Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Cupful of Memories - Reprise

I grasp my grandmother's hand as we wait for the bus. She squeezes back, and I peer up at her. Even at age six, I sense she's the kind of woman who draws admiring looks: dark with high cheekbones and a slightly beaked nose, traces of her Algonquin Indian blood from generations past.

I do not know, until years later, the effort required to maintain that beauty. I don't realize the toll taken by years of factory conditions. I pay little attention to the ointment she applies every night to her face and arms, to soothe wounds from the flying metal fragments embedded in her skin, or to the wigs that cover the thinning hair from similar spots on her scalp.

In 1967, I comprehend none of this.

We climb on the bus. Grandma Stanfa doesn't drive; she is accustomed to this ride from the Old South End to downtown Toledo. The only bus I've ridden is the one to my suburban school, where I'm in the first grade.

"Grandma," I announce with wide eyes, "look at all the chocolate people!"

"Shh." She raises her finger to her lips. "They're called colored people. You know, like Moms Mabley."

I nod, sneaking another look at the woman across the aisle. I've never seen a colored person in my neighborhood or school. But I'm familiar with Moms Mabley, whom Grandma loves to watch on TV. Later, Grandma talks about the importance of respect. She explains that words, even spoken out of innocence, can offend or hurt someone. I'll bet my grandmother has never hurt anyone's feelings. I hope I don't either.

Grandma sits straight. She rides the bus with a quiet dignity. I swing my dangling feet, kicking them against each other, and chatter away. Grandma smiles down at me. Unlike so many other adults I know, she answers my endless questions not just with patience, but with interest.

Although she has six other grandchildren, today is just about Grandma and me. She allowed me to choose our supper menu, bought me my very own can of black olives and even let me pick today's movie: The Jungle Book. I know my sisters and cousins have had their own days like this with Grandma. But today I feel special.

I hesitate when she stops at the concession stand. My family's far from rich, but I know my grandmother is worse off than we are.

My mom says Grandma's first husband died not long after my Uncle Bob was born. She married again and had my dad and my Uncle Sonny. I'm not sure what happened to my grandfather. I guess my dad met him just once, when he was three. I overheard my mom tell that story, too. "You're doing a good job with the boys," he told my grandmother when he visited. Then, he was gone for good.

My Uncle Bob still lives with Grandma though. He was in the Korean War, and he hears voices that nobody else hears. Grandma tells me I don't need to be afraid of him.

Grandma finally convinces me to get something to drink. I chew my bottom lip, considering my choices. I order a grape drink, served in a plastic, purple fruit-shaped cup.

I have never been to an indoor theater before, only to the drive-in movies with my parents and sisters. From my velvet-covered seat in the Pantheon theater, I stare at the movie screen, mesmerized. I accidentally slurp--too loudly--through my straw. Alarmed, I glance up at my grandmother. She winks at me.

When we return to Grandma's house, she pours herself a drink. Whiskey. She lights a cigarette. When she's not looking, I stub it out in the ashtray. When I'm not looking, she lights another.

The next morning, we walk to Mass. I attend a Catholic grade school, but my parents aren't so religious about weekly Sunday services. Grandma's a good Catholic. The kind who goes to Mass every morning, seven days a week. The kind who doesn't remarry after a failed marriage and a long-gone husband, because the Church doesn't believe in divorce.

When my parents pick me up, Grandma kisses me goodbye. I wave as I climb into our car. I leave her behind in her tiny two-bedroom house, with her freshly printed church bulletin, her pack of cigarettes and her schizophrenic son, for whom she will care until she dies in a hospital bed, seven years later.

Some people leave your life too soon. Often, years pass before you fully appreciate them for what you didn't know then--and what you still remember now.

Sometimes, you wish you'd collected every one of those memories and saved them, perhaps in a grape-shaped purple cup.

How well did you really know your grandparents? What is it about a rainy day that makes us remember, with a wistful smile, those we loved and lost?


  1. What a wonderful story, Sherry. Your grandmother's words about respect seem to have gone a long way.

    As for my grandparents, I know only my mother's mother. I wrote a couple of blog posts about her last July. Here's one:

    My mother and she are hilarious together. Lots of surreptitious eye rolling.

  2. "When she's not looking, I stub it out in the ashtray. When I'm not looking, she lights another."

    I love this sentence in particular but the entire story is lovely.

  3. Averil: I'm so glad you shared that story! I am going back this weekend to read the others you wrote about her. Your stuff always reads like poetry.

    Downith: Thank you! Yes, I remember well stubbing her cigarettes out. Ah, the sins of our ancestors that we swear we'll never repeat. Until one day in junior high...

  4. Aw, I was ready to keep reading, Sherry. You have such a wonderful voice. Well done.

    Two of my grandparents died before I was born. I still have my father's mother's teapot though. She was English and very into her tea. My mother's mother was a born again Christian and clearly favored my aunt and her children. We'd go to visit once in a while, but I don't remember any affection. My father's father was bursting with life. He drove a blue car with winged fenders on the back. I remember my parents arguing after he took my 14 year old brother out driving. He was a horse lover and always said he was going to buy me a pony, but then he got sick.

  5. Deb: Talk about wanting to read more--you've totally teased us here with these snippets. I hope everyone who comments on this post will tell us about their grandparents like you have. Such stories to share and enjoy... Thank you!!!

  6. What a great piece of writing. The thing I've noticed about you, Sherry, is that no matter what you're writing - humor or something more poignant like this - your storytelling style makes me want to keep reading.

    Your grandmother sounds like a wonderful woman who dealt with life's challenges with a special grace.

    I was lucky to know three of my grandparents plus a bonus grandfather who was there before I was even born. Know them well? I'm not sure. I did make some audio taped interviews in the late 80s of both my grandmothers, but I'm not sure I asked the right kinds of questions.

  7. Lisa: Thank you for such a wonderful compliment. And wow, what a smart girl to tape interviews with your grandmothers! I wish I would have thought of doing so. Their voices will always stay with you. And, I'll bet you can mine those tapes for some great stories...

  8. This so reminds me of my time with my father's mother, who looked like Queen Elizabeth does now, and dressed similarly. She and grandpa lived downtown, in the city and had never learned to drive --- they rose the buses fearlessly, impressing their suburban-raised grandchildren.

    Grandma was too short to reach the cord strung over the windows to signal the driver to stop, but everyone knew her, even the tough-looking high school kids: "This your stop, Mrs. W? There you go."

    My grandpa died when I was twelve, and I remember mostly that he had a bad back and grew wonderful roses in the 2"x 8" raised parking lot divider behind their apartment building. I have one photo of him holding my four-year-old hand at the Botanical Center, pointing up at a huge Christmas tree.

    I told my Dad once that I didn't remember much about him, and he said, "Well, he loved you very much. You were the star in his sky." I hold that in my heart.

    My Mom's parents? Whole 'nother saga.

  9. Sherry,
    To be able to write seriously as well as

    My mom's parents were 40 when they began raising her so they were in their 80's when I was a kid. Farmers in South Carolina, and although I talked too fast and with my "yankee" accent, they could barely understand me, they adored my sister and me.

    My grandpa let me sneak ice cream sandwiches all day long as long as I brought him one. My grandmother called me her "Long-legged American Beauty". And every time we went south, she'd make a blueberry pie from her own berries because it was my favorite. They had a pecan tree in the yard, and was reknowned for her pecan pie, but she'd have that one blueberry just for me. I adored them.

    Oh, and she used a shampoo, I don't know if they still make it, but it was emerald green, in a flat tall bottle, with a girl who had wavy hair on the label. I used to love to use it when I was there to smell like her. I always thought the girl was a mermaid, though It was just a shoulders on up picture.

  10. "When she's not looking, I stub it out in the ashtray. When I'm not looking, she lights another." I see I'm not the only one struck down by these two sentences.

    One of my biggest regrets is that I did not ask my grandmother and mother more about what really went on in their lives. That I was an uninterested, self-centered, daughter. That I was so busy criticizing them for putting up with spousal abuses, etc... that I failed to hear their side of things. I am left with only Aunt Mary --- whom I've interviewed, on tape, extensively --- but of course she is giving me her version of them. It's better than nothing, but it's not enough.

  11. Sarah: I can completely picture your tiny old grandmother on that bus! And your dad's comment--that you were the star in your grandfather's sky--is wonderful. You dad had a literary side too, eh?

    Lyra: All the ice cream sandwiches you could eat plus great-smelling hair? Sounds more like heaven than simply South Carolina...

    Teri: Please don't be hard on yourself. Very few of us fully appreciate people while we have them. And your reflections now on this say much more about you than anything you said or did when you were young.

  12. What a beautiful piece of writing. Tomorrow I'm going to answer every one of my kids' questions, in honor of your sweet grandmother.

    Sadly, my grandmother was not from the same cloth. She was not a good person and treated my mother horribly. Rumor has it she actually threw herself down the stairs when she learned she was pregnant. Needless to say, she and I had difficulties.

  13. MSB: I'm sorry your relationship with your own grandmother was so rough. But it sounds like there's an interesting story to be told there...

  14. Sherry, what a wonderful memory to have of your grandmother. It brings back good memories of my grand parents, aunts, and uncles that have past. It makes me appreciate the people in my life who are present. Thanks for sharing.


  15. Anna: Sometimes it's easier to appreciate people after they're gone. Glad you're grateful for those still in your life. Thanks for reading!

  16. very nice.

    tonight, i was putting oil of olay on my face after a shower and caught myself in the mirror rubbing the excess across both of my hands and onto my forearms in the same way my grandmother used to lather lotion on her hands and arms and i instantly remembered the smell of her Pond's hand cream. I'm going to get some next time I can find it.

  17. Amyg - I use Jergen's original (the cherry almond scented) for the exact same reason. It reminds me of Mama Hewitt.

  18. Amy and Lisa: Isn't it interesting that some of our most compelling memories are aroused by a certain smell? I can't catch the scent of Old Spice without thinking of my dad. Or the smell of stale beer without thinking of my college days. ;-)

  19. Hey, are you going to blog about the 826 event/meeting Betsy? I'd love to hear about it!

  20. Did Blogger blast another post away? It's very naughty these days.

  21. Laura: Not sure whether or not I will blog about my weekend at 826 and meeting Betsy. Doubt I could do it justice. It was a fabulous workshop, and Betsy is every bit as wonderful as you might imagine--and more.

    Deb: Long story, but blame me--not Blogger--this time. I'm chronically naughty.

  22. Four years later and a great tribute to her again! The best mother-in-law, mother and grandmother we could have. Yes, we lost her too soon...