When I started writing this, I was focused on a juxtaposition of the chores my Granny did and those that I do and what they meant to us, several generations apart. I may still write that story, but in getting started, I realized that there was a great deal more to Granny than chores, and that every single bit of her interested me. I began an exchange with my Mom, my Aunt Ann and my sister. I wanted to tap into our collective memory and perspective while it was still as fresh as possible. I wanted to write a bit of Granny’s story. And in the process, I have learned new details about her that I treasure. To any reader: delve into your history!! It is the fabric of life.
My Granny (born Lura Miriam Cunningham, although she went by Miriam and we don’t know why except that the aunt she was named after also went by her middle name) was born in Buhl, Idaho. She told stories about how a person could fry an egg on the sidewalk in the mid-summer heat.
When Granny found out, in early 2007, that I was moving my family to Boise, Idaho, she called it our “grand Idaho adventure.” She was delighted to have one of her own heading back to near where she started. It still brings a pang to my heart that her planned trip to visit us in spring of 2008 didn’t come to pass. Or perhaps it did, and I just didn’t notice her peeking at us from somewhere, nodding her approval.
One of my joys when I first moved to Idaho was emailing with Granny. It was a new thing for us. I created a series of questions for her to answer and she diligently worked on them. I wanted a direct path to her institutional wisdom of our family. When she passed away, my Uncle Howard found a document on her computer titled “For Christine.” It held the answers to the first few of my questions and it took me several months to actually read it, so badly did I want to save it. We were also sharing books. The last two I sent her were Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Water for Elephantsby Sara Gruen.
Granny was born of the Depression. She and her 4 siblings lived with very little through much of their growing up, though they never, ever, lacked in respect. After she read Eat, Pray, Love, she coyly asked me: “Christine, what is it you find attractive about the heroine? She is so self-indulgent and full of herself.”
Granny, wherever you are: I fear that is precisely what I connected to. I too have wanted to find the epitome of life’s meaning – savoring the [perfect] moments, finding the [perfect] balance, and ultimately, finding [soul-saturating, perfect] love. Is that too much to ask?
I am not certain I would be comfortable with her answer, however lovingly it was offered. And knowing Granny, she might have used that slightly prim tone of voice she used when offering an honest [negative] opinion. Whether it was the fit of one’s jeans, a bad haircut, or a boyfriend that she found lacking, she would comment with the tiniest smirk: “Honey, I think you could do better.”
My Granny passed away 12 years ago, in 2007, but not before leaving a healthy dose of all things practical and logical and strong with each of her kids and, ultimately, with her 14 grandchildren (of whom I am the oldest). Her legacies are many, but I am most touched by her penchant for rhyming (shared with her sisters), her refusal to play the victim, her self-respect, and her no-nonsense way in the world.
Granny is also responsible for many of my favorite foods (and I am one of those creatures who lives my own life story via the foods I encounter along the way). Her apple pie alone could send a person straight to the moon. (It’s all about the apples – preferably Macintosh.) Her fudge was similarly powerful, especially when it didn’t set and we got to eat it with spoons. My own dear Mama made me Granny’s apple pie, a whole pie just for me, to celebrate the birth of each of my daughters. And I ate every bite of each one. And, just saying, I earned it.
My Mom recalls:
“Granny was the heart of things. She was wise, caring, calm, inquisitive, principled, talented & very attractive. She had a great sense of humor. She hated to be conspicuous, but wanted her clothes perfect in case someone noticed her. She was a good cook, but a very picky eater.”
Granny raised her 5 kids (my Mom also the oldest) on a small cattle farm in southern Wisconsin. They all worked. HARD. Despite the amount of work, Granny believed that raising kids on a small farm in the rural mid-west in the 1950’s and ‘60’s was “almost ideal.” She valued the relative safety of the farm (calmly ignoring the dangers of the grain silo, a tempting pond full of snapping turtles, and so on). She also appreciated the privacy, the freedom and what she called “free” entertainment. I am guessing the farm kept her kids busy enough to stay out of trouble most of the time.
My Mom again:
“We frequently didn’t have access to a car, since we were a one-car family and Dad used it for getting to work, but there wasn’t really any place to go, so it didn’t much matter. We kids played outside endlessly, summer and winter. I remember climbing up the outside of the silo and needing to be rescued by Dad…making hay forts in the barn (really, really dangerous) …skating on the pond in the winter. Those were the fun parts…we also had daily chores: loading up heavy buckets of ground grain to feed steers, shoveling down wagon-loads of smelly silage for the same steers and the cows, putting out bales of hay for the cows, etc. Uncle Kim & I did most of that. We learned to drive a tractor almost as soon as our legs could reach the brake and clutch but I never could figure out how to back up a trailer hitched to a tractor.
…Granny seldom drove a tractor, but learned to drive a school bus and wrangled that thing through all kinds of weather for several years. One of Uncle Kim’s friends recalls having a crush on her when she drove the bus he rode, because she was so pretty.”
Farm breakfasts are something indulgent and romantic in my mind – fresh eggs, bacon, homemade pancakes. Granny was a simpler lady. My Aunt Ann remembers:
“For breakfast we had our choice of oatmeal, toast or cold cereal (not the sugared ones). When we were small [Granny] got our breakfast but as soon as we could reach the cupboards, we were on our own.”
Granny later coined a phrase about her own parenting style: “benign neglect.” She parented enough to keep her kids safe, fed and feeling loved. She was the opposite of a helicopter parent and expected her kids to do their work and take care of themselves without much being said. She wasn’t an overly emotional woman and while all of her kids and grandkids were crazy about her, she was more the type to offer a soft pat on the cheek or the head than a gushy hug. Tears were not her thing, nor was yelling. But she did have a quiet authority about her that got the job done. She also didn’t shy away from hard questions.
My Aunt Ann remembers that Granny called housework “the druthers.” She would make a list of household chores that constituted “women’s work” and she would have my Mom and her sister pick their “druthers”. Which would you druther do, carpet sweep the living room, dust or fold the clothes? Granny let them choose first, so she was stuck with whatever was left. She was like that…she quietly did her work, didn’t complain, and kept everything going.
When she had time to herself, which was infrequent, she would luxuriate in a fashion magazine, play her piano or refinish furniture. She was also the church organist, every other Sunday. Her other indulgence, and favorite treat, was chocolate covered cherries - the cheap ones, in the red and gold box. Her kids and then her grandkids would gift them to her on holidays and she frequently kept a box hidden in her dresser. Some holidays she ended up with quite a pile of them. If I find myself at a chocolate shop, I will still choose a chocolate covered cherry, one of the really good ones with liqueur and dark chocolate and a stem, in her honor. But really, she would have much preferred the cheap ones.
College, Marriage and All That
Despite coming from a family of very limited financial means and belonging to a generation that didn’t emphasize women’s education, Granny and her three older sisters all went to college. The elder three obtained teaching certificates. Granny, quite a bit younger, finished just one year at the University of Idaho before war broke out. Her "Tri-Delta" sorority pic is below, twinkle in her eyes and all.
She was on campus when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Ever the practical one, she recalled to her daughters:
“All the men just left…so I followed.”
She met Robert, a pharmacist in the army, while working at McChord Airforce Base in Washington State. By all accounts, he was very good looking, physically strong and charming. They were married in 1945 just as WWII was coming to an end. Granny followed him back to Wisconsin. They went on have 5 children, the last when Granny was 40. From the time my Mom was 12, and old enough to babysit her younger siblings, they went out dancing almost every Saturday night.
They had some decent years but ultimately, her husband was a brooding man and an alcoholic. On December 9, 1965, when their 5thchild was still a toddler and my Mom was almost 17, Granny left her husband and the farm in Wisconsin and headed west with all of the kids. She drove winter roads straight from Wisconsin to her sister’s home in Idaho, taking only what they could fit into the trunk. She filed for divorce when she arrived. She was the only person her kids had ever heard of to get a divorce. I bring this up not to dwell on the harder parts of her history, but to highlight her strength and bravery. She was not going to settle, nor allow her kids to settle, for an unhappy or uncertain home life.
Granny did remarry. A widowed neighbor from Wisconsin followed her west with his own two kids. In a sweet twist of fate, my Mom’s best friend became her step-sister and Uncle Kim’s best friend became his step-brother. Van is the “Gramp” I remember, and their yellow farm house in Mt. Vernon, Washington is the go-to home of my childhood memories. My sister and I would sleep in the twin beds upstairs, in the room with the linen chest, listening for the whistle of the night trains. Granny didn’t dote on us exactly, but she did keep Nestlé Quick in her lower cupboard for our visits. Gramp let us drive the riding lawnmower and I plucked my first (and only) chicken in their big, dark barn. I can vividly remember her enjoying her cigarettes, sitting at the round oak table by the window. She eventually gave those up, but she always missed them. My Aunt Ann:
“She missed them until the day she died. If we were with her and passed someone smoking, she would pause, just past them, tip her nose to the air, sniff and say, “Aaahhh” with a smile on her face.”
Granny and her older sisters were known for their rhymes. The family favorite is a rhyming exchange between the three sisters on the topic of a “panty girdle.” Dorothy starts it off with a poem to Harriet:
"I want to begift you a gift
And hope that your pique won’t be miffed
But the one I’m proposing
And I am supposing
That this won’t be cause for a rift.
Tho’ neither needs much to be added
And both are quite equally padded
The question that bugs me,
The puzzle that tugs me…
Would you rather be lifted or padded?”
Her sister had a similarly sassy response referencing her buns and a wiggle or two, ending with “Your respectful, dubious of your intent, sister, Harriet.”
Then Granny got into it:
I’m feeling left out
As words bandy about
Concerning our sister’s flat behind
But this I must say
On entering the fray
To be rounder, I wouldn’t mind.”
It goes on, and gets sillier. And I love it. And I do it too, the rhyming thing. About the birthday cards for her many grandchildren:
Her cards were always on time
With a crisp $5.00 bill…
And a sweet little rhyme.
I used to use my $5.00 for a fancy coffee drink.
Given that my Mom was raised on a cattle farm, it makes perfect sense that I was raised as a meat and potatoes girl, although in my own home I am more likely to cook chicken and quinoa (you know the type). But I always loved pot roast the way my Mom and Granny made it. In October of 2007, I called my Mom for the pot roast recipe – I was branching out and wanted to treat my family to something traditional. I made it and it was amazing. And that evening, my Mom called back to say that Granny had passed away that afternoon.
That still gets to me, in a beautiful way. I have been so grateful in the years since that I was more deeply connected to my Granny in her last months, having had no idea at the time that they were indeed her last. And I am oddly reassured that I gave in to pot roast on the very day she left this world.
When I went home to Washington for Granny’s memorial service, I stayed up late into the night with my Mom and sister Patti. We remembered and we laughed and we cried. And I wrote a long rhyming love poem to her, which I read to the congregation the next day, through thick tears, holding my sister’s hand. Sadly, none of us can find it, which breaks my heart quite a bit. But still, it was. And it was just perfect.
All of us still have days when we wish we could share a bit more with her. 12 years hasn’t been nearly long enough to diminish that. I wonder if she would like my tattoo. I wish she could see the old yellow farm house I insisted on moving to 2 years ago, partly, I’m sure, because it reminded me of her old yellow farm house. I would love for her to see the business I helped to create – I think she would be proud. But in writing this, I do feel closer to her than I have in years and profoundly grateful for her memory. Below is Granny at one of our family Christmas gatherings, still looking sassy, with a glimmer in her eyes and a sly smile on her face.
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