My grandmother ‘visited’

If she’d been asked what she did in life, my grandmother might have responded that she “visited.” Half the year she shared an apartment with my mother and me, and the other six months she visited her two nieces or stopped over with long-time friends.

Living quarters were tight in the home of the niece whose husband was a school headmaster. The family lived on the premises and Nana used to tell us that she enjoyed the challenge of getting into bed in the guest room that doubled as a train room for two young boys. By day, Lionel HO Gauge locomotives criss-crossed a waist-high plywood platform; by night, Nana scrunched down on her knees and rolled onto the mattress that was laid beneath the silos and grain elevators of a model farmland.

Widowed at age 40 with an 11-year-old daughter to raise on her own, my grandmother learned to live frugally on a monthly Social Security check plus a small pension from her Army service in World War I. She counted her pennies and when she sent me to the store to buy hamburger for dinner, I was instructed to ask the butcher for three-quarters of a pound of ground round, and not an ounce more. 

Nana didn’t own a home or a car, and she could count her few possessions on the fingers of one hand: an antique cherry rocking chair, an area rug, a bureau, and two delicate bud vases she brought back from wartime Paris. She clearly did not live a deprived life, but she did listen to a really different drummer. Most years he called to her in early January and we would find her one Saturday morning, sitting by the front door, single suitcase on the floor beside her. She’d be decked out in her best Sunday suit, gloves on, hat firmly in place, ready to be driven to the Greyhound Bus Station for the several days’ trip to Winter Park, Florida.   



Nana never had a job lined up, but she always traveled with the expectation that things would work out. One winter she helped out in a jewelry store owned by an elderly Chinese couple who paid her with the jade brooches and bracelets that now reside in the top drawer of my dresser. Some years she was a receptionist in a family-owned hotel, and other years she worked as hostess in the hotel’s dining room. Neither job paid much but she got her room and meals, not to mention the winter in Florida. 

Nana may not have been a fashion plate but she always wore dresses, never pants, and she always kept a hankie tucked up her sleeve. She loved to waltz around the living room, singing songs recorded by Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby, and humming her favorite WW1 tunes: “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “If You Were the Only Girl in the World,” and “Over There.” She loved rhubarb. Her only ablutions were glycerin and rose water, and she had to have Howard Johnson’s chocolate ice cream every night before bed, and often in the middle of the night. Once we got a TV, she religiously watched “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Lawrence Welk Show.” 

On rainy days Nana showed me how to build forts with dining chairs and blankets, and for years she was my greatest pal and co-conspirator. As for rules, she taught me about which ones were worth their weight in bat guano. 

When I wanted to start first grade with my friends, the state of Virginia ruled that I had missed the age cut-off by four months. Although Nana had never taught in a classroom, she pooh-poo’ed that edict and bought the textbooks that had been issued to my fully vested 6-year-old friends. On weekday mornings Nana and I learned to read, write and do our numbers at the dining room table, and I earned shiny paper stars for aced lessons.  Come noon, Nana and I would pack our favorite lunch of peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwiches, and head for the playground next to the elementary school. There we climbed our favorite tree and watched, as my sad-eyed, envious friends watched us from their fenced-in blacktop. 

The following September when I reported for school, it was clear that I had mastered first grade and I was able to join my friends in the second grade classroom. In the years that followed I graduated from college and went on to earn a Master’s degree from a prestigious university. 

Somewhere, I’m convinced, Nana is giggling about that.



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