I have found myself in recent weeks amused and pondering how similar I am to my grandmothers, maternal and paternal. Sadly, I never knew my maternal grandmother, going only on stories from my Mom, and how she was always amused at some new mannerism that crept into my personality that was so similar to her mother. I really wish I had known Grandma Dorothy. I have a surrogate in my Great (Grand? Seriously someone tell me which is correct) Aunt Marion, she was my grandma’s sister, and I love her greatly (and my Great/Grand Uncle Tom – my maternal grandpa’s brother… yep, that happened on a few occasions and not just my family ancestry). But my ponderings have been more in thinking of my paternal grandma, or as she always signed her letters, “Gram”.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t appreciate Gram in my younger years. She smoked, a lot, and her voice was a touch gravely and her “smoking fingers” – those ones she used to hold the cigarettes she always seemed to be sucking on, were bent, knotty and crooked. She wore Tabu perfume – too much of it, and to this day whenever I catch whiff of it, immediately I smell “Gram” – complete with cigarettes. (Perhaps this is why I stick to vanilla-scented colognes.) Her cards were always reliable on holidays and birthdays, which would come with a $5 bill tucked inside. Presents were often vessels of some variety used to house and hold little whatnots and trinkets. In my youth, I remember dreading opening up her presents to find another brass collection dish or porcelain apple painted with flowers. You know what? I still have that brass collection dish and porcelain apple. Gram knew a little more than I did it seems.
I am not close to my dad. He didn’t talk much about his parents, other than they moved a lot and my grandpa was “blackballed” from an industry, which caused all of their moves. Prior to all of their moving, I saw photos of a grand, white house with pillars and a pool in the backyard, filled with my very young uncles, complete with a fountain running into it. My dad keeps very much to himself and I’ve given up putting a lot of effort into drawing him into conversation – my Mom knows this – but if there was one thing I really wish my dad would talk about (besides his time in Vietnam because the stories fascinated me and fueled my desire to join the Marines. Hoo Rah! No, bad knees – didn’t join up.) it would have been about Gram.
I know that Gram and grandpa would spend weeks every year in Mexico, even her wedding to my grandpa was Mexican-themed (they got married* at a dance competition where “South of the Border” was the theme). I recall having sand dollars and starfish and an abalone shell bedecking the bookshelves in the “front room” of my parents house. I am guessing the sand dollars are long since broken and tossed out, but I don’t know what happened to the starfish and abalone shell. Those bookshelves also hold decades of National Geographics, the hardcover “yearbooks” and magazines that my grandpa and his father had been collecting and I would spend hours upon hours pouring over the pages, looking at photos of exotic locations, hoping someday I’d get to travel there. I’m sure that those Nat Geos along with my great-grandpa’s World Atlas are the reason I love maps – I’ll write about that one day. Years later, my guess is that Gram was redecorating her apartment, and we were given a serape and velvet paintings of horses that I remember hanging in the front room of the house. A touch of Mexico in the Midwest.
I have that serape, since worn thin in the center to the point of falling apart, cut in half and stitched up, draping over my coffee table. The velvet paintings of the horses, recently made a complete set, now hang in my dining room with my serape-style place mats and table runner. Weeks ago, as I was setting out the serape on the coffee table and placing upon it things collected over the years from the US Southwest and Mexico, I started to reflect that perhaps I inherited more from my Gram than just a love of things from the Southwest and Mexico, but her sense of adventure.
Prior to marrying (and maybe meeting) my grandpa, Gram had a boyfriend with a motorcycle *gasp*. She would ride the open road with him, and I’ve been told she learned to ride on her own as well. A few years ago, Mr. Muse and I went and got our licenses for motorcycles, my fond stories of tearing about on mini-bikes sans helmet (explains a lot, doesn’t it) fueling my desire for a motorcycle.
She loved to travel, as evidenced from her frequent trips south of the border, where she stayed for weeks at a time. Curiously, I’ve found that I’m more at home with each trip I take to Mexico and Central America. She and my grandpa ballroom danced competitively, my Mom has one of her competition gowns in storage. My friends and I, including Mr. Muse who agreed to be dragged along, will be seeking out ballroom dance lessons this year. I love dancing, but sadly Mr. Muse prefers not to dance in public outside of our kitchen and dining room. Crocheting was a favored pastime of hers as well, and I have a small collection of her crocheting supplies, and as you know – I crochet.
Gram was also what I affectionately call “A Tough old Bird” (since the original posting I’ve learned more about how tough she was, but I won’t be sharing it here). She had seven strokes that we know of – we’re certain there were more – one knocked her out for six months but she came back fighting, so to speak. She became a Certified Nurses Assistant, working in the elderly care and assisted living facilities for many years to support herself. She lived on her own for decades, my grandpa having passed away in 1976, and it wasn’t until I was about 18 when I really started to appreciate Gram and the life she led.
I started to ignore the smoking (eventually she quit), appreciate her potato salad with the just-slightly-undercooked potatoes (I still crave that potato salad at holidays) and would warmly embrace her through the heavy-applied cloud of Tabu perfume. I wish that I could have gotten to know her better and I wish I would have thought to ask her more about her life in the letters I wrote to her up until her passing in 2009 at the age of 94.
Perhaps it takes hindsight with one relative to make you see the value and importance of knowing about all the others who came before you, because you seem similar in so many ways. So, my goal this week is to write my Great/Grand Aunt Marion and ask her about her sister, because I would like to know a lot more about my grandma Dorothy. I’ll ask my Mom for her thoughts as well (though she reads this and may use this story to get a head start).
I really have very few regrets in my life, but those I have involve my not having gotten to know people better. I think there is a quote out there that says it’s not the things you did do that you regret, it’s the things you didn’t do. Here is hoping I can eliminate some regrets, and dull some other ones.
And before I go, I’ll leave you with a photo of my Gram, on a motorcycle. Ride on, Gram. Ride on.
*Note from Mom regarding the wedding:
With regard to their wedding, this took place during the depression when young adults would travel in groups to where there were dance marathons being held – the winners would earn some cash and the losers will have been fed for however long the marathon look place and then move on to the next contest. I believe they were married in Akron Ohio and in this particular contest, South of the Border costumes were the flavor of the day, so they got married in the costumes.