Today, were she still with us, my paternal grandmother Clara Caroline would be celebrating her 113th birthday. She always said “Ah was born in nahn-teen two.” She spoke with the gentle drawl of the rural Flint Hills, her homeland.
I am very fond of Grandma Kelley’s memory, because she seems to have been the good gal among a number of bad people, and because she was pretty fond of me. Her only grandson, and first grandchild…well, I’d have had to be pretty awful to disappoint her.
My grandmother came from a typical, large, religiously grim Kansas German farming family. She spoke only German until she was seven. Clara grew into a somewhat awkward young lady, tall for her age. There is every reason to believe her father was abusive, and that at least some adult male in that family was molesting the girls, though I have never known either for sure. My family isn’t very forthright about past closet skeletons, on either side, nor has it ever been.
She married very late for her era, I believe in her early thirties, to a man who turned out to have a violent temper. I don’t know how abusive he was to her and my father, the only issue of the marriage, but I have trustworthy evidence that he (a hardscrabble laboring man) was brutal to horses he worked with. Based upon my father’s behavior as a husband and father, I’m betting that’s where he learned to be so dogmatic, emotionally abusive, and violent. In any case, my grandfather died when my father was about fifteen, and my grandmother became a widow. She never remarried. One suspects that she’d had enough of that type of life. She worked at cleaning and other laboring tasks, helped get my father through college, and was elated when I came along in her early sixties.
She often watched her grandchildren, and we enjoyed visiting her. After we moved to Colorado, then Washington, we saw less of her for a time, but when I was in junior high school, she came out to live with us. Grandma was in her seventies, and a bit forgetful. My mother would get frustrated with her, but I could understand that, because it’s not easy for any woman to have her mother-in-law living in the house. Even so, my mother saw that she was taken care of, and Grandma often took the senior citizens’ bus to town, where she could hang out with her peers. She had in effect a one-bedroom apartment in our enormous house, with a refrigerator and hot plate, and managed her own basic affairs.
During that time, I took as my duty to be the voice of the real world: a loud but loving teenage boy. I’d bang on her door, too loudly, and when invited in: “Howdy, Granny! How’s your day! Not those soap operas again, good lord!” I’d give her a big hug, visit with her a bit, and then see if somehow any interesting food items had materialized in her pantry since yesterday’s raid. They rarely had. In hindsight, I was very obnoxious and failed to show suitable deference, but I was one thing she got nowhere else. I was authentic in all things. Authentically opinionated, authentically selfish, but always authentically loving. I especially enjoyed when the senior citizens’ bus would drop her off with a couple of bags of groceries. The driver, a very kind fellow, would always offer to carry them in for her. I was having none of it. And on some level I knew that she was enjoying having her burly grandson insist that if her groceries were going to be carried, he’d be doing the carrying, where it would give her face before her peers.
Whenever I went back to college from vacation, she wept.
What she never really knew was that the chain was going to break here. I looked at my father’s behavior and swore to myself never to have a home that was emotionally or physically abusive. I also swore to kick his ass some day. Kept both commitments.
My grandmother’s hobby was quilting, and my word, did she quilt. Many of them came to me, artworks in cross-stitch. None of them were the fluffy batting duvet type; Grandma’s quilts were made of multiple bedsheets, and felt like sheet lead conforming to the body. I remember when Deb moved in with me and we were opening boxes after a move, and she opened a box of quilts.
“What the hell are these?” My wife doesn’t use her inside voice when she is animated.
“They are quilts, dear. You know what quilts are?”
“Of course I know what they are! These are beautiful! What the hell are they doing in a box?”
“Well, I wasn’t using them, so…”
“You dork! People pay hundreds of dollars for quilts that aren’t as good as these! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I never thought of it. I mean, doesn’t everyone have quilts? I thought all grandmothers were biologically compelled to quilt.”
“NO! They aren’t! Take these to the washing machine, they smell like mothballs. We’re going to put them on our bed!”
“Good idea, dear. They are good quilts.”
At that point, I think, my future wife realized there was nothing useful to say to such a slow-witted fiancé, who would have to be guided carefully through life lest his clearly impaired judgment of value lead him to commit further errors.
We are still using the quilts. When the stager for our Boise house, whose job it is to tell homeowners that their decor sucks, took a look around the master bedroom, her eyes fell upon my grandma’s state flowers quilt. “That stays,” she said. “That makes this whole room feel homey.”
Yes, ma’am. Reckon so.
My grandmother passed away on December 9, 1988. I was two years out of college. While I suspect she was very bright, and I know for sure she was quite creative else how did all those quilts happen, I knew her as a very quiet, simple, loving, unobtrusively religious Kansas German farm woman. And she would pardon my numerous shortcomings, because every day, I stopped by to sit with her a bit and hug her and tell her I loved her.
Such is grandmotherhood.
She would have loved Deb, but she would love best that her grandson and his bride, in a home of peace and kindness, take their rest at night covered in the artworks she assembled with those veiny, calcium-deposited hands, ignoring her increasing arthritic pain to create functional beauty.
I miss her. She was a great lady.