Strong woman series: my grandma, Juanita

She died when I was nineteen. It’s hard to believe it has been fifteen years already. My paternal grandmother died before I was born, so Grandma was the only grandmother I knew. Even though I am sure that time has sentimentalized my memories to a certain degree, I remember feeling very close to her. I also remember growing apart from her as I grew older, which means that there must have been some degree of closeness. I suppose growing apart had something to do with me turning into a teenager. But even as a teen, I can remember asking to go spend the occasional weekend with Grandma. Even if we didn’t talk talk much, I liked being near her. Her apartment was always cool. Her bathroom always smelled like baby powder and V05 shampoo. To this day, everytime I see a chicks-n-hens plant, I smile and think of her.

When I was about Little Miss G’s age, around seven, before I knew a lot of what I know now, when “the boys” (my uncles) still lived at home, and the weekend trips to Grandma’s house lasted forever, and great-aunts and great-uncles assembled frequently for meals, when everything still seemed whole and right–my recollections of those days bounce back and forth between meals and running around outside barefoot in the grass with my cousin and brother. In my memory, the meals are one long banquet of cold, vinegared cucumbers, mashed potatoes and milk gravy, green onions, cold slaw, pork steaks, and huge Coleman jugs of iced tea and lemonade that were so big that Grandma kept them on the washer and dryer because there was no room for them in the kitchen. Grandma and Grandpa moved around a lot, so my memory of their homes have sort of become one amalgamation of a place that had a very large, sun-dappled, grassy yard and a house with a front door that nobody ever used.

On the days and weekends with great-aunts and great-uncles, there was a lot of running in and out of the house, swinging on swings, playing volleyball or badminton, watching my mom’s younger brothers come and go in their cars or motorcycles, and cold drinks of super-sweet orange-ade. So sweet you could practically crunch sugar between your teeth because that’s they way Grandpa liked it.

But there were plenty of weekends and days where it was just Grandma and me. These are the memories where she looms largest. Quiet days with her sitting at the dining room table with her pack of Kool brand cigarettes and a glass of icy, icy cold tea. The radio playing George Jones, Conway Twitty, Kenny Rogers, Patsy Cline, Willy Nelson, and Loretta Lynn. Grandma letting me wrap up in an old quilt that her mother made, prance around the house, intentionally dragging it on the floor and through door ways, pretending it was my princess robe. Grandma occasionally ashing her cigarette in the ashtray and wiping condensation from her tea glass with a napkin. Grandma making me piece-after-piece of butter, bread, and sugar. Grandma letting me roam and explore the house. Grandma letting me go inspect her brown plastic sewing box with the pins, the needles, the spools of thread, and the scraps of material. Grandma serving me Cool Whip in a tall glass with a plastic, long-handled, red spoon from Dairy Queen because she knew I thought it was fancy. Grandma letting me watch her give herself insulin injections. For the life of me, I can not recall one time she ever told me “no,” though I am sure she must have. In the evening she would move to the living room to crochet or embroider while watching Dynasty or Golden Girls with her feet propped up on a small footstool.

Those quiet days alone with Grandma are some of my best memories of her, even though we did nothing at all. Then, when I was eight or nine, an upheaval. A change. Something that I will not share in this small, but public, place. For a short time she and my youngest uncle lived with us. She slept in my room under the quilt she made for me. My room smelled like baby powder and something else–I don’t know what–her perfume perhaps? It smelled like her. I loved it. But things were changing and my extended family was forever changed, and I was no longer as innocent. When Grandma moved moved out of our house and back into her own place, it was an apartment now… but those trademarks of all her dwellings were still there: still the baby powder and the V05, still the brown sewing box, still the crochet needles, still the potted plants, still the Kools and the iced tea, still the sun-dried towels. Still the comfort, somehow.

It was sitting at her kitchen table in this apartment that I remember starting to ask her questions. Lots of questions about her brothers and sisters, about the birth order, about who was married to whom, who were their children. She must have recounted the family tree to me dozens of times, but I can’t remember. A couple of those names belonged to people I knew, but many I did not. It didn’t occur to me then, of course I did not know, that there may have been reasons why these people were just names.  Those reasons are still not entirely clear to me. What I do know is that those great-aunts and great-uncles that I’ve met since then have been exceedingly kind and warm to me when I see them, which makes their absence from my childhood memories even more mysterious.

I asked Grandma lots of questions about her children–my mom and her six brothers. The order they were born. The months of their births. These people I knew, but I liked hearing her tell it to me over and over again. I think I was trying to “figure out” the family. I was trying to piece together a past I did not recall and reconcile it with changes I did not understand. All the places they lived that I could remember–the house with the three silos, the house across from Ivan’s place, the house with the silo that caught on fire, the house with the huge attic and the big barn out back, the house in town with the garden–I wanted her to tell them to me again and again. In my memory, Grandma always answered all my questions, but I imagine she may have hedged around a few things when I unknowingly tripped into sensitive or personal areas. I do remember being very careful about asking questions about Uncle Dale, my mother’s brother who drowned in Germany. To me it was ancient history because I didn’t remember it. I had always assumed that it happened before I was born. I recall being a bit shocked when I learned that I was a baby when it happened. I realize now that at the time of my questioning, Grandma’s grief may have still been quite raw.

I often wonder if my questions ever bothered her or brought up painful memories. It did not occur to me then that there must have been reasons why they moved so often, though I still don’t know them specifically. I didn’t know what it meant then to have five babies in five years and then two more just a couple of years later. I didn’t know anything about nervous breakdowns or miscarriages. I had heard plenty of stories from Mom and her brothers about all the dangerous stuff they used to do as kids back in the old neighborhood, but Grandma never told those stories. I never understood then why not, but I think I do now. It was a painful, scary, difficult time when she was often alone with a lot of kids. I lacked that ability to read her and empathize with her at that young age, so I’ll never know if my questions caused her pain.

One thing that has left an impression on me through these past fifteen years, though, is that when Grandma’s baby sister died suddenly, Grandma was never the same. Grandma was never “chatty,” but she was even more quiet after that. I get the impression that she was closer to Great Aunt Linda than her other brothers and sisters. Perhaps my memory has sentimentalized it somewhat, but Grandma being the eldest daughter, and Linda being the youngest daughter, I’ve often wondered if it felt like the loss of another child to her. I had not realized how close Grandma was to Linda until after Linda died. I wish I could say that I felt a lot of empathy for her then. All I remember thinking was wondering why she seemed so different. But then again, it could have been me, with my emerging adolescence, who was changing. I’ll never know. This much I know is true, I felt a change in her. I felt in keenly and I did not know how to reach out to her.The one  thing that was guaranteed to make her laugh was The Golden Girls. I remember watching the shows with her and wishing that the episodes lasted just a little bit longer. Rose, Blanche, Dorothy, and Sophia, and the women who played them, will always have a special place in my heart simply because they made my grandma laugh at a time when hardly anything could anymore.

Today, as an adult, I can piece together what I’ve learned about her life and recognize that she had been through so much through those years. The loss of a 22 year-old son, the loss of a sister, failing health, and–because I don’t want to be unkind or disrespectful to my family–I’ll just say a marriage that was unfulfilled.

As I sit here and write this, it is so hard to explain why I think she was a strong woman. Especially without airing out all the family laundry, and I think I’ve alluded to enough here as it is. I suppose those things mentioned here are enough to make my point, but they are not the whole story by a long shot. Grandma was never a loud, outspoken woman. She did not forge any feminist paths. She did not burn any bras (that I’m aware of). She was not a leader. But here is the thing: for all she went through, I do not remember ever ever seeing her angry. I don’t recall a sharp word ever issuing from her lips, no matter how many times she caught me with my fingers in the butter jar or how many requests I made that required her to get up and get me something or another. If she knew about that one time I  swiped that cigarette from her so a friend and I could try our first smoke, she never let on. She was not bitter, even though many people have grown so for far fewer reasons than she had.

To get up every morning and do it all again–make the tea, hang the clothes on the line, take them down, fry the sausage, get the boys up in time for the bus, wipe the dishes, sweep the floor, listen to the same songs, recall the same memories–to do what was so extremely ordinary, but to do it with such kindness and gentleness, to do it with such meekness, or to even do it at all, took an extraordinary invisible strength. She had already endured the kind of pain that has shattered others. She must have got up most days and decided that this day she would not break; she would live. Her life was not a big one; her name is not on the lips or memories of strangers, but it was valuable and precious. She enacted her strength, as the poem says, as the sail does the wind. And in so doing, she birthed and raised eight good people who are kind and loves others despite some truly crappy circumstances.

I think about Grandma more lately than I used to. Recently, a coworker took a snapshot of me and a few others, and when I saw the picture I was startled by how much I reminded myself of her. My daughters will never know her, but I like to think that she knows them, somehow. When I was pregnant with my older daughter, I had a dream that the baby and I were visiting Grandma in her kitchen. It was the one kitchen of hers that I remember best from my childhood. In my dream I couldn’t see her face clearly because the baby was fussing, and Grandma was bent down over the playpen soothing her. But I know it was Grandma because of the lavender floral shirt she was wearing. She picked up the baby, expertly hoisted her to her shoulder, and then quietness and the image faded. It was such a comforting dream, and I had never dreamed of Grandma so clearly before or since. My older daughter, LMG, reminds me of her when she sits quietly, seemingly content. I’m certain that if Grandma does look in on us from time to time, Super L gives her a good laugh now and then. At least, I like to think so.

I miss her more now than I used to. Her memory is more precious to me now than ever before. These memories may not be accurate, but I hold them close to me.

I do not have any pictures of her the way I remember her, but somebody told me once that she was sixteen when this picture was taken. I think she was lovely.

Apparently, I need to speak to my hairstylist.

Last night the topic of my birthday, which is in a few weeks, came up. The following conversation ensued:

Super L: Mommy, on your birthday can we bake you a cake?

Me: Sure, we can do that.

Super L: And can we put “Happy Birthday Mommy” on it?

Me: Sure can.

Super L: And, “I love Tula”?

Me: I guess so. Sure.

Super L: Mommy, for your birthday I want to get you a second phone so that if the batteries die on your phone, you have another one to use.

Me: Umm, okay.

Super L: And I want to get you a wig in case your hair falls out and you don’t have any hair.

I really didn’t have a response for that one.

So, score one for Super L. That really doesn’t happen very often.


I am breaking this blog silence to make a confession.

When I was in the fourth grade, I read a book. Wait! That’s not the confession. I read a book for the purpose of giving an oral book report. In this book was the word hors d’oeuvres. I had never heard this word before, and I had certainly never seen it in writing, so I pronounced it whores-devores throughout my entire book report. I’m sure Mrs. Lawton was laughing her you-know-what off. If she was even paying attention. She may have been too preoccupied with trying to figure out which muumuu to wear to school the next day.

I thought you should know.

Please have a happy and blessed Independence Day.

Today’s recommended listening: “I’m Free” by the Soup Dragons, and as they say, “Don’t be afraid of your freedom.”