Today is my grandmother Georgia’s birthday. Born in 1906, she would have been 102 today. She almost made it to 100 years, passing away at the age of 98, all but one of those years in possession of her faculties.
If someone is your grandmother, what do you remember about them? Her hair ran a close second to the run-away look of Albert Einstein. A stylist she wasn’t. One of her gestures was to put spit on her palm and then flatten the frizzy mess as best she could. Like a nebula, all the hair circled out from her crown. She never dyed it, set it, waved it, or permed it. It just was and it wasn’t pretty. I see from her wedding portrait that such abandon might not have always been the case. There her hair is brunette, long and flowing. By the time I knew her, it was salt and pepper, all the time heading toward salt, short, and unruly. She was a widow, working continually, and didn’t have time to battle her wayward coiffeur. She never gave up hope of being a beauty, however. When she could no longer even feed herself, bemoaning that she just looked awful, I told her that I thought she was beautiful. She made me bring her a mirror to see, just in case.
She always wore the same style dress that she cut out and sewed herself. She had a nice one, and one or two for every day, always a floral pattern and the everyday dresses were always dirty around the stomach area.
She never wore makeup that I know of. Her face had always been wrinkly and seemed to stay the same forever.
She limped. Her story was that her older sister dropped her on her head when she was an infant, and that had caused one leg to be way longer than the other. I’m not a scientist, but sure that what happened instead was simply a birth defect. It helped her cope to blame her sister, a whopping case of sibling rivalry. I never thought her a lesser person because of the limp, though no doubt others did an maybe herself as well. It just was. That’s the way it is when someone is your grandmother. In later life she tried to have her legs evened out in one of the first double knee operations. Since the salesman for the joints actually performed the surgery because the doctor didn’t know how and it wasn’t perfected yet, it didn’t take. Her legs were the same length, but the joints had to be removed and she spent the rest of her life on crutches and then in a wheelchair. None of that stopped her from being an active person. She did everything a normal person could do with very little help while on crutches. Having once spent six months like that, I know how strong in both persistence and body she must’ve been to live years like that.
When she started singing, you wondered why someone hadn’t oiled that door hinge. And she loved to sing. She sang songs she learned from early childhood in school, songs she picked up from cylinder Victrola recordings, from vaudeville, from her Irish mother. The songs were mini soap operas full of warnings about the right way to live and what would happen if one should make the wrong choices. Some were hilarious and extremely non p.c. by today’s standards. My favorite was the song she’d performed in school as a little Japanese girl with a fan. She still had her fan until the day she died.
At every family function we sing, and even when she was stone deaf, Grandma sang along. She started and ended a song when she pleased which was not when the rest of us did, causing one hell of a cacophonous din. Still, it made her so happy and it made us happy too, to see her laughing.
She was not educated because girls simply weren’t when she was young. The family needed you to work, and then your husband needed you to run the home. I don’t know how many years of school she did end up having, maybe through 8th grade. But she had opinions and nothing kept her from voicing them, right or wrong, or hurtful. Blunt is a nice word for what she was. Her prejudices were from another era. Men with mustaches were bound to be evil. To wear earrings was wanton.
Cooking was one of the things she did well, despite her distaste for tomatoes. It became her career late in life, cooking for Boy Scout camp and then for Eastern Oregon College boys’ dorm. She loved having her grandkids come over and presiding over a tea party. There would be cookies or fruit bars or some delectable, and either tea or hot chocolate. She didn’t drink coffee. I’ve never had hot chocolate as good as Grandma’s, nor her other standby’s, German Chocolate Cake, Banana Crème Pie or Coconut Crème Pie, all from scratch. This was the time when Grandma got to be our age and hear what was going on in our lives and we heard about her young life, the part she wished to share. If tea was our beverage of choice, she read our tea leaves for us. She told us how to interpret our dreams and read to us from her mother’s dream book. She told us how to medicate ourselves by reading to us from her mother’s doctoring book. Sometimes we got to play with her ouija board, which was the most fun of all, until my mother told her she’d prefer Grandma not do it.
One of the most fun times I had as a college student was when my cousin and I took Grandma to the movies, and then drug the gut with her, having guys check us out and then watch their expressions as they saw one of us was older than they’d expected.
Grandma bought her first home when she was 60, and she started driving. I remember my father saying how someone that old shouldn’t even be driving, let alone just starting to learn how to drive. Her car and her driving were a point of contention until she finally scared herself and gave it up sometime in her 80’s. She loved her little house and we thought it was cool because there was a brick barbecue in the back yard and we envisioned summer barbecue parties. The truth was more that it was always stuffed full of paper garbage that she burned, nothing as glamorous as what we kids had imagined. Her back wall brick flower planter was always filled with pink impatiens. After our grandfather had died at age 49, Grandma re-married for a short time but had that marriage annulled, so she always said she’d never re-married. She loved having her own life and making her own decisions.
There were family secrets. Grandma had a sister she’d not known about. Her mother had been forced to give up one of her children because she couldn’t feed her, and that sister’s son got in touch with Grandma to tell her about it. Sadly, that sister had already passed away, so she never got to meet her. If Grandma didn’t like a family member or a neighbor, she was not nice. She could be spiteful, rude, and plain nasty. She wasn’t always thankful for what other people did for her. She hurt one of her daughters by openly preferring the other. She never seemed to learn her actions were unacceptable. To me, she was always, for the most part, except when she commented on my weight, very kind and accepting. This was because she’d lost a daughter a few months older than I, born stillborn. I became the replacement, and since people told Grandma that I resembled her, she was happy enough with me.
Living in another town a state away, I mostly communicated with Grandma by letter. I tried to write at least one a month. She wrote sometimes twice a month with conservation of paper always in mind. Not only would I have to decipher what was written on the back of very thin paper, so hard to read, but she would then write around and around the margins until there was no more space left at all. When her handwriting got shaky in her later years, to figure out what she had written took a lot of concentration and asking other people what they thought. The advice, the recipes, the opinions kept coming until she could no longer write. In person, we communicated by white board, since she could no longer hear and refused to wear hearing aids.
The other day I was laughing about something, and I stopped to listen. It was Grandma’s laugh I heard. I’d missed that. But I can sing in tune. Honest. Happy Birthday, Grandma Georgia!