The Washerwoman’s Genes

December 7, 2006

The Big-Big Parents

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:16 am

What’s so grand about grandparents? I wondered about this as a child, you know. Typical of me: snagged by words that didn’t quite fit, words that sprouted questions.

Now I realize, of course, it must be from the French. Les grand parents: crunch that r in the back of your throat, drop the plosive d, squeeze your nose tight. And this, translated, means, big parents, big as in Grand Canyon.

Now the word makes me picture an extended family, with a tiny, tiny baby held between the regular-size Momma and Poppa, and all of them loomed over by the swollen giant shadows of les Grand Parents.

Today people rue the loss of the extended family, but les grandparents looming is not what every momma and poppa want.

My first home was a cottage next to my Irish grandmother’s house. It was wood frame with minimal amenities (as one would say today)—a water closet (one toilet in, yes, a closet), a kitchen sink, a gas stove, an ice box. (I saw the ice man cometh throughout my youth). The house was heated by a coal furnace in the parlor (not a cute wood stove, mind you, a furnace, possibly installed by my plumber-dad). I was bathed in a washtub; my parents must have borrowed a shower somewhere from time to time. Before us, my mother’s sisters and their husbands and babies bunked there until they got their feet under them and moved on.

Until I was five, I saw Grandma Jennie regularly. She was too old to come across the yard and visit us. Heck, she’d been born, to my best estimates, in 1874.

Mostly I remember being in her house—a dark room, people crowded in, chatter of voices, milky tea in big cups for the children, wooden chairs and a table of some kind. I’m not even sure if the room I remember was the parlor or the kitchen, but it was a room for laughing in.

One time she did visit us, at some small family gathering in the cottage. She and I went for a walk hand-in-hand on the road across from the house. I strained to pull a flower, a blue cornflower, my favorite, and I pulled her right over. She couldn’t get back up, but she held on tight to me, afraid I’d get hurt in the road. I yelled, and she yelled, and everyone poured out of the house to rescue her. When they learned it was all because of a flower, they yelled at me for knocking her down. She wasn’t, of course, exactly steady on her feet, being not only old but partial to whiskey. Nevertheless: I’m sorry, Grandma.

You don’t want to be the cause of somebody falling in the road, especially your ancestor. I think we’re reaching for flowers here. We’re hoping to make that chart of les big-big and les big-big-big parents. The chart where they’re up above us, looming. The part about where they fall down, well, it’s part of the narrative, small print on the next page.

* * * * * *

Les Big-Big, Cont.

We got our own house and became our own solo nuclear family. Eventually my dad built an apartment on the second floor for my other grandma, his mother. Here is where some actual looming came in.

Grandma Josie was rather opinionated about how children should be raised. In particular, she thought they should be raised Methodist. She raised my older half-brother so, even though I believe he’d been baptized in a Catholic Church—his deceased mother was a Kildare. And here my Dad had gone and married another Catholic.

When I went upstairs to pay my grandmother a visit, she tried to evangelize me. She reminisced about a blind preacher she had heard speak in her youth at a “revival” (whatever that was). She showed me her Bible and read to me from it and seemed faintly shocked that I was completely unfamiliar with the book. Never mind its contents—its tissue pages and red titles were nothing I’d ever seen before. I was seven or so at the time, and I was getting an A in catechism, but her lesson introduced an alien world. She spoke gently against statues and Virgin Marys and told me to watch a particular preacher on the TV who didn’t need fancy robes and ringing bells to spread the word of Jesus.

I didn’t exactly rat on my Grannie—but with bursting mixed emotions at hearing so much new in the realm of God—I told my mom. I wanted to hear her view.

It was not positive: Grandma is a different religion and she doesn’t believe the same as us. Ignore it.

But it didn’t end there for the grown-ups. There was some sort of late-night discussion, heated enough I could hear it from my bed, about this bad behavior on my grandma’s part. I never visited her by myself again. There were from then on quite separate worlds in our divided house.

The Ladies Aid from the Methodist Church that Grandma had attended in her previous town picked her up for church. She didn’t much visit us downstairs, and we didn’t visit her up there. She watched us children come and go through her windows. She grew African violets in a planter.

Once I expressed to my mother some sorrow about not knowing my grandmas very well. In late elementary school I had become aware of children whose grandmothers were close family. My mother told me her philosophy that it wasn’t good for children to be too close to their grandparents, because they would be too hurt when the old folks passed away. I’m sorry, Grandma.


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