“Honey child! Grab yourself an RC Cola and straw and wet your whistle,” perked up my grandma as I flew through the front door of her apartment, eager to spend the weekend. Calling me honey child, her pet name for us grandchildren, always made me feel special. Once a month Mom drove me thirty minutes across the Pennsylvania/New York line to visit my favorite person. For two days I was catered to, spoiled, queen for 48 hours, loving that I didn’t have to share her with my three younger siblings. It was just the two of us.
As we sipped our colas, mine poured in a green plastic colored cup, gram rocked in her wooden chair, sturdy for an arthritic back, and talked to the mechanical parrot, Ike, perched on its metal ring. She and grandpa once had a live parakeet that sat on grandpa’s shoulder and sang. Yellow breasted with blue feathers, this Ike, like its predecessor, kept her company with its chirping and life-like movements.As we chatted, Gram swallowed a couple aspirin with her cola, something she did every few hours to ease the stiffness in her joints, a lifesaver that controlled the constant
Once of average height, Grandma Louise had shrunk enough to wear petit clothing. Full figured, she always donned an apron which protected her attire, either one of two styles: a floral, button down dress or a solid-colored pleated skirt with a blouse. I never saw gram in a pair of pants or jeans.
“Get yourself a treat from the kitchen.” Twenty cigar shaped sugar cookies bursting with almond extract in both cookie and icing were laid on wax paper on the red speckled counter. Six loaves of zucchini and banana bread, both loaded with tons of walnuts, hogged most of the kitchen table. “But don’t spoil your appetite. We’re having boiled dinner for supper.” Once a month gram prepared this Irish dish of ham, potatoes, onion, carrots, and cabbage; luckily it tasted better than it looked, all mushy and white in a crockpot.
At night we played Canasta for hours, at the dining room table, staying up well past midnight, keeping score, and her letting me win. We held circular card holders which secured our hands and prevented any peeking from the opponent. Afterwards I slept in her twin size bed, a rarity to have a bedroom to myself, while gram situated herself on the living room couch. If I got up at night for a glass of water, I sometimes found her wrapped in one of the many afghans she had crocheted, back in that rocking chair reciting the rosary, waiting for the aspirin to work its magic.
Gram had long abandoned driving once grandpa had died, so the weekends I stayed we walked everywhere– to Sunday mass at St Pat’s Church, the grocery store to load up on our M&M’s to refill the candy dish, and MacDonald’s for hamburgers and fries.She lived in a small town so the walking distance was not far for a septuagenarian and grade school aged girl.
Gram let me watch television whenever and whatever I wanted, something I didn’t get to do at home, and that is when she pulled out her knitting needles, making socks, hats, and mittens for the local boys’ detention center. She also mended their clothes, the Singer sewing machine chomping away, patching holey jeans and securing loosened hems. Every week she delivered the freshly repaired clothing and picked up a new batch in need of help.
Gram taught me songs, a bit naughty, and cackled as we sang in unison:
Miss Lucy had a steamboat/The steam boat had a bell
Miss Lucy went to heaven,/ The steamboat went to
HELL-o operator, /Please give me number nine
And if you disconnect me/I’ll kick you in the
But behind the ‘fridgerator/There was a piece of glass
Miss Lucy slipped upon it/And broke her little
ASS-k me no more questions/I’ll tell you no more lies
Miss Lucy went to heaven/Chasing butterflies.
She’d clap and laugh as we finished our song. “Don’t tell your mother where you learned this!”
I loved to hear gram’s stories, when life was simpler but more rugged, slower but harsher. Born in 1902, her childhood was so different from mine.“When I was your age sweetheart, I had to catch a chicken and kill it, drain the blood, pluck the feathers, and chop it up so my mother could make soup with the meat. We didn’t have cars, had to wash our clothes in a tub, and many died of TB like my baby sister Josephine. I could only go to school until the eighth grade.” But she was proud that she could still recite the poems she had to memorize and do math equations in her head. She had lots of siblings, and loved her mother, her mama, her Babcia, as her children called their native Polish grandmother.
Gram sometimes talked about grandpa, twenty years her senior, and when courting, how he serenaded her on her front porch with his beautiful baritone voice. After they were married, grandpa fell off a train while at work and lost his leg. He was fitted with a wooden one high above his knee, and I remember sitting on his lap, knocking on his artificial limb, taking a stick of Beechnut Gum from his flannel shirt pocket which always smelled like the unfiltered Camel cigarettes he smoked. He died a few years later, leaving grandma a widow for almost forty years. She would eventually outlive three grandchildren, three of her four children, several daughters- in-law and sole son-in-law, all eight of her siblings. Yet she never lost her faith and resolve to keep going.
All too soon it was Sunday afternoon. “Honeychild, your mom’s here. Let’s get you packed up.” It was time to go home to my family, noise, chores, and schedules. I left my crown behind knowing in another month I would be back to my favorite person’s house for more stories, card games, songs, and a showering of unconditional love.
I thought we would never grow any older, always sharing our perfect weekends, nothing changing within our worlds. I didn’t count on our weekend excursions becoming less frequent and then stopping, me growing up and away, visiting less and less. My much younger sister who took my place had similar weekends, except Scrabble replaced Canasta and miniature chocolate bars, not M&Ms, filled the living room candy dish. Her visits, like mine, eventually stopped.
After too many serious falls, Gram left apartment for the nursing home. We kept her dorm sized refrigerator stocked with RC Cola and her new favorite chocolate, Andes Mints. At her 100th birthday party she told me, “What was I thinking wanting to live this long!” Nearly blind, Gram missed watching baseball games on TV and working crossword puzzles. Her body physically failed her but the mind remained sharp as ever.She lived three more years past that milestone birthday. Pneumonia racked her body in March of 2005 and she died during Holy Week, a few days before Pope John Paul did, and exactly two months and a day since her daughter, my mother, died. You left in good company, Gram.
She was the next best thing after my mom.
To this day I knit with her knitting needles, put almond flavoring in my sugar cookies, and bake zucchini bread loaded with walnuts. And whenever I recall our time together, my crown reappears and I am that perfect little girl back in her apartment wrapped in layers of specialness that only a grandma can provide.
Ann Hultberg of Western PA and Southwest Fla is a retired high school English teacher and currently an adjunct composition instructor at the local university. She writes nonfiction stories about her family, especially focusing on her father’s escape from Budapest, Hungary, to the United States. Her essays have been accepted by Persimmon Tree, Dream Well Writing, Drunk Monkeys, The Drabble, The Story Pub, Kindred Voice, Fevers of the Mind, Mothers Always Write, Elixir Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, and Moonchild Magazine. You can follow Ann on Facebook at 60 and writing and @hajdu on Twitter.