds they’d scattered naturally.
A Jade Green Sweatshirt
Grandma loved buying gifts for other people, and she was very good at it. Many of my favorite clothes, books, and toys throughout my childhood were gifts from her. For my fifteenth birthday, when she was dying of cancer, she sent a check with a note instructing me to have a shopping spree with a friend and write her a letter about it, which I did. The last gifts she selected for me were for Christmas 1987. I still have the two books, The Young Unicorns and The Arm of the Starfish, both by Madeleine L’Engle. I still have the T-shirt that depicts Two coyotes experiencing non-verbal communication, although I now wear it only for special occasions like science-fiction conventions. She also gave me two sweatshirts, gold and jade green, and my mom painted tiger stripes on the gold one for a costume which I later gave away, but the green one was part of my wardrobe for years. Those cotton/polyester sweatshirts can be virtually indestructible!
Last week, when I unpacked my winter clothes and put away my summer clothes, I reconsidered that jade green sweatshirt. I’ve accumulated a lot of other warm, casual tops that are “more interesting” than a solid color sweatshirt, and I don’t wear clothes that casual to work. Last fall, I’d thought, “I don’t really wear this anymore. But Grandma gave it to me! I’ll put it in the archive.” That’s the bottom part of my storage bin, where I keep clothes I rarely wear but can’t part with; they stay in there rather than take up space in my drawers or closet.
This year, though, as I sorted the winter clothes I was setting aside some for a friend who is very poor and dying and needs warm clothes. I saw that jade green sweatshirt, and I knew without a doubt what Grandma would want me to do. I had been keeping it because it was something she chose for me out of love, something she once held in her hands…but if I can pass that love to someone who needs love so much, that’s a lot better than keeping a warm, soft, cuddly shirt tucked away unused.
It was because I was feeling good about that decision that I dug all the way to the back of the closet this time, and that’s how I found that dress I deserve to wear. Grandma would approve of that, too.
My daughter Lydia was born on Grandma’s half-birthday. She’s two and a half today. I feel sad that Grandma never got to know her or her big brother. But when I read them the My Book House books that she read to her children and grandchildren (see one of them here) or the Oz stories that she loved, when we explore the city together, when they put together crazy colorful outfits, when we enjoy exotic foods together, when we hike through a forest enjoying every detail, I feel like Grandma is with us.