I’m sure you will be unsurprised to know that I descend from a long line of firecracker women.
When I was a little girl, my desire to be just like my grandmother was very prominent. The sun rose and set with her. I’d never known anyone else who longed to make art, to create lovely things with her hands, as constantly and even borderline desperately as I did; and I loved that connection. She painstakingly lettered anything from yard sale signs to city fire trucks, wrote delicate calligraphy, sketched wonderful likenesses in charcoal and ink, and, to me, seemed to leave some sort of beauty wherever she landed.
If you ever took M-44 west out of Belding at Christmastime, you might have glimpsed a big front window painted cheerfully with families of snowmen, or Santa Claus on his sleigh, or Rudolph with his rosy nose. I sat behind her for hours while she sketched those hazy scenes in white chalk I could barely see, then brought them gradually to life with great big bottles of bright tempera paint. The greatest injustice I could possibly imagine, as a small child, was my mother’s outright refusal to let me paint on her windows at home. The agony! The despair! The tragic application of common sense! It was a hard knock life, I tell you. I only wanted to be like grandma – couldn’t she see?
I have spent a little less time actively pursuing our similarities as an adult; but they are plainly there, and there I suspect they shall stay. For example, that skillful command of expression and body language which can stall any hooligan in his tracks:
Truthfully, all of the women in my family inherited this, but she was the master.
She once informed me as a matter of fact that when children grow up to be teenagers and then adults, they don’t care as much about spending time with their grandmas. She told me that it was perfectly natural, but at nine years old, I shook my head and I vehemently disagreed. I would never love anywhere the way that I loved grandma’s house!
I have returned to that moment so often. I carried it with me all the way to Virginia, and even from six hundred miles away, I practically glowed with pride as I snapped pictures of my first hand-lettered sign hanging above the woodshop’s door. I sent them off to my mother with single-minded intent: “Please show these to grandma, and tell her I still want to be just like her someday.”
Every frustrating smudge of ink, each delicate stitch of embroidery, hour after hour of scrupulous attention to serifs and silent upstrokes; I always think of her.
Her obituary can tell you the details. It will say how she loved local history and dedicated years of her time and energy to the historical society, as well as to the fire department women’s auxiliary. She loved and supported the many firemen in her life; especially her husband, who was deputy chief, and her son. (In fact, she even completed her own Fire 1 certification once upon a time, and I hear that she didn’t nick so much as a single traffic cone.) The numbers are all there: 85 years of life, 65 years of marriage, 3 children, 7 grandchildren, 9 great-grandchildren, and one little great-great-grandson. I know my mom and her siblings and my grandma’s many friends could tell you decades’ worth of stories I have probably never heard.
However, I am a granddaughter. I am a young sprout, even yet. I have soft memories of charcoal pencils, cabbage soup, and old roller skates. Sketchbooks stashed in every room in the house. Television re-runs all day long with Andy Griffith or Gilligan and the Skipper. Red daylilies and embroidery hoops, crooked haircuts, and the gentlest of back rubs whenever I felt tired or troubled. I remember a woman who could make a little child feel more treasured than anyone else in the world.
And that tenderness, especially, is how I will always long to be just like my grandmother.
(November 16, 1930 – February 2, 2016)