The Path to Grandma’s house

There are many under-appreciated people in our lives, don’t you think? People without whom we might live a very different existence, or inhabit an unfamiliar mind. And, especially, there are those who have not only  affected us, but also those who care for us: our families.

I never thought of my grandmother like that, but I suppose that was because she was such an inseparable part of my early days, and she was the pentimento over which I had been able to paint my life. She must have had the same effect on my mother because, in those early days my father’s job required that we move frequently, and before instant communication or affordable long-distance telephone calls, she would write to my grandmother every day, and scrabble worriedly through the daily mail for a reply.

Advice seemed foremost in her maternal yearnings, I think -I was not the child she had expected after raising my brother who was a full ten years older than me. She always seemed visibly relieved after reading whatever suggestions the most recently arrived letter might have to offer. Of course, I never really knew what was written in their letters. Only many years later when I was clearing out some of my mother’s things did I find an old yellowed envelope from my grandmother to my mother that for some reason had never been opened. In Grandma’s unmistakeable curly rounded cursive, I could see she was trying to reassure my mother about some behaviour I had been manifesting at the time, and asked her to let me stay with her for some holiday that must have been approaching. I suddenly realized the value my grandmother must have been, not only to me, but even more so to my mother.

It was always a treat to see my grandmother; always a treat to hear her talk with her broad mid-country English dialect, replete with all its quaint 19th century idioms she had made her own. Whenever she was surprised at something, for example, her eyebrows would shoot up onto her wrinkled forehead, her eyes would imitate twinkling dinner-plates, and she would shake her head, uttering “What can I do to be saved?” Or sometimes, if she thought something I’d said was foolish or incorrect,  she’d mutter “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” I don’t remember her being particularly religious or anything, but she did like to quote from Blake -especially his poem, The Tyger. So, sometimes, if ever I had the audacity to roll my eyes at something she’d said to me, she would roll hers in mockery and whisper, “In what furnace was thy brain?” She didn’t suffer fools like me without rebuke, even when she was very old.

Of course the years wore holes in her memory and she sometimes lost her place in Time. Her present was evanescent; she seemed more comfortable in her past. It was often where she lived.

 It was always a treat to hear her stories -especially the ones about my mother before she met my dad. “She was often lonely, your mother,” Grandma would say, and her eyes would focus on something far away in her room -years away, in fact. “She didn’t have many friends…  well, certainly no man-friends,” she would add after thinking about it some more. “She wanted to be a teacher, she used to say, and I used to tease her about it being more important to meet a man first.” Then Grandma’d send her eyes on a reconnaissance mission to my cheeks to see if I’d understood her meaning. “It was different in those days, dear. A woman needed to find a man to take care of her… unless of course she was planning to live at home forever with her parents as a spinster,” she added, just to make sure I was following her reasoning.  “Of course we don’t think of women that way anymore…” That would occasion a sarcastic blink, and an innocent expression on her face which I’m sure she’d used on many unsuspecting men when she herself was young. Then she would smooth a wrinkle on her skirt, or pick some lint off her blouse as if she were embarrassed. “But she was certainly her mother’s daughter,” she would suddenly continue. “She and I both used to have loud words with your grandpa about it…” And she would follow that with a theatrical shrug and utter her ‘what could she do to be saved’ phrase and laugh.

“Your mom surprised your grandpa one day, though, and brought your dad home to meet us.” Grandma’s eyes twinkled at the memory. “I could see your dad hiding something behind his back when he was invited into the parlour. Grandpa noticed it immediately, of course, and demanded your father show him what he was hiding.

“I can still remember the smile on your dad’s face as he produced some flowers and handed them to me. Your mom beamed with pleasure, insisting it was completely his idea.

“Actually, I recognized the flowers immediately, and took them into the kitchen to find a vase to put them in. Unfortunately, your grandpa also had a chance to look at them as I was leaving the room. He put his hands in his pockets, and started rocking on and off his toes -not an encouraging sign.

“’Good choice,’ your Grandpa said, trying hard not to smile. ‘Are they the ones from our front garden or the back, young man?’ And then he laughed and patted your father on the shoulder. ‘I like a man with initiative,” he added, then shook his hand so hard, I thought it might break.

“They remained good friends for the rest of their lives… Grandpa always insisted your mom and dad leave you and your brother with us so they could have some time for themselves… You used to hide in the basement watching him feed the canaries he bred in those big cages, remember…?”

I’d forgotten about them, actually.

“…And visit him in his little hardware store on Kingsway?”

That was the thing about my grandma: the memories. She was stuffed with them -memories I would have forgotten without her, parts of me that would have been lost in my increasingly tangled neurons forever. In a way in fact, her patience and understanding made me who I am today, and my mother the woman she became, as well.

It’s my memories that dominate now, however -they are all that remain of the years when my grandparents were alive. And it sort of reminded me of the ‘Grandmother Hypothesis’ that I recently saw in an article in the Smithsonian Magazine written by Elizabeth Landau. (

I have to admit I’d never heard of it until then, but it involved the idea that ‘grandmothers step in to feed young children and perform other motherly duties so that mothers can focus their own energy and resources on having more children at shorter intervals. The result is that a grandmother enables the birth of more descendants, leaving more copies of her genes in subsequent generations.’ A bit contrived, I think, but nonetheless intriguing.

And, even though my mother stopped having children after I was born, surely the original intent of the hypothesis was to highlight the value of the extended family and its advantages for the success of the progeny: quality, rather than quantity. And anyway, I’m sure that Grandma figured she’d already spread the family genes widely enough by the time I came along… My mother would have smiled at that.

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