I have wondered, from time to time, what actually triggers memories of certain people; the recollections that seemingly pop up out of nowhere, and instantly take us back to a time or place we were not thinking about at all, and then render us unable to think of anything else. Particular scents, music, colors, weather; all have been credited with memory jogging, and I have experienced each, and more. But, a theory I kick around, because I like it, is that perhaps our subconscious mind is nudging us to connect with someone we did not realize we were missing, and memories are the vehicle by which we can pay them a visit.
And so it was today. I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with the person who probably had the greatest impact on my life, and her name was Grandmother. Recently asked to describe her, all I could think of was love. And she smelled sweet and pink. Odd, I know, but the juxtaposition of color and scent define her, perfectly. Oh, and funny. Or perhaps, it was because she thought I was funny; regardless, she and I laughed ourselves silly at and over each other.
Even as a small child, I appreciated what I believed were her very unique abilities. She told stories, sang songs, wrote poetry, sewed doll clothes by hand, baked and cooked everything from scratch, cleaned house, and gardened with joy and gratitude. I liked that she could do everything, and did it cheerfully; not realizing then how much she was teaching me along the way.
Her little country house was surrounded by flowers, the entire back yard was a vegetable garden, and she had a chicken coop out behind the old free-standing garage with hens who seemed to lay eggs, endlessly. It never occurred to me what would happen to any of them if they stopped laying, or to be specific, where all those delicious Sunday chicken dinners might have come from. She never said, and thankfully, I never asked. The house, itself, was tiny, warm, and decorated with affection and sentiment. Everything in it held a story, or special meaning to her; to walk into Grandmother’s home was to walk straight into her heart. And you felt welcome, protected, and loved.
Her kindness and affection were boundless, and from time to time, not at all deserved. There were occasions where my behavior toward that lady was just not acceptable, and three times, especially, I reflect upon, and wish with all my being someone had slapped duct tape over my mouth to stop me from saying the things I did, and laughing when I needed to show some sympathy.
The back story is my grandmother was a very large woman. Looking at her in photographs and in my memory, I would guess she weighed around three hundred pounds. We always had been instructed never, never to mention Grandmother’s size. It was one of those rules one knew if broken, punishment would be swift and extremely painful. Yes, it was a very serious rule.
The first time I violated the family no talking about her weight rule occurred when I was six. I had been an early reader, but that did not mean I always understood everything I read. There was just such an occasion when one Sunday my family was taking the traditional afternoon drive; our recreation, and my grandmother’s favorite thing to do, all piling into the car after dinner, and going for a long ride. That meant my dad, brother, and grandfather were in the front seat, and my mother, sister, grandmother and I in the back seat. Since Grandmother was so large, there was not a lot of room for the remaining three of us. My sister and I usually took turns sitting on her lap during the ride. That day, it was my turn to sit on my grandmother’s lap, and as we drove in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we approached a small one lane cement bridge that crossed a creek. There was a sign along the roadside naming the creek, accompanied by a warning that vehicle weight must not exceed three tons. I read the sign, eyes popping in terror, and began screaming hysterically for my dad to stop the car. All the adults began asking me what in the world was wrong, and I could not tell them I was afraid my grandmother exceeded the weight limit for that bridge, and if my dad proceeded to cross it, we were all going to die. Patience was never my dad’s strong suit, and holding back the reason I had become so crazed with fear was making him very angry. So much so that I had to decide which action was going to garner the least severe punishment; withholding why I had become hysterical, or mentioning my grandmother’s considerable girth. I chose the latter. There, I said it. I blurted out what the sign had warned, bounced up and down on her lap, pointed to her bigness, and begged my dad to turn the car around. And the result? A collective gasping from everyone in the car, my dad resuming the drive, and all of the occupants of the car riding in complete silence until we got back home. I was baffled beyond words, because no one ever mentioned that episode again, nor did they explain how or why we were not in danger of drowning in that little creek. We just all moved on as though nothing had happened.
Then came the next time. I was eight, my parents had gone to their annual University of California at Berkeley versus Stanford football game, and my grandparents were taking care of us. One of Grandmother’s specialties was making candy for us, and providing us three kids with the fun of having a taffy pull. We loved the activity, and eating the wonderful treat afterward. This was our planned event for the day, and excitement was at fever pitch.
Unfortunately, on this particular day, my brother and I were setting new records for feral behavior, to which we reverted any time our parents were away. Having just flooded the engine of my grandparents’ car by pretending to drive it, preventing my grandfather from being able to keep an appointment he had that afternoon, we were already pushing the limits of Grandmother’s patience. She had made the taffy, and called us in to wash up and get ready to pull it. We were to wait until she tested it, to make sure it was cool enough to handle. My brother, never one to obey any instruction if it opposed his intention, ignored her, and shoved his hand into the hot candy. He let out a horrific howl, and began to cry from the burn he just suffered. She was attempting to help him, he was yowling and jumping all over the kitchen in pain, and I, being too full of my eight year old self, once again liberally salted that self conscious, open wound that was her weight. My exact words, yelled at her with all the fury I could muster, intending to teach her a lesson for hurting my brother were: “You burned my brother! You the are too old and too fat to cook, and you need to leave our kitchen, now!” She stood there for the longest time just staring at me, and then quietly took off her apron, and went to the living room, and sat down. My grandfather shooed us outside, where we stayed playing until my parents got home.
I realized trouble would be descending on me when they returned, but I felt righteous indignation that she had injured my brother, and believed someone needed to set her straight. Interestingly, once again, no one ever said a word about my outburst. The only thing I could attribute that to then and now was she kept it to herself, and thus spared me the consequences, which would have been extreme, of my childish, inappropriate anger.
Around the same age, my grandmother and I shared another experience that could have seriously altered a relationship not as grounded in love as ours. Keeping in mind we were country folk, the adults not too far down the road from the Great Depression, and all of them participants in the “Grapes of Wrath” migration to California from Oklahoma; it is easy to understand how simple and homespun our activities, as a family, were. One of our most pleasurable things was when we went to my dad’s and grandfather’s favorite fishing hole, a place they called Punkin Junction. We would eat a picnic dinner, then the men would go off through the woods to fish, while the women stayed behind in a shady clearing, and sewed doll clothes, or just visited.
This was a time when families had picnics on a cloth spread on the ground, and everyone sat around the cloth to eat; or if you were my grandmother, you sat on a fallen tree, because it was too difficult to get up and down from the ground. It was just after we all had finished eating, that early summer evening at Punkin Junction, when I ran full speed over to where my grandmother was sitting on her log, and threw myself onto it so I could sit beside her. To this day, I have no idea how someone as thin as I could cause what happened next; but, my weight and the speed with which I careened into the log forced her to shift her weight backwards, and “oh no, oh no”, this could not be happening; we both fell over, onto our backs, feet straight up in the air. Not such a big problem for an eight year old in dungarees, but an enormous problem for a three hundred pound grandmother who only wore Jersey dresses.
It all happened so fast, and once I caught my breath, and found I was not hurt, I looked over at my upside down grandmother, who was only uttering, “uh oh, uh oh!” over and over again, and I started to laugh. My dad and grandfather had rushed to her, and were trying desperately to upright the poor thing, and salvage some semblance of dignity for her. I, on the other hand, could not get a grip and stop laughing. My mother kept telling me to stop, but it was useless, because each time I glanced at those feet wiggling up in the air, I would convulse more than seconds earlier.
They finally got her up off the ground and back to a sitting position. I, too, was sitting by then, and waiting for what would come next. To this day, I can see her searching my face, my eyes for something I did not understand. And then, she began to laugh. That did it. I, too, started laughing again, and fell into her arms, completely engulfed in the funniest, heartiest laugh of my life. I do not know how long the two of us carried on that way, but when we began to settle down, she raised my chin with her hand, looked me in the eye, and told me between subsiding chortles, the surest truth anyone has ever imparted. “Sweetie, I do not know what life holds for you, but I will guarantee you this, if you can laugh along the way, especially at yourself, you will have a much better time of it than most”.
I miss that woman, and her presence in my life. We had a special bond, and by example, she taught so many things, especially how to forgive and love in spite of moments that deserved much less. And, there is the laughter. It, indeed, was a lesson well taught, and is well remembered; one I owe all to her, and hope I will successfully pass down to my grandchildren. And I do believe, when they are laughing with complete abandon, I hear her across the years and the heavens, sharing again in the joy that was us.