It was totally MIke’s idea to invite my Grandma to move in, and it wasn’t until she did that I realized I hadn’t ever been able to spend any time with her while I was growing up. In fact, I didn’t know her at all. As we helped her unpack her stuff, I came across one of those little ceramic spoon rests someone had placed on the stove. It said “Betty’s Kitchen,” and I thought: “the hell it is.” This could go wrong really fast.
I didn’t know what to expect from our arrangement. Would she try to assume the position of supreme matriarch of the household? Be overbearing and bossy? That’s my job.
I didn’t have to worry. Grandma could be assertive, but more often she was playful. She and the boys were co-conspirators in slipping table scraps to the dog, something they resorted to practically every evening after ruining their dinner. She always had a private stash of chocolate and popsicles she was happy to share with the boys.
Her dry sense of humor helped her fit right in with our troupe. One night at dinner, one year-old Colin was doing the whole, adorable baby babble thing: making random sounds with a cadence that made you think if you concentrated hard enough you would be able to understand what he was saying.
“Colin!” Jack said, slapping his hand on the table. “Mom, Colin just said ‘would you look at Great Grandma’s hair,’ and that’s just rude.”
Grandma pushed at the messy curls on her head.
“Well Colin, I’m having it done tomorrow, so stop fussing.”
In the years she was living with us, she shared copious stories about her childhood. I formed a picture in my head of her as a curly-haired girl and then a young woman: starting grade school early because her sister was too timid to go alone, then skipping a grade and graduating early. Too young to drive or date or do any of the other things her peers were able to do, I imagine she was lonely.
She talked about her early years with Grandpa in Idaho Falls, one of a handful of Catholic families in a very Mormon community. Here she had her first and really only experience in business, selling Catholic church supplies and gifts out of her home store. Any story Mike or I brought home about work she related back to that experience of keeping books and managing inventory for her own business.
Grandma was generous, and like a lot of people of her generation, seemed to think if someone went to the trouble to ask for something, they probably really needed it, and she should give it. It could be a $10 check for a cancer charity or a sheriffs’ association (half of which would pay some telemarketing company), or the opportunity to switch out her long distance telephone service for the umpteenth time. It wasn’t hard to convince Grandma to give you money. I know, having heard most of the sales pitches. Most of the time when Grandma talked on the phone she didn’t realize she had hit the speaker button, giving me plenty of opportunities to eavesdrop and occasionally intercede.
If someone told Grandma something, if she heard it on television or read it in a piece of bulk mail, she assumed nothing but the unvarnished truth. Usually. When I told her that the beeping in my car was actually a warning that she was about to be ejected instead of a reminder to buckle up, she knew I was pulling her leg. I’m pretty sure.
Then again, she was able to convince me that the cat liked to watch the Fox News channel while the rest of us were sleeping. I’m not a huge fan of cats anyway, but now whenever I hear Bill O’reilly I have to fight the urge to drop kick something furry.
I came to realize that Grandma’s complete lack of guile or avarice, or ability to suspect it in others, was more of a personality trait than the naivety of someone getting on in years. It has cemented that image of her in my imagination as a young woman with a sweet smile who finished school early and was soon after swept off her feet by a dashing young Army Air Corps pilot.
But there was strength to her too. I saw it in the way she held herself, her back ramrod straight, shoulders back because she worried that, like other polio victims, she might one day walk with a slouch.
I saw it in the way she let our hundred-pound dog stand on the tops of her feet so he could better reach the bit of toast she always saved for him as she finished her breakfast.
I saw it in the way she always sat in the front passenger seat of the taxi so she could better talk with the driver and not put on airs about being chauffeured around.
When she lived with us, she didn’t try to assume any position of authority, she simply loved and listened and gave. She delighted in the kids, she looked forward to her weekly shopping excursions and long, gabby phone calls with friends and family. She lived an uncomplicated life for the most part, bearing the many medical trials of her later years and the slow loss of friends and family members who passed before her with scant complaint.
Rest well, Betty Jean. We are honored to have known you.