Chewing Words

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Vignette: Memoried Grandma

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World War II, Brazil

Grandma was an avid reader. Her bookshelves were lined with some of the most diverse authors and genres that as a child I thought were terribly dull because they had no pictures. But she would read to me. And when she did, I didn’t need pictures because Grandma could paint a story with her voice that pulled me into the pages, crooked in the cozy curve of her arm. She read the stories of Scheherazade to me as a young girl, the name in Persian, شهرزاد, beautifully mysterious, a drawing imbued with meaning I wanted to discover. She bought me my poesy books by Shel Silverstein, adored and dog-eared. She gifted me with Coleridge’s Kubla Khan,

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

She and grandpa lived in a drafty, old, two-storey Victorian an hour’s drive from us. By the time I was born, most of her 6 children were nearly grown. The drive, for a small girl, was entirely too long, too boring, too MUCH. But the anticipation of seeing Grandma again was a tingly happiness in the pit of my belly.

Daddy drove the brick-colored Chevrolet Vega wagon out of town, through the outlying hills mottled with cows and scrub oaks, the swirl of menthol hitting our noses as eucalyptus berries crushed beneath the tires. We’d climb the North Coast Ranges, the car laboring on the inclines, heading toward the sea. Zooming up and past the county dump. Slowing for the precarious bends of Stage Gulch Road. Speeding up on the straight-away of Old Adobe. Climbing again at Middle 2 Rock and Bodega Avenue. Passing Gorilla Rock with its shaggy moss shoulders. Then the road would finally, gently drop near Chileno Valley. Daddy would pump the brakes, descending to the Shoreline Highway. The tick-tick-tick of the turn signal kept pace with my excitement. Grandma’s house and her soft-chested hugs were only a matter of minutes away. A twist of the wheel to the right, my face pressed against the glass as we rolled by the white, spired church where I was baptized, we’d enter the two-street village where Grandma lived.

They lived in a dip between mountains, where the land tumbled down in its race to meet the sea. My grandparents’ housemates were always 3 to 5 of their nearly grown children, my aunts’ and uncles’ hippie friends (I never could tell the boys from the girls) and a menagerie of animals. There was the crow who stole my hairclips straight from my curls; the raccoon whose black hands were warm on my fingertips when he reached for the oatmeal cookies; the bushy pony who ignored anyone who sat on his back, nonchalantly chewing grass as you kicked his sides. The cats splayed in the sun on the stone path from the kitchen to the barn. The dovecot rustled with feathers and the low coo of the Eurasian collared doves. We celebrated Easter and Christmas and Thanksgiving there. Flying kites in the field up the road, my uncles would run with me and my sister until we were breathless and muddy, grass stains on our knees. My aunts would walk us down to the corner store, one of those now-extinct places where canned peaches and lightbulbs and nails populated the shelves, and we’d choose penny-candy from the glass jars at the counter.

It seems it was within the space of just a few years that Grandma and Grandpa moved back to our town where they had originally begun growing their brood of six. Grandpa had his business here and the daily drive between his home and his office was long and dangerous. Their children were grown; it was time to move from the country and back into town. They purchased a house in the foothills across the road from the biggest wine family in the valley. Grandma was not a Keep-Up-With-the-Jones’ sort; she simply loved the house that was built to look like a barn, with a kitchen fashioned after the galley of a ship. By then, the raccoon had disappeared and the crow had been mysteriously poisoned. But the cats and the doves were towed behind the old pickup with the pony. A curmudgeon of horse, Tony the Pony was put to pasture in the back acreage.

Perhaps my memory plays tricks on me; I haven’t talked to my family to be certain of years and dates. But it seems they had just moved to town and it wasn’t long before Grandma began journeying around the globe again. During WWII, she had served in Brazil, a 27-year old sophisticate who’d lived a life of débutante balls and a little bit of privilege, but who’d run away to escape all of that as well as a past stippled with holes none of us has been able to accurately fill. She’d had an itchy foot all her life so when her nest emptied, she took flight.

I missed her fiercely when she’d go away. There was no one like her. I was a school girl in uniform by then, walking to her house every day. She understood my quirkiness. My fascination with words and sentences tickled her to no end. She talked to me like a person not an after-thought and used multi-syllabic words. If I didn’t understand, she’d make me fetch the 5 inch Merriam-Webster’s upstairs in her office and look up words. Baking, she taught me how to peel an apple so the entire skin came off in one, long streamer and how to break off bits, tossing them over my shoulder to see the initials written in rind of who my true love would be. She’d set before me a new set of paints and paper, leaning over my shoulder, my paw in her hand, showing me how the color could be guided with pigment and water. So when she would leave, my world necessarily changed. It would fold in on itself and become more still, less vibrant.

Grandma was a prolific letter writer. I have never before or since met anyone who writes letters like hers; newsy and sweet and descriptive and thoughtful and long and masterful. She would doodle or paint in the margin of every sheet, small scenes of the people she’d met or the new food she’s eaten. She was the original cut & paste, snipping our heads from photos and pasting them to paintings she’d made or pictures she’d torn from magazines. Her letters, for me, were a solace and a wealth. Most, if not all, have been saved and stored away in my garage. When I lived abroad, she and I corresponded like pen-pals. When she died, I found many of my letters boxed in her attic among the broken chairs and winter clothes. The postmarks spanning years from Norway then Italy reminding me of the itchy-footed inheritance she’d left me.

Fierce, she is my fiercest love.

“Ungrateful reader,” says Machado, “if you don’t keep the letters you have written in your youth, you will not know one day the philosophy of old pages, you will not enjoy the pleasure of seeing yourself far away, in the shadows, with a three-cornered hat, seven league boots and a long Assyrian beard, dancing to the rhythm of anachronistic bagpipes.”

~ from Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary

(1/364: PostADay)

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Written by cr8df8

January 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks, Frizztext. I still miss her and wish she could have met my daughter. She would have been in complete LOVE.

    cr8df8

    January 2, 2011 at 1:18 pm

  2. a great tribute to your grandma!

    frizztext

    January 2, 2011 at 2:22 am


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