Happy Sunday everyone. Today’s story is a trip down memory lane seen through an eleven year old girl’s eyes. Let me know about your memories with your grandparents. I hope they are as wonderful as mine.
2013 Copyright Barbara Celeste McCloskey
It’s a spring day in southern Wisconsin–cool enough to wear a jacket, but sunny enough to know it won’t rain. It’s a good day to be eleven years old. My mom hands me a snack in a brown paper bag and kisses me as I set off on my solo ride to Gram’s house. Mom says it’s a four mile ride from my small town to Gram’s house on the County Line Road, but I’ve been riding there with friends since I was eight. I wave goodbye and turn my blue Schwinn with the big whitewall tires, the wire basket on the front, and the bell to let others beware that I’m coming their way in the direction of my destination. The long ride is safe, down quiet, tree-lined country roads. If I’m lucky, I’ll see a tractor, or maybe a car or two.
As I peddle, I think about Gram’s place. I call it a “used-to-be” farm. When my mother was a child there were cows in the barn, chickens in the coop, and crops in the field. But even though the buildings are still there, they haven’t seen a cow or chicken since before I was born. When Gramps had to go and work in a factory, he had to quit farming. Now the only tractor he has is a John Deere garden tractor he uses to cut the grass.
Gramps still loves getting his hands in the dirt by planting a huge garden; he grows everything from asparagus to strawberries. Today, I’m glad it isn’t strawberry season, otherwise I know after a cool drink and a cookie after my long ride – Gram would put me out in the berry patch picking the little red buggers. I love eating them, but I hate all the bending and stretching it takes to make a dish of them.
Way beyond the chicken coop, there’s an old hickory tree standing proud. Gramps says the tree was standing there when the Indians were still on the land. Gramps has a whole cabinet full of stone arrowheads he’s found as he turned the fields to plant corn or soybeans. When I stand under that huge tree, I can barely see the sky, and I wonder what it’s like to live in one place for so long.
But best of all, the old hickory still gives us nuts. Every time I go to Gram’s, I pick up a pail of nuts, bring them into Gram’s kitchen and begin the work of hammering and cracking. A little nut hides in a thick green hull that I have to smash before the nut is free. Then I try to crack the nut just right, so I can get the meat out in two pieces. It’s really hard to do, and I usually end up using the nut picks to get the stubborn meats out of the shell. I work for hours to get about a half of a cup of nuts. The best part of “nut harvesting” is when Gram puts them into chocolate chip cookies or banana bread or something else that’s yummy. Gram’s a good cook.
Like the old farmhouse, Gram’s kitchen shows its years of use. It has white painted cupboards with glass panels that go to the ceiling. Gram says the glass in the doors makes her keep everything neat and tidy; after all, she doesn’t want her neighbors thinking she’s a messy housekeeper.
Everything in her kitchen is old, too. She uses heavy flat irons for doorstops. Her dishes are odds and ends of various patterns she’s gotten at the grocery stores – or they are remnants of sets she’s had throughout the years. It call it Gram’s Style and think it’s cool. My mother calls it “depression thinking” and thinks its embarrassing.
As I crank steadily uphill, my foreheads sweats, and I think about the homemade lemonade Gram will have waiting for me. At home Mom makes the lemonade that comes out of a can and mixes with water. But Gram squeezes real lemons and mixes the juice with sugar and water. Like I said, she’s always doing something in the kitchen. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember seeing Gram without her apron.
Not everything that Gram does in the kitchen is wonderful, though. In fact, I think some of the stuff she does is crazy—like after she fries bacon, she saves the grease in a tin can that sits on the window sill. But I have to admit, the potatoes she fries in the stuff are out of this world.
Gram makes everything. Her Singer sewing machine that she pumps with her foot is going all of the time. My Mom wants her to get a new electric machine, but Gram says, “Why? There’s nothing wrong with the one I have.” That was Gram–no ruffles, no frills, just the basics. My mother throws up her hands when Gram refuses to be more modern.
I’m about half way to the house when I think more about the garden. I love watching things grow. That’s probably why Gram and Gramps plant just about any vegetable that Wisconsin soil can grow. After the harvest, she cans or freezes all her veggies and fruits. Her kitchen cupboard is full of Kerr and Mason jars—everything from corn relish, pickled beets, bread and butter pickles, dill pickles, canned green beans, peas, tomatoes, applesauce, blanched pears—you name it, it’s in Gram’s cupboard. She also cooks jams and jellies then puts the sweetness in jars that originally had peanut butter and other stuff in them. Instead of putting on a cap, she pours melted wax over the jelly and then lets it harden. She says the wax protects the jam until she’s ready to use it.
My mother says Gram has a green thumb. That means Gram grows flowers and plants that would take prizes in flower shows. Deep purple, white and pink violets African violets with their velvety deep green leaves cover her cabinet in the dining room. And her Christmas cactus that’s perched in the East window is happy enough to bloom twice a year. I think Gram’s plants are happy because when she waters them, she talks sweet to them, telling them that they are beautiful. It’s kind of hard not to grow big and strong when somebody tells you that you’re the most beautiful thing in the world.
My mother thinks Gram was born 100 years too late, but I don’t. I think she’s just perfect. She saves everything and finds new ways to use old things most people would throw away. Like aluminum foil she washes to use again. Like plastic bread bags she uses “Baggies” for food leftovers. She even saves string, tying pieces together and winding it into a ball. Yup, that’s Gram. She usually has whatever you need.
I think one of the most amazing things she does is make rugs out of rags. She keeps old woolen clothes, cuts the cloth into strips, sews the strips together and then winds them into balls. When she has enough material, she makes big braided rugs that cover an entire room! Once I helped her rip the strips. But instead of wool coats, we tore up old shirts that Gramps had worn out. As I ripped, she sewed the strips together. She says she takes these balls to the weaver to make “rag rugs.” I think Gram has one of those rugs at every doorway in the house. The colorful rugs perk up the old uneven wooden planks in her floors.
The old clothes that don’t end up in a rug are made into quilts. Every one of Gram’s beds has homemade quilts on them. She told me once that she works with some ladies at her church to make other quilts for “the missions.” I have no idea what that means, but whoever gets a Gram quilt is lucky. I know. I have one of Gram’s quilts on my bed. I think the prettiest one she made was a wedding ring quilt for my older cousin Roberta.
I’m about half way to my destination when I stop under a huge oak tree along side the road to rest and eat the snack Mom gave me. There’s a banana and a store-bought Windmill cookie in the bag. As I rest and refuel, I continue to think about my Gram.
The only new thing Gram ever really wanted was her piano. Gram told me she saved her wages before she married Gramps for a long time to buy that piano. Later on, she sold eggs and picked strawberries to have the keys redone with real ebony and ivory. She also made a needlepoint cover to pad the seat of the piano bench that holds Gram’s favorite sheet music.
Like everything else, Gram’s collection of sheet music is pretty old. Most of the it dates to the 30s, 40s, but the first song she taught me was out of a church hymnal called, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” Mom doesn’t like me singing that song because she says it’s not Catholic, but Gram says Jesus doesn’t care about that; He just loves to hear little children singing. So, I sing the song for Gram and we don’t tell Mom.
Some other songs Gram has taught me are Mr. Sandman and Tammy, which I like a lot. Gram praises me when I sing, telling me I could sing on stage and be famous on television. She says I need to make other people happy with my voice because its something very special. All I need to know now is, I make Gram happy when I sing for her.
After my snack, I jump back on my bike for the last stretch of my journey. I think about the room where I’ll sleep tonight. It’s upstairs. Our house doesn’t have an upstairs because we live in a new “ranch style” house. So, going upstairs at Gram’s is an adventure. Before I was big, I had to sleep on a couch in the room where the piano is, but now that I’m eleven, Gram says I can sleep in the north bedroom; Gramps sleeps in the south bedroom across the hall. I think it’s strange Gramps doesn’t sleep with Gram on the first floor, the way my parents sleep in one room. One time I asked Gram about it and she said it just was better that way—that I was too little to understand. Then she looked away from me. I think I noticed a tear in her eye, so I never asked her about it again.
In” my” bedroom, not surprising the bed and dresser are old, too. There’s a big ceramic bowl and pitcher with pink flowers sitting on a table. The room is cozy, and the best part is snuggling under the heavy quilt after Gram tucks me in at night. The different pieces of this quilt were originally woolen coats that Gram has recycled and hand-stitched with a blanket stitch around different shape. The heavy weight of the quilt makes me feel like Gram is giving me a hug when I’m underneath it.
The pillows on the bed are plump and heavy, too. They’re stuffed with goose down and covered with pillow cases that Gram has embroidered and edged with her crocheted lace.
Sometimes I wonder how Grandma finds time to do everything she does. Maybe it’s because she only watches TV once in while. She never misses General Hospital every afternoon. I laugh out loud when I think about her getting so upset when one married man in the story kisses a lady that wasn’t his wife. Gram hollers at him from her rocking chair, “You dirty pup! Go home to your wife.” And I wonder if Gramps had been a dirty pup some time in the past. But I’ll never know.
I can finally see the familiar white frame house with the big maple trees in the front yard, and I peddle faster. As I turn into the long driveway, Gram is waiting for me on the porch swing. Gram has always looked like a grandma –white hair and wrinkles, but to an eleven year old girl she’s perfect. Through her rimless bifocals, she sees me as a little girl, not like my Mom who expects me to be a grown-up because I’m the oldest. At Gram’s, I don’t have to take care of my younger brothers. I work with her because I want to. She shows me things I wouldn’t know if she wasn’t in my life.
She smiles and stretches her arms wide for me. I drop my bike on the ground and run for one of her special hugs. She holds me tight and almost smothers me between her large breasts.
“How was the ride, sweetheart?”
“Just fine, Gram. I’m glad I’m here.”
“Me, too. Are you thirsty?”
I smiled and nodded.
“Well, let’s go and get some of that lemonade I fixed for you this morning.”
I put my arm around Gram’s waist and together we venture into the house. And as we sip lemonade together at the kitchen table, a gentle breeze ruffles the red and white gingham curtains, and I can’t think of anywhere else in the world I would rather be.