Turning the spotlight on Grandma, if we can

As I think of them, the spotlight is usually on Grandpa. He was, after all, the outgoing one. Grandma – quiet, reserved, shy – apparently preferred to stay in the shadow. Now, as I reexamine, I sense she may have been frail but held a strength that went unseen. If their dynamic wasn’t precisely mutually complementary or harmonious, she still found a way to survive within its bounds, sometimes even playfully.

For example, in summertime when I see fireflies – a rarity in my part of New England – I think of Grandma. She was the one who handed us cousins glass jars with lids that had air holes punched in and told us to collect “lightning bugs.” And she must have pointedly admired our results. In contrast, I know we found our own jars and pounded nails through the lids when we repeated the process on Oakdale Avenue, but for whatever reasons, those memories aren’t nearly as vivid.

I’ve often thought of Grandma as simple-minded but devout. Perhaps a closeness to the divine can exist in such a state, which could explain the ministers who filched from her religious experiences rather than their own. On another level, she proudly displayed her salt-and-pepper shaker collection in a breakfront in the dining room, insisting “it will be valuable someday,” which never materialized. I see her as slight, with weak eyesight, quiet, humble to the point of self-effacing, and yet, in her own way, stubborn – or faithful in whatever essentials.

Whatever the nature of their relationship, she appeared to go into “grandma mode” early, donning the the clunky, thick-heeled black shoes and formless print dresses of an older generation. This becomes perplexing when reviewing the earlier photos, with their flashes of a sense of style that plays out in her children. The Gettysburg Avenue shot, for instance, shows the young girls wearing cloche hats. Dad, meanwhile, often appears in natty knickers and a sporty golfing cap.

*   *   *

One of the highlights of my summers involved taking classes at the museum of natural history, about a mile and a half across the Stillwater River from McOwen Street. I had the option of taking the trolley from Watervliet Avenue, which involved long treks from both bus stops, or of staying at Grandpa and Grandma’s. One advantage of being at their place was that I could ride my bicycle to and from the museum. As I got older, I even rode my bike a few times from Oakdale to McOwn and back – a round trip of about 10 miles through city traffic.

What comes to mind now from those weeks is a small pile of freshly laundered clothes neatly stacked – the unspoken, caring touch.

Still, Grandma had a silly streak that could amused us. She was the one who introduced the sparkling birthday candles to our cakes – and later the ones that kept reigniting after being blown out. She also had the Chia pet heads, with the grass sprouting, or the painted metal rocking birds that “drank” water from a glass.

She valued her garden club membership, which surprised me, considering the thin potted plants in winter against gauzy curtains in the dining room. Just what were they? TJ confirmed my dim recollections: “Yes, Mom did belong to a graden club. She had African violets in the shelves on either side of the kitchen window. I believe she had those large ferns in the dining room windows. She loved her flowers and her small vegetable garden.” Looking at the photos, I realized I’d forgotten about the window boxes and the bird bath and roses in the back yard, where she was found after a fatal heart attack June 21, 1972.

*   *   *

Grandpa would live another decade, remarrying and moving to Preble County, just a few miles from where he’d grown up and where my father was born.

Grandma’s death came when I had already set out in the world, working on the East Coast, before leaping to the Pacific Northwest and back.

Our memories of grandparents, regardless, are essentially those of childhood. And thus subject to distortions and coloring.

Some images are distinct and powerful.

False teeth sitting in a drinking glass on the kitchen windowsill remain  vivid. “And so I told Doc Murphy,” or whoever the family dentist was, “take ‘em all out,” rather than the elaborate and more painful treatment of the time, as Grandpa related to other adults during one Sunday dinner.

Still, that impression’s been a repeated inspiration for me to pursue good dental hygiene, along with an appreciation for the wonders of modern dentistry.

Although my dad’s hair balded, Grandpa’s remained thick, though graying, unlike the balding gene my Dad and I inherited from Grandma’s Ehrstines. So we follow her line more than I’d expected.

I wonder just how they viewed beauty or style. Grandpa’s old gold wristwatch was well made, but with no sense of visual elegance or taste.  He had the steep slope in front of their house, for example, replaced with a hideous rust-streaked stone wall. There was a lavatory in the basement, mostly for office use, via an outdoor stairwell. Upstairs, the bathroom had been remodeled soap-green, no doubt supposed to resemble jade. It seemed there was always a rubber ducky or two, which we loved to hold underwater to squeeze and fill to make it spit when we lifted it and squeezed again. Later, when Grandpa bought a house across the street and converted it to apartments, he was proud of the bathrooms – the most hideous colors imaginable, even before the psychedelic ‘60s really set in.

But what did Grandma think of all this? Did she have any influence?

Did some part of her even want to be back on the farm, rather than in the city?

I remember she worked at one point at Elders department store downtown and liked it. We had to go up several flights of dark-brown escalators to get there. But, as I learn Grandpa preferred her to stay home. So it went.

Along the stairs in the dining room sat an upright piano. As far as I know, only Aunt Edna played, and we never sang together, except in church. Edna served as church organist, too, with a unique style Uncle John remembers fondly. Wilma said, “I never heard Grandma [Ehrstine] play, although she had a very nice piano and music.” Grandpa and Grandma’s musical tastes seemed to run more along the lines of Lawrence Welk’s TV show. Still, I have an LP Grandma gave me one Christmas, a recording of Rachmaninoff’s second concerto. Now I admire the effort she made to get it, even if at the time I may have been disappointed it wasn’t by one of the star pianists or conductors I would have recognized. Part of what I treasure now is knowing it’s a better performance than many of the bigger names had turned in.

As kids, though, we marched straight to the toy box with its weird wooden block men to stack or the Chinese checkers we didn’t play. The boys might have to compete for use of the wooden bolt-action toy rifle.

What I didn’t fully appreciate was Grandma’s goofy sense of humor.


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