Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Luxury of Grandmothers

At my age it is a very fine thing to have a grandmother. Plenty of my friends no longer have parents. And most of my generation lost their grandparents decades ago, or worse, never got to meet them at all.

My Grandma Hal (Florence Dawald Miller) was acquired by the sound decision my father made to marry my stepmother when I was a baby. But, today, at the age of 95, my last grandmother has become past tense.

We spent many summers in Grandma's homes in the small utterly flat town of Rochester, Indiana. She had one rather large house with a wrap around porch and backyard filled with bright flowers and sting happy bees. Across the street she rented out several apartments and we stayed in one of these on our visits. Here too were planted swaths of flowers, their colors duplicated in the patterns she painted on her saucers and vases at her ceramics store, a few blocks away downtown.

She made us all replicas of Victorian porcelain dolls, sewing their kid leather arms and legs, painting in their features and making outfits of such small precision you could understand why she was once an exacting instructor at the Singer Sewing Machine store. I treasured my doll and named her "Indiana" in honor of her state of manufacture, as I too had been born a Hoosier, a distinction none of my half-brothers and -sisters can share. She taught me to crotchet. I also got to make piggy banks and daschund ring holders in her ceramics store. And she made all of us gifts that came from her hands, blankets, our names in lace, crotchet Xmas tree ornaments of starched white cotton snowflakes, and more.

But just in case you are thinking Florence was the epitome of grandmotherly cotton candy, let me say she was a woman with sharp comments, hasty judgements, smug gossip, quick wit, and the ability to stretch a short tale into a mini-series of needless detail. Saturday Night Live could have done a skit on her recounting a typical road trip with her friend June. You heard what diners they ate at. What pie they chose, that the waitress had folk from Michigantown who were now living in Peru. Which reminded her of a trip to Indianapolis and the time she and June rode their mopeds around town... And this would only be the first pit stop. The point of interest was dutifully recorded in her odd photojournalism, for some reason she never could frame a shot and more often than not it was crooked and the heads of her fellow travellers cut off.

And unlike storybook grandmas, Florence was a bad cook. She favored the boil into goo school. She once got us to eat boiled potatoes only by claiming she was serving whale blubber. And when she was dieting, which was often, she made nasty concoctions using ersatz ingredients. Non-sugar sugar, non-mayo mayo, and so on.

She loved local history. When my father interviewed her for his family history she was in her element. She had so much to recount and what she didn't remember her research (years in the local historical society and DAR) supplied back to the first family members who settled the flats of the Midwest.

When I was about thirteen and she suddenly widowed, we spent a rough summer together in San Diego. She yelled at me for not making my bed, for using too much toilet tissue, for giving lip, for making faces, for reading too much, for not being nice enough to my little sisters, for not being like my little sisters. She made me put soap in my mouth once and I stopped swearing in earshot after that... And being Grandma, she got relief from my sullenness by gossiping about me. And being 13, I wasn't able to see she was grieving. Grandpa Hal had been the love of her life.

And as much as we fought, we didn't disown each other. I defended my right to claim her as a grandmother to my mother's side of the family, where great aunts would tell me "stop calling her your grandma, she isn't BLOOD you know dear, your real grandmother is your ONLY grandmother and you are hurting her by claiming this woman is." And I fiercely disagreed. It isn't about blood.

Luckily, we got older. I came to appreciate her artistry and skill in making quilts, crotchet, knitting, and anything else she crafted. She wanted to be useful, and she was. She had the courage to take on old age and call the terms. Even in her wheelchair she was leaf blowing the driveway. Her delight in my daughters was wonderful. I know they enjoyed doing puzzles with her. When my mother-in-law came for a visit carrying her own extensively researched oral histories and genealogies, Florence read the entire thing, through a magnifying glass, and enjoyed discussing the work of recording history with Jeanne.

When she moved into an old age home I made sure to send her occasional boxes of diabetic chocolate truffles from Mondel's Chocolates. If those treats were good enough for Katherine Hepburn, they were surely good enough for my Grandma Hal, who shared my sweet tooth.

Thank you Florence Dawald Miller for being my grandmother these many years.

1 comment:

divine sarah said...

Claudia, I really enjoy your blog and my new OS allowed me to become its friend, using my none-too-secret code name.
Your affectionate neighbor, Sarah