Grandma Didn’t Like Us Very Much

In my childhood, it was only in books that grandmothers taught love by sharing baking secrets or by stepping in whenever Mom couldn’t be there. And since my maternal grandmother died years before I was born, my ideas of ‘grandma’ were influenced by my paternal grandmother, a woman whom the word “distanced” doesn’t begin to describe.

It was the summer of 1959, a transformational summer when I learned that yes, my dad’s mother really did dislike us. It  was the year that I learned that life is often complicated and often cruel. But it took many years and lots of thinking before I realized that I had been raped by reality.

“Rape” is such a strong word but I have no other word to describe the sense of losing my childhood naivete that everyone loved us.

That was the summer my family moved into my grandmother’s house while our four-room duplex was remodeled into a two-story, single family home. Living on site amidst falling plaster and gutted plumbing was out of the question, as was renting an apartment for three months. So, with my dad’s oldest sister’s insistence that my parents pay rent, she gave her approval and off to Grandma’s we went.

Even though Grandma lived only a few blocks away, she had never been a big part of the 14 years I’d been on Planet Earth. We were never welcomed to her house and all I knew was that if Grandpa stopped over to our house on his way home from his job as a Soo Line engineer, my brother and I were not to mention it to any of Dad’s siblings. Like most kids that age, I never asked why; I merely accepted the directive and went on with my day, knowing that a trip to the local Dairy Queen was in store if I kept my mouth shut. So while I didn’t look forward to moving out of the small bedroom I’d shared with younger brother, I didn’t give much thought to what it would be like to share a small bedroom and a double bed with my grandmother.

That summer…oh my; what a summer. It started badly when, in the last two weeks of school, our gym teachers ordered us to take our reeking white cotton blouses home for washing. Grandma found me in her kitchen ironing my now-clean blouse, watched me for a minute or two, then slapped my hands hard. “You’re doing that all wrong! My daughters could iron better than you when they were half your age.”

The summer got worse. My mother’s oldest and dearest friend committed suicide, Mom was hospitalized with pneumonia, and I had oral surgery, a surgery that left me with black stitches poking out from between my top four teeth and a mouth so swollen that all I could do was drool blood and saliva for the following six hours.

“Don’t you dare get that blood on my sheets!” Grandma’s voice thundered with every passing hour as the novocaine wore off and my mouth and my head throbbed.

I tried to distract myself with stories that I created out of what I saw around me. A favorite was the three-dimensional Easter egg made of hard sugar. It had place of honor on her upright piano which, like the egg, I was not allowed to touch. So tempted, partially because I knew what would happen if I did.

As I laid in bed and looked through the doorway of Grandma’s bedroom, I remembere stories my mother had told me.

One that I still ponder after all these years: “I was a new bride,” she’d said, “and I wanted so much to make a good impression on your grandmother. The annual family Easter dinner was coming up and I asked how I could help. My assignment was to run the carpet sweeper around the front room. I wanted to do a thorough job so I flipped back the edge of the rug. That’s where I found Daddy’s and my wedding picture.”

Now there’s an image that stays with you!

But the memory that brings back chills, even after all these years, is the memory of my mother doing all she could to alleviate some of the cost of the remodeling by sweeping plaster dust and sanding wallboard tape. She would walk to Grandma’s gray with dust, climb the 14 steps to the second floor unit, ask to take a quick bath, and then prepare dinner for all of us.

“I suppose you forgot to get my butterfluffs from the bakery,” my grandmother said.

My father did what he could, but working 12 hour days shoveling coal on a steam engine and then working with Mom at our own house didn’t leave him much time for what was going on at Grandma’s.

Or was he avoiding his own mother?

The story continues but I don’t know if I can tell it. We’ll see.

Secrets

I spent the first 24 years of my life in the same N.E. Minneapolis house in which my mother had spent all but the first two years of her 85 years. The house itself was torn apart and remodeled into a two story, single family home the summer before my fourteenth birthday but it is the unremodeled version of my childhood home that still dominates my thoughts.

I’ve written hundreds of pages and thousands of words about what went on inside those walls but I’ve never been brave enough to put my words on paper. I created phrases, sentences, and whole paragraphs in my head. But I never wrote them down. Could someone be hurt? Possibly. Would I be considered disloyal? Probably.

But now I’m in the last quarter of my life. I look back and I wonder: Who were these people? Where did my dad’s combustible temper come from? Why did I get a strong sense of “push me/pull you” from my mother? And most importantly, why do these thoughts haunt me more today than ever before?

It’s time to probe the stories I’ve been telling myself all these years and face up to my fears.

Memories come back like the black and white photos that were popular with the advent of the Kodak Brownie® camera. Tiny triangular corners anchor small pictures in albums filled with gray paper. I see myself in those imaginary photographs as if I were looking through a dried out, frayed scrapbook.

Although I was too young to recognize it then, my childhood and my adolescence were enfolded in layers of secrets, the biggest of which was that Dad was a binge drinker. Even before I was old enough to understand this, I learned to hide it from my friends.

Another secret: Grandma–Dad’s mother–didn’t like us. I didn’t question this; it was just a fact of my young life.

And then there was the fact that Mom was embarrassed by the house we lived in. It took years for me to realize that was the reason we never had guests.

Might these secrets be the reason that I always felt distanced from people, including those in my own extended family?

Nevertheless, mine was a happy childhood, partially because of that cloak of secrets. It kept relatives and neighbors in the dark and it protected me from my turbulent father’s  anger and from my mother’s self-consciousness about living on “the wrong side of the tracks.” That cloak of secrets fit me so well that it was years before I realized that it had become my uniform.

So many of my early childhood memories are centered around our kitchen. I played for hours under that round wooden table. The green and dirty-white linoleum tiles became rooms for my paper dolls and the lives I created for them.  And like all little kids, it didn’t take long for me to learn that the quieter I was, the more likely that Mom and friend Gladys would forget about me. That must have been where I first heard euphemisms like “PG,” “that way,” and “female troubles.” (It was at least another ten years before I learned that a girl who was PG or ‘that way’ was pregnant. It took another five to learn about menopause, a word I’d first learned as ‘man pause.’)

Mom spent far more time at Gladys’ house than Gladys spent at ours. In a neighborhood where even one car to a family was rare, our mothers formed friendships the same way we kids did: proximity mattered. It was rare that Gladys came to our house; more often Mom walked the 150 feet to Gladys’. But either way, I knew that when they were together  I would be protected from witnessing my father’s volatile outbursts. Like this one, a memory that haunts me still:

She huddled in her favorite hiding place, squeezed in tightly between the stove and the kitchen wall where there was just enough space to squeeze her skinny six-year-old frame. This was the safe spot, the spot where she was protected from the violent energy of her father’s wrath, the violent energy that would find as its target her younger brother.

She never could tell when it would happen but the muted clank of the belt buckle, the insistent hiss as he yanked it out of the loops of his denim work pants–these were the danger signals: Tommy was about to get it again.

She watched and she listened, glad she wasn’t the recipient of his anger, yet torn that she couldn’t (or didn’t want to?) stop him.

I couldn’t tell you what set him off that day, nor could I tell you where my mother was. It’s the sounds that are clear: “I’ll teach you to (fill in the blank).”

My mother had to have been in the house but she’s not in this memory. No matter how I  try to place her in that scene, I can’t make it happen. Nor is there a conclusion. Did Dad really hit Tommy with that belt? Did I cry out? Like so many of the events from my childhood, there is no hint in this black-and-white photograph of a memory as to what came before I snapped the shutter of my mind’s camera, nor what happened after.

Coming soon: “Grandma Never Liked Us Very Much”

New Year’s Eve 1969

Richard M. Nixon was about to be inaugurated 37th President of the US.

The Stonewall riot in New York City marked the beginning of the gay rights movement (June 28).

Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., —took the first walk on the Moon.

But frankly, none of that had mattered much to me, a new bride. By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, I was full of romantic ideas of how my husband of three months and I should spend our first December 31 as a couple.

I imagined us lying on the floor of our one bedroom apartment, feeding to each other  freshly baked loaves of Mrs. Rhodes Bread which we would slather  with butter and jam. There wouldn’t be an inch our apartment that wasn’t filled with the exquisite aroma of fresh bread.

A restaurant dinner was not part of our plan that evening; we’d beunknownen married only three months and money was tight. Besides, we hardly got a chance to be together what with Dean’s working nights and me working days.

Champagne? Probably not. I dislike anything
bubbly. Most likely scotch…money may have been tight but we still hadn’t spend all our wedding gift money.

Our sparsely decorated tree was still up though dried needles were tumbling down as fast as the snow outside our sheet-draped window. Still, it was lovely to sit near the branches and look up at the two strings lights we could afford, a glass of scotch in one hand and a slice of bread in the other.

But it wasn’t long before too much freshly baked bread and a couple of shots of scotch let me know that my “dinner” plan was not very wise.

I turned hot, then sweaty, then….OMG! Let me in the bathroom…NOW!

Not one of our more elegant evenings.

I haven’t been able to face a glass of scotch since. On the other hand I may try Mrs. Rhodes again. After all, it’s been 47+ years.

white-bread-bake

A Christmas Story

Sure enough, someone was under the tree setting up a train set. But something was very wrong. The guy under the tree was Dad.

Another rerun, just because I really like it…and because the new stuff I’m working on isn’t ready.

December of my sixth Christmas was filled with whisperings from older neighborhood kids that led me to question the existence of Santa. The night of December 24 put my doubts to rest. But in order to tell this story properly, I need to fill in a couple of details.

For many years my brother and I shared the only bedroom in a house so small that we set up our Christmas tree in the kitchen. My bed was at right angles to the door that looked into the kitchen, an important detail in the telling of this tale. Tommy and I had finally gone to bed with the usual Christmas eve jitters. Would he come? Would I get the bride doll I’d wanted? Would Tommy find a coveted electric train like the one that we had seen in the Dayton window? A train would be particularly special since so many of our family — Dad and Grandpa included — were firemen and engineers for the Soo Line.

Tommy and I talked and giggled late into the night until the final warning came from Mom: “If you kids don’t get to sleep there’ll be no Christmas!” And so we slept.

It must have been around 2:00 a.m. when I awoke to a noise in the kitchen. Now remember, I had a direct line of vision from my bed to that tree.

My memory now fades to shades of gray as I watch him on his knees. His arms are on the floor, his back is hunched. He reaches to place a caboose on a track…and he sobs.

I am six. I am disappointed. I am confused. I roll over and go back to sleep.

I learned the next morning that Soo Line management had called to tell my dad of his father’s sudden death of a heart attack on the steam engine Grandpa was driving that night. And that’s when I learned the truth about Santa. He lived in my dad, a man who would focus on making a little kid’s Christmas morning special despite the huge loss he had just undergone. I never did tell neighborhood kids that they were wro
ng. At six, I wouldn’t have known how. But even at six, it was enough that I knew.

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Thoughts While Making Bread

What would (my ancestors) have thought if they could see me throwing ingredients into an electric mixer, hitting the “on” button, grabbing a cup of coffee, and 10 minutes later, placing bread dough on the counter to rise?

This is another rerun. I first published it in December of 2008. It seems even more relevant today.

the-baker
I’d like to open this with the phrase, “I spent the morning making bread from scratch.” The truth of the matter, though, is that the bread making took me all of five minutes. My much-used copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, my Cuisinart® and a well stocked cupboard will yield enough dough for me to bake four one-pound loaves of brioche over the next week or so. This is an excellent cookbook and I use it often. But it’s not where my thoughts roam when my need to create takes me to my kitchen.
Rather, my fantasies wander to those people who came before me…not necessarily my ancestors (although their images are there at the periphery of my imagination), but rather to all the folks who baked bread “back in the day.”
Willa Cather wrote so profoundly of women who endured brutal Midwestern winters in sod huts. What would they have thought if they could see me throwing ingredients into an electric mixer, hitting the “on” button, grabbing a cup of coffee, and 10 minutes later, placing bread dough on the counter to rise?
Let’s take the image further. I’ll be baking Christmas cookies later today. Ground walnuts? I’ll whirl a handful in my electric grinder. Flour on the floor? I’ll suck it up with my vacuum cleaner. Sticky pans and bowls? My dishwasher will take care of that mess.
I didn’t grow my own wheat to be processed into flour. I didn’t spend hours hand-churning butter. The foods I get to make today are the miracles of technological innovation, each new idea the result of a creative problem solver. I think about them and I give a nod of thanks to all those farmers and cooks and bakers and engineers who came before me, all those women and men who over the centuries who turned the creation of a meal into a creative endeavor.
And as I take out another pound of butter for those Christmas cookies I’ll make this afternoon, I think, too, about the growing numbers of people who don’t have access to a brioche or homemade cookies…who don’t even have access to the basics. I’ll make those cookies today, but I’ll forego the other four recipes I was planning. Neither my family nor I need all those calories, and if I forego them, I can place just that much more in the food shelf collection box.
Have I inspired you to do the same? I sure hope so.

Rosalia’s Story Part 22: Conclusion

After spending three years as a patient at the St. Peter Mental Hospital in St. Peter, Minnesota, Rose’s husband dies in a tragic accident. She sues for custody of her daughters and in 1928 she signs a Petition for Letters of Guardianship. Rose is granted U.S. citizenship in 1935 and dies in 1940 at the age of 48. Her daughters are 23 and 19. This is where her story continues…and where it ends.

“Ma! I’m home,” Helen called out. She pushed hard on the kitchen door; no matter how many times she tried to fix it, it always stuck in warm, humid weather. She was met again by the sweet odor of urine that surrounded her mother.

Helen’s days on a Durkee-Atwood assembly line were long and physically demanding.

“Oh Ma, I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t get over the tracks before the train came. It was a long wait.”

“Rozumiem,” Rose answered.

“I know you understand, Ma, but that doesn’t make it any better. Let’s tap your drain tube and get you cleaned up.”

Helen struggled yet again to help her steadily weakening mother to the bathroom. Remove wet underwear and nightgown. Go to the basement and retrieve the dry clothing from the clothesline. Carry them up the steep stone steps to the small room her mother used as a bedroom.

“Ready for your insulin injection?” she asked. Her mother’s thin, papery skin seemed so fragile in Helen’s hand.

“Dziękuję Ci.”

“There is no need to thank me, Ma. But we need to get the doctor over here. You are not looking very good. Let me help you sit up. Then I’ll run next door to use the phone.”

Despite the pasty, anemic look on her mother’s face, Rose was still plump. Water retention? Her heavy limp body gave her daughter a lot to contend with. After a shared struggle…and a few shared giggles…Rose was finally propped up in the feather bed she used to share with Stanley.“Ah, dziękuję. That feels better.”

Helen walked out into the warm September afternoon, glad to be out of the house if only for a few minutes. She looked forward to chatting with “Mrs. Next Door” and her daughters.

She called the doctor and stayed to chat for a few minutes minutes.

A shiver ran through her. “I’d better get back,” she said anxiously.

Helen returned to find that her mother had died.

***

It’s here that Rosalia’s story ends. I started it in the hope that I would get to know the grandmother who died five years before I was born, a grandmother whose story I knew only through the disjointed storyline my mother passed on to me. And while I’ve come to admire and respect Rose’s strength and persistence, I still do not feel I know her. 

Peace, Grandma. I tried.

***

Credits:

A big cyber-hug and thank you to the folks below who graciously took time from their busy days to give me feedback.

Karen Kiefer, artist and writer: http://www.kieferart.com

Marty Levine, author and instructor

Andrea Moffatt

Judy Sherman

Rosemary Spielman
Dean Westergard

Sources:

Island of Hope Island of Tears: The story of Ellis Island; film by Charles Guggenheim

Polish-American Folklore, Deborah Anders Silverman; University of Illinois Press

Minnesota History Center & Library, St. Paul, Minnesota

A Nation of Immigrants; John F. Kennedy

mayoclinic.org

diabetes.org

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Interior of Crucifix
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Crucifix from Rosalia’s casket

Part 21: Rose Struggles During the Great Depression

Was there anyone in the United States who was not affected by the Great Depression?

“Mama, I’m hungry!” were not unusual words in Rose’s neighborhood.

But little Helen and her younger sister Rosie were more fortunate than most of the kids in their small N.E. Minneapolis neighborhood, where families of 12, 14, and even 17 children were not unusual in the 1920s.

Nonetheless, Rose struggled to feed her two girls and herself. Even though she and Stanley had paimg_0228id off their mortgage, life was hard. She had the 50% settlement from the lawimg_0226suit against the the railroad (the attorney kept the other half). She
was a gifted seamstress, sewing for the wives of the Pillsbury and General Mills executives. (True? That’s what my mother always told me, and the story never changed.)  And, like so many others, Rose earned a small income from the sale of her bathtub gin.

(For years, I wondered about this. How could they have used the bathtub if it was used for gin? How did they wash themselves? But I was a little girl and if Santa Claus could come through the keyhole in the door, who was I to question something as odd as bathtub gin?)

“I don’t know,” my mother would say to my nagging questions. “Now go outside and play. Come in when it’s dark. ”img_0228

Who was I to question my mother’s stories?

But even I could tell that my mother’s stories had a bitter undertone to them. “Now don’t tell the kids next door that each of you got an orange for Christmas,” Rose admonished her daughters. “And whatever you do, hide that pan of oatmeal in the oven. I have clients coming for fittings this afternoon. They mustn’t see any signs that I am not a successful seamstress. We’ll eat supper after they’re gone.”

Rose also sewed for the local church, a job she wasn’t surprised at having been given, but it was expected that along with repairing priests’ vestments, she would sew all the costumes for the annual operetta…again, for free.

This, of course, meant that most of her available sewing time was spent sewing costumes late into the night instead of meeting her clients’ deadlines.

Then came the day that her firstborn came home from school, tears in her eyes and wicked red indentations on her knees. “Sister made me kneel on acorns because I stuck up for Tomasz.”

“And just what did Tomasz do that you had to stick up for him?” Rose demanded.

“He swiped some chalk from the chalkboard and drew pictures of Sister outside. Sister made him lick the drawings off the sidewalk. Mama, that just isn’t fair!”

That did it. Rose was still appalled over the never-ending gossip about Father Jajeski who was shot in his confessional a few years earlier by a distraught woman. But like so many others in the neighborhood, Rose figured it was none of her business.

But this? To make a child lick chalk off a sidewalk? And then to make her daughter kneel on acorns?

Rose grabbed her purse and stormed off to the church. She demanded to talk to the nun who acted as principal.

“My girls will be attending the public school from now on,” she said with barely hidden fury.