My grandmother, Irene, passed away the last week of December and since then, my mind has been filled with memories of her. Actually, I wouldn’t say filled. The memories have come back more like a dripping faucet. One at a time, but steady.
She was the prototypical unsung hero, a hardworking mother of 4 surviving girls and plain wife, born in a covered wagon to poor migrant farmers in the first part of the last century. She took naps on cotton sacks as a girl, and remembered being paid a penny a row in peanut fields. “A long row,” she said.
Her father was a harsh man and her mother, from what I could glean, was kind and practical. Something happened in my grandmother’s past that left her with a mistrust of men for the rest of her life, which eventually destoyed her marriage, although my father and my husband, along with her grandsons, helped to change her mind a little on this. I can still remember her not letting me ride my bike outside my suburban home when she was babysitting me once. “You never know what kind of pervert might pick you up.” At the time, I thought she was silly, but I find myself telling my own children “No” for the same reason these days.
My best memories of her come from when I used to stay at her house as a child. Like most children, my memories center strongly around food. She wasn’t known for being a cook, but she could make the best fried potatoes around. I can still see her standing by the stove, the smell of gas in the air, watching the blue flame heat up the cast iron pan, and hear the sizzling of the potatoes in the hot oil. The edges were always crispy and browned perfectly. She would often add onions to the potatoes. I think this is where I learned to love a good, carmelized onion.
It was always a good thing to eat her fried potatoes for dinner, because you knew the next morning you would be eating Special K with powdered milk. I guess she always had powdered milk around because she preferred to drink buttermilk.
Another good memory was her shower. My grandma kept the cleanest shower I’ve ever seen, even when she was well into her 80s. All she used was baking soda, too. She always had a big dish of Dove soap and a bath brush. I think it was the only time I ever used a bath brush. I never have really understood those. But now that I think about it, they were probably pretty important when you spent all day in a peanut field. I cannot smell Dove to this day without thinking about her.
I also loved to sleep in her bed. Once, she bought a brand new couch, and boy, was she proud of it, but she kept it covered in big, thick, plastic. I hated sleeping on that and would beg to sleep with her in her bed. Sometimes she let me. I remember she had a big sliding glass door in her bedroom. There was a bright mercury lamp outside that kept me awake. Awake, that is, until she came to bed. She was quite a large lady at the time (all those fried potatoes!), so when she climbed into bed and turned on her side, she blocked the light just right for me. I would roll right into “the cleft of the rock” and fall fast asleep.
At her funeral, one of my cousins spoke up, and mentioned that, being her second oldest grandchild, he always felt a special connection with her. I chuckled a little to myself. I would guess that all 11 of us felt like we were her favorite. The more my cousins reflected on their memories of Grandma, the more I realized we shared the same favorite moments with her. What an accomplishment. She managed to love us all unconditionally and accept whatever love – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – we could give back with equal grace.
These memories have been sweet. There are so many more I wish to share, and I may, over the coming weeks. None of them describe a grand moment, just the little simple things in life, like taking a walk, or looking at her new dish towels, or picking tiny strawberries growing in her garden. She was a simple soul and she has taught me more than I realized in her simple way. Thank you, Grandma.