In memory of my grandmother on mother’s day
Thursday at 12:56 pm
My grandmother once blew up an oven. She left the gas running while she went in search of matches to light the pilot. She eventually found the matches and put her head in the oven to light it. Ka-bam! It wasn’t a big explosion, but still dramatic. It sort of sums up her role as a cook in my mind.
We didn’t go to my grandmother’s house for the food. Except for the mashed potatoes. That she did better than the best. How can you go wrong with creamy milk and butter and potatoes? But pies, roast, cakes, not her specialty.
I remember one year making what seemed like hundreds of heart-shaped sugar cookies with her for my mom. Even at the young age of seven, I knew that you didn’t casually scoop flour out of the bag and dump it in the bowl. You measured it. I watched in wonder at her approach to baking, so unlike my mother’s. Lord knows what those cookies tasted like.
My grandmother retired as the vice president of the loan department at First National Bank in Albuquerque, NM. She began as a teller, without a college degree, and advanced to the top. She eventually graduated from college the year I graduated from high school.
Seeing her at work was a joy. She was a different person, so unlike the woman who lit a match in an oven full of gas. She wore suits and looked oh so professional. When I graduated from college, she took me to the boutique where she shopped and bought me a navy blue suit and a blouse with a tie attached. To look like her was everything.
My grandmother was of the WWII generation. She had an infant when her husband deployed. So did her best friend, and they worked out an arrangement that her friend would watch the children while she went to work in the meat section of a grocery store and they’d share the wages.
I don’t know how long she worked there, but she left the job when the knife sliced through her left arm. The scar was long and I’m sure there was all sorts of damage.
She still had to work, so she started at the bank. She never stopped working there, unlike so many women of that era, even when her husband returned from war. I’m sure he was suffering from PTSD, and when she caught him sleeping with prostitutes, she realized that she’d have to support herself.
She stayed with him, even after my mother contracted gonorrhea. As a Baptist, she felt god required her to do so.
People are complicated. She and my mother had a tumultuous relationship. Growing up, I had trouble knowing whether my grandmother or grandfather damaged her more. My grandfather spent most of his time sitting in a chair surrounded by his CB radios, talking to strangers, and smoking many packs of cigarettes a day. He worked only sporadically.
In response my grandmother supported all of them and scrubbed the walls once a month. I saw this as a strange obsession when I was young, but came to realize that she was scrubbing the yellow hue of nicotine off.
Her house was always pristine. There was a sign in the laundry room, “My house is clean enough to be healthy, but dirty enough to be happy.” It was an aspiration at best. Neither dirt nor happiness thrived in that house.
Which isn’t to say that happiness couldn’t be found. One of my fondest childhood memories was sitting with her in a big lounge chair early in the morning. She held her sugary, creamy coffee and gave me sips. My brother and I were her “chunk-in-lunkins.”
She left change in the bottom of her many purses and I’d play dress up. My brother and I would line up the couch cushions and pretend we were on a train and I’d reach in the purses and find change to pay for my ticket. Every quarter produced a thrill because she let me keep the change I found.
I tortured myself as a child because of our relationship. She yelled at my mother, criticized her mercilessly in the cruelest of ways. But she loved me in the ways I needed to be loved. I was perfect in her eyes.
I felt the sting of her criticism a time or two, like when she begged me to break up with my high school boyfriend, a Latino, both so I wouldn’t have brown babies and so that I would go to and complete college. I think she was prouder than I was when I did graduate. When I finished the PhD she was in orbit with joy.
In the past few years, I’ve accepted that my love for this woman and her love for me are ok. I don’t have to feel guilt about our relationship because people are complicated. I’ve learned to accept the contradictions and the conflict. I’ve learned to accept the love.
She is, in many ways, the key woman in my life, serving as an inspiration to achieve. Watching her go to college and work full time are images that stick with me even now. Seeing her in my mind’s eye in one of her suits and high heels, watching her learn to use a computer before any of the rest of us did, knowing that she’d gladly sit in that big chair with me and share her coffee even now if she were still alive—these things sustain me.
I love her and I knew her love for me in a palpable way. For that I am grateful and I honor her on Mother’s Day.
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