I want to tell you about my grandmother.
Mildred Jones (née Prentice) was her name and she was a cool drink of water. For six-year-old me, she was an avatar of power, independence and love. She was feisty, fierce, sharp and extremely funny.
I enjoyed the way she embodied her role of Head Matriarch of our family, particularly during holiday meals when she would hold court as she worked the stove. She was Empress-like even as she mashed turnips, hollering at her son-in-laws to bring up the extra bridge tables and chairs (muttering “lily-livered sap-suckers” under her breath if they took too long), and adding salt, salt and more salt to the potatoes. My cousins, sister and I would stay out from under foot, spinning records in the basement and doing the bumps to The Bay City Rollers, coming up juuuust in time to set the table. Invariably, Grandma would help us find the “right” table protector for under the table cloth (there were several), and would throw us a sharp look (with an unmistakable gleam in her eye) demanding to know why singers of the day were so unimaginative and overused the word “baby”.
“Why do they have to say bay-BAYYYYYYYY all the time?”
It was clear, crystal clear, that it was her joy to have everyone around. I remember her contented smile as surveyed her flock around the table as we helped ourselves to yet another serving of her sublime trifle.
I also have vivid memories of summers up in Wymbolwood. Days were far more more fun when Grandma was there. Things were livelier, brighter and shinier. That’s how I remember it. This picture was taken only a couple of months before she passed away.
My fondest memories, however, were of Wednesday nights when my sister and I would traditionally sleep over at her house. In the evening, we would heatedly debate dinner options: would we “dine out” (usually at “The Chicken Palace,” aka Swiss Chalet) and NOT have dessert OR would we “dine in” but get to have one of her incredible sundaes (in the old school glasses with the WORKS: nuts, aerosol whipped cream, fudge sauce, maraschinos). This would keep us all occupied for some time and the decision was moot…both options were a treat with her. She also had an exceptionally hot orange muscle car (okay, Plymouth) and an apparent need for speed that made any outing fun.
Getting tucked in by her was delicious…because it was quiet and sweet. She would sing the same song she sung to my mother, who sang it to me, who sings it to my girl, who sings it to her Bear.
In spite of that tenderness that makes me catch my breath even as I commit it to screen, the highlight of the sleepover invariably occurred in the morning: with an Old Hollywood affectation, she would approach her closet, fling open the doors with great flourish to reveal an impressive collection of polyester pantsuits in a rainbow of colours. She would intone most theatrically: “which one of my glooooooorious creations shall I wear today?” I would squeal with delight and help her decide between kelly green or fuchsia…my two favourites.
A couple of years after my grandfather Charlie passed away, Grandma took in a series of boarders to help pay the bills. This was the late 70s so most men had long-ish hair and full beards so I always felt a little intimidated by them. But it was clear that they were intimidated by her, this sharp-eyed Queen in her polyester pantsuit with language as salty as her potatoes (while she didn’t swear often, when she did, she got it all out in one fell swoop: “shitandgoddamnedittohell!”) They very happily trimmed her roses and cleaned her gutters. And she very happily baked them pies.
It’s not surprising that I remember my grandmother from the lens of what I admire: humour, strength, love, independence. I cherish the few memories I have and hold the few lessons I have gleaned close:
say what’s on your mind and never be afraid of a good debate;
commit to the sundae;
set the table with reverence;
fling a Frisbee with abandon;
potatoes are just better with salt;
fun is an choice…make it; and,
above all, family.
I know my sister and cousins have their own memories and learnings, mitigated by their experience with her through their respective lenses. I can’t help but wonder how she WANTED to be remembered. What legacy of wisdom did she WISH to bequeath us? If there was ONE THING she wanted for us to carry forward, what would it have been?
Who really knows.
Today is my mother’s (Mildred’s daughter, Brenda) birthday. It saddens me to know that my daughter will have no real memories of her maternal grandmother*, as she was only eight-months-old when Mom died. But she will have a patina of recollection fed by my stories of how perfectly my mother embodied Mildred the Instigator and Charlie the Pacifist. She will know her lineage. She will feel my mother and she will feel Mildred. She will know their stories. Most specifically, I believe she will carry this jewel of wisdom and heart throughout her days.
Yes, wisdom is a legacy.
I read somewhere recently: You won’t be remembered—I won’t be either. That’s where the freedom lies.
And so, I invite you to consider, whether you are in a position to be a grandparent or not: what ONE piece of wisdom would you string along the chain of ancestral wisdom that is the human collective? If you had but one bead, what would yours read?
* - Our daughter is blessed to have her beloved paternal grandmother in living colour...a woman whom she adores (as do I).