Tuesday, February 22, 2011

To Grandmother's House We Go

On nights that I can't sleep, I sometimes take a memory walk through my grandparents' house in Ashland, Ohio, on East Liberty Street. As soon as I enter the front door, I smile because of the couch: there it is in all its rose-pink glory. What a family scandal that davenport caused, and what a topic for conversation it became for years. I was so enamoured of that couch, and I couldn't wait to tell Grandma so. "Grandma, I love that couch! It's gorgeous!" I said to her as I walked in and hugged her. She looked up at me from her chair at her sewing machine--where she always was--and her eyes were positively sparking with orneriness. Holding my hands, she said, "Oh you do now, do you? Well, it's pink, anyway. There's some that don't like it so awful much. Supposed to be rose. The color, I mean." She looked a little thoughtful for a moment, then still holding both my hands, said, "Well, I'm glad you do. And the rest'll still sit on it, either way."
I don't remember who actually picked out that couch--maybe an aunt or even a decorator--but it was the boldest piece in the room. Even the red glass chandelier above the stairway (which one uncle once likened to something seen in a bordello) couldn't compare to it. As I linger in Grandma and Grandpa's living room, I am drawn to the serenity of one corner where her chair waits patiently each evening, the floor lamp hovering beside it. Here, at day's end, Grandma sits and reads her Bible like a devoted scholar of the Word. I used to watch her, quiet and careful, to see if she was getting comfort, peace, happiness, or enlightenment from this daily ritual. Each time I observed her, she seemed to be studying, learning, almost...girding. My grandmother, who saw the Reverend Billy Graham as a sort of ecclesiastical superhero, was gritty about her Bible.

As is the case with many homes, Grandma and Grandpa used their dining room for everything but dining. Theirs contained Grandpa's desk, a dark mahogany trove of drawers which seemed to contain something new and exciting every time we visited; an exquisitely carved tall writing secretary that would make an Antiques Roadshow host salivate; one of Grandma's several sewing machines (I think this is the one she won as a prize for something); an actual drop-leaf dining room table shoved up against the wall; an incredibly comfortable but noisy rocking chair which all the grandkids loved because it rocked so far back that it was almost dangerous; and a frosted glass light fixture hanging from the middle of the ceiling that all of us kids called The Wedding Cake. This light fixture was huge, looked handpainted, and did look exactly like a wedding cake. Sometimes, my little sister and I would lie on our backs just to look at it. And on one memorable visit, we found an ancient pack of cigarettes in the desk drawer.

In the kitchen is where the defining character of Grandma and Grandpa's marriage becomes clear. On any given day when we would come to visit them, we would be likely to find Grandpa washing dishes or setting out the lunch dishes (only, they called the afternoon meal "dinner"; the evening meal was "supper") or puttering at some chore or other. Grandma was invariably at her sewing machine--the primary one--in the kitchen. She had a couple of machines she used, and her Number One was a treadle machine. There it is, at the back of the kitchen behind the table, right under all the windows. Next to it is a little half-bath. Grandma's kitchen is, to me, huge. And the cupboards seem to go all the way up to the ceiling. How can they reach all the way up there? It isn't a big deal, though; all the everyday things are down low, and the Important Things For Grandchildren are stored in the lowest cabinet of all. Those things are the cookies. I can see them now: thick, brown molasses cookies and her "white" cookies made with sour cream, both soft and fat and as big around as a baby's head. Oh lord, those cookies. Some years, I was all about the brown cookies; other years, the white. And it didn't matter when we came to visit, there were always cookies! How did she do it?

It is a kitchen of Many Little Miracles. Horehound drops and pink wintergreen discs. Creamy homemade mints from my Uncle Marshall's candy shop. Pies with strange fruits like ground-cherries and elderberries and my all-time favorite, rhubarb. Pennsylvania Dutch pot pie, which isn't pie at all, but doughy dumplings and ham hocks and rich broth. Grandma and Grandpa canned everything, and we had corn that tasted like summertime, even in the grey doldrums of winter. Grandpa was famous for "cleaning up the last" of everything, leading to odd mixtures and creations on his plate. Once, Grandma scolded him for eating peanut butter and baloney, and he made a funny face at her behind her back to make us laugh.

It was decades before the idea of the Man Cave, but that's what Grandpa's basement and garage were. Downstairs, Grandpa had built himself a workshop for turning out whatever hardware was necessary for the latest of Grandma's sewing projects. For the longest time, it was fancy doll beds that Grandma was making skirts and sheets and coverlets for and selling at the Senior Citizens' Center. Grandpa made the actual beds for her to dress. Also downstairs was a sawhorse with a real saddle that we grandkids would ride to let off steam, the canning stove and equipment (perfect for playing house), and the door to the garage. We didn't go out in the garage without Grandpa, and my memory is very dim here. Stories abound, however, about Grandpa letting cider "go hard" out there. I'm not sure I believe them, partly because I can't imagine Grandpa ever being without full possession of his faculties, and partly because I can't imagine Grandma putting up with that behavior because, believe me, there was absolutely no way it could have occurred in secret.

Sometimes, if it's a particularly sleepless night, I even drift all the way up the steps with their comfortable, familiar creaks and pause in the bedroom where I used to sleep when we'd spend the night. The wallpaper is greyish blue with sprigs of dogwoods, and the bed is soft and springy. Outside, I hear the sounds of mourning doves and the occasional car as it travels the brick street, stops at the intersection, then continues up the slight hill on its way. I know the pictures on the skirted vanity--wedding pictures of my aunt, my mother, and all their attendants. I can hear the soft murmurs and laughter of the grownups down below as they talk about relatives, kids, the past, and the future. I can feel the crocheted fancywork on the end of the case as I turn my pillow to the cool side and fall asleep in the big, wide bed at Grandma's house.


  1. Oh this took me right back to my grandparents' house! She made rhubarb pie too, but I didn't like it. She disguised it with strawberries - got me every time. My grandmother didn't do cookies, but she had a stash of little boxes of raisins in the bottom drawer - & if we were good we got to eat one of my grandfather's orange flavored vitamin c tablets. Good times :)

  2. What a wonderful post. It really takes you there. Atmosphere, detail, the love you felt for it all. Just perfect!
    And it takes me back to my grandparents' house, treadle sewing machine, kitchen cupboards and all. I will have to make a try at doing my own word picture and can only hope it will turn out to be half as good as this one.

  3. Anonymous9:02 PM

    What a great post! I also have fond memories of both sets of my grandparents. I still make chocolate chip cookies and raisin cookies just the way my grandma in Minnesota did - otherwise they just don't taste right. My mother still has a china hutch that she inherited when her mother died. All I have to do is open the door to the hutch where the smell of grandpa's pipe tobacco transports me back to their home in Florida. Like you, I can take a "walk" through each of their homes and know what was where and the special places my brother and I would play. We're lucky to have such fond memories. I know I treasure mine.


  4. Garianne--I have Grandma's dining room table and chairs and a few knick-knacks. But you're right, it's the memories that are my greatest treasure of all.

    Mary G--Thank you for the praise. I'm sure that many people will find themselves smiling with common remembrance at a few of these details. What is it about grandmas? Did they all take a special class or something?

    The Bug--My grandma adored strawberries, so she'd never mix them in with anything else. She loved them sliced over vanilla ice cream, and if she could eat them on her front porch, so much the better. Glad to have taken you back to your own Grandma's House for a bit.

  5. The wonderful couple that your post brings to my mind were not MY Grandparents,they rightfully belonged to my friend. But, I was lucky enough to spend two weeks with them for many Summers when I was a child.

    They must have heated the old house with Kerosene. There were many cold mornings in Oswego,N.Y.even in August..being directly on Lake Ontario.

    To this day, many years later, if I get one whiff of kerosene I am right back at the kitchen table in the farmhouse with Grandma and Grandpa Smith.

    Thanks for the memories,Nance.

  6. You took us all back with this one Nance. It's amazing how so many memories are hovering just below the surface waiting to be pulled up. I can see my grandparents sitting at the kitchen table. My grandfather listening to the radio and the smell of his cigar. His brown leather recliner chair in the living room. My grandmother stirring her coffee...

  7. Jaclyn10:16 PM

    This is the first time I remember reading a blog teary-eyed! Wait, who am I kidding? I cry at the drop of a hat - the smell of the pipe tobacco my dad smoked, the taste of hot-water cornbread like we ate at Sunday dinner. The total randomness & déjà vu quality of these memories can be both overwhelming and comforting. I get it…thanks

  8. Jaclyn--I'm sorry that reading here made you cry, but I'm glad that my writing evoked such a strong response. Welcome to the Dept., where I try to do that in every post. Thanks for visiting and commenting, and I hope you do so often.

    Lisa/Anali--I'm sure that if some of my cousins or even siblings read this, they would find some discrepancies, but that's the lovely thing about memory: it is soft and blurry and malleable, and it lives in each of us, independent of photographic reality, preferring instead to be intimately personal and comforting. As a bonus, it seems to be able to evoke touchstones of the past in others, like your grandfather's easy chair, and your grandmother's coffee. Isn't it wonderful?

    Nancy--My grandparents lived about 45 minutes away, but we didn't see them as often as you may think, so I "adopted" a grandma across the street. Like you, I felt lucky to have a shared grandma to spend time with. Glad I could bring her back to you for a time.

  9. I never had the experience of going to Grandma's house. I only knew one of my grandparents, my maternal grandmother. She lived with us because she was an invalid. I envied friends who had grandparents to spoil them and dote on them and connect them to the past. Sadly, my children have had the exact same experience I did. They only knew one of their grandparents, and she was chronically ill.

  10. V--I'm sorry that your grandparent experience and that of your children isn't as warm and comforting as mine and some of the commentors' here. I hope that your kids can find a grandmotherly/grandfatherly figure in their lives as Nancy was able to and as I did, too, to provide that sort of experience. My paternal grandfather was already dead when I was born, and my dad's mom died when I was about 2 or so. She was also an invalid from a ravaging form of cancer. All I remember of her was her head on a pillow, her calling me the Croatian term for "little darling", and her trying to feed me marshmallow peeps each time I visited. Luckily, there are wonderful stories about them both, so I at least have sort of vicarious memories.

  11. Oh what a lovely post. I've come back a few times to read it actually over the last few days.

    My memories of my Grandparents' house is very mixed. They moved several times, so things did move around a lot. My Grandma has never been crafty, does her housework with a lick and a promise, didn't cook much, but has always been (and still is) there with a good family story and a laugh at the nature of life in general. My Grandpa died in '88. I loved him dearly, but he was a mean old cuss who did his best to make everyone miserable. He did make some amazing split pea soup, though, and he'd give me apple turnovers for breakfast if I spent the night.

    Maybe tonight as I'm drifting to sleep, I'll travel through their house, and think of the best memories there. :)

  12. J@jj--Thank you. Grandma left most of the housework to Grandpa. Her gig was sewing. As a matter of fact, I think I was in 7th or 8th grade until I had a store-bought winter coat. She made all of her dozens and dozens of grandchildren's coats. How on earth she managed it, I'll never know. She also made all of her dresses, too. I know how fortunate I am to have such charmed memories of them and their home, believe me. I'm glad you have good memories, especially of your cantankerous grandfather. No one is perfect, that's for sure, and perhaps that's what your grandfather's legacy can ultimately be for you. He was the embodiment of that lesson, sounds like. (And I love a good split pea soup.)

  13. Sister Sue5:43 PM

    *tearing up* Thank you for this memory you painted so vividly for me, sis!


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