For a long time, thinking about my grandmother on my mother’s side left me with pangs of disappointment and regret and a tinge of envy. I always heard about how wonderful she was that she was a saint. An amazing woman who, in the face of adversity, never gave up. She still found a way to thrive with faith in her heart and a smile on her face.
Apparently, as a grandmother, she was the gold standard. She had the right grandmother look. At least back in the day before grandma became glam-Ma, she was plump, she had gray hair and wore grandma dresses. She had cookies and hugs. She was endlessly patient. Always ready with a hug and a smile. That is the grandma who spent time with my cousins.
I have two memories of my grandmother. The first was of her chasing me through our house. I hid, crying under my bed. I remember her asking me why I was crying. And I replied that she had said she was going to hit me because I was terrible. She laughed and laughed. And she explained to me that she had no intention of hitting me. She was trying to get me to behave. Even as a five-year-old, I could see that her smile reached into her eyes, and I could feel her loving energy. I came out from under the bed and straight into her arms.
My second memory was visiting her in a place that was not her home, not a hospital. It felt strange, and it didn’t smell right. It was the last time I saw her, and now I realize that it might have been the last time my mother saw her too. My grandmother died sometime between my fifth and sixth birthday. At the time, all I understood was that we would never see my grandmother again and that my mother was sad. Later, I would experience pangs of envy when my cousins, who had much more time with her, would recount their stories.
All my life, my mother told stores about her mother. When I was a teenager, it was just another reason to roll my eyes and act bored. Later, those stories became interesting because they told me about my grandmother; they also helped me understand my mother. And still later, after so many of my loved ones had died, I understood that this was a way of honoring your dead and keeping their memories alive.
My grandmother lived through the depression in poverty and with a husband who had the thirst and could not keep a steady job. She made up fun drinks like tea kettle tea, powdered milk heated up with sugar, and vanilla. She made it fun to have breakfast for dinner or dinner for breakfast. Or take a piece of white bread with a little bit of milk and make her version of eggless French toast. She made cornmeal last and last. She learned to allow her children to accept a dime and a piece of candy from the parish priest so that they could see a movie. She learned to sew so that she could take in mending for grocery money. And later, she would foster babies with barely enough to go around, making sure that every child was hugged and loved.
I know all of these things because my mother always spoke of her mother with such admiration. And I think that she never stopped missing her. And I can remember my mother making me tea kettle tea on a rainy afternoon when we did not have cocoa. And I remember my mother saving money by making our clothes and cutting our hair. And when she made polenta, she told me how her mother was an early advocate of polenta because she would take cornmeal and fry it up and serve it with cheese in the evening and butter and sugar (if there was any) in the morning.
So many times, my mother would preface something, “Well, your Grandmother used to say….”
I did know my grandmother. I knew her in the way in which my mother was creative with her cooking and her sewing and her love of reading and her folksy sayings. And in her independence and resilience. Thanks to my mother, my grandmother was always part of my life.