Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Grandma, My Time Machine

There was a time when one of my best buddies was a 70 year old woman—my grandmother. Born Winifred Kehoe in 1902, such a long time ago now, but in the early 70s, when she and I used to talk everyday before I delivered my newspapers, back then, her birth year of 1902 didn’t seem so impossibly distant.

When my dad retired from the Air Force late in 1970 we lived with my grandmother and Uncle Bill until late the following summer waiting for our new house to be complete enough for us to move in and finish it up ourselves. I started my paper route a few months before we moved to that half finished structure out on 12600 South Beyer Road, just over a mile as the crow flies from my grandma’s house in the town of Birch Run, Michigan.

It was while we still lived at grandma’s house on Oak Street that I started what became my Friday evening ritual of hand scrubbing her dining room and kitchen linoleum floors for her. I continued this practice even after we moved into our own place, because more often than not I simply stayed over at grandmas on Friday nights since my papers had to be delivered so early on Saturday mornings.

Every afternoon after school I’d be at her place waiting for my papers to get plopped off the Saginaw News delivery van; and then on many a Friday and Saturday night I’d be there as well for the same reason for the early morning weekend deliveries. That was my routine for the next four years until my senior year in 1975. With all that quality time spent together it’s no surprise that we became great friends.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized how truly unique it was, this bond between grandmother and grandson. I was closer to her than to my mom even, and my mom is a real sweet heart. My brother and sister mentioned this when I asked if they had any memories to include, both claiming no particular connection with her, perhaps partly because I was older, but it probably had a lot more to do with me being around her so much because of my paper route. Until now, it never occurred to me; I just assumed that all of us felt a special affinity for her.

However, my brother did email a short remark of what he did recall:
“What I remember most was her perfect handwriting. And, she could really bake. Butter tarts. I was younger, of course (by 4 years), but I don't remember her talking much. I know you do, from all those paper route weekends.”

One of the reasons I bought a mini-tape recorder in 2000 and taped over 6 hours of me interviewing my dad is directly because of my grandma. Forty years ago, with all those hundreds of hours of conversation, it drives me batty that I remember almost nothing of the stories she told me about what it was like growing up just after the turn of the last century, and all the other myriad stories of her life. I wasn’t about to let that happen again. (And I believe my sister is still working on compiling our mom’s story—I sure hope so).

I think due to my military brat upbringing and exposure to so much geographical diversity I had already developed an abiding curiosity in all things historical. I would learn about something in class about WWI, or maybe about the sinking of the Titanic from my personal reading, and I would ask grandma what she recalled of those events. She was 10 when the Titanic went down and she remembered the news and her impressions of it; she was 15 when in 1917 we became embroiled in Europe’s “Great War” and she certainly had some recollections about that, and about most everything else that had happened during the course of her life.

There was more to it than that though; she talked about what life was like as the automobile took over from the horse and buggy; we discussed how long distance travel, long dominated by trains for most of her life was usurped almost overnight by planes and long distance highway driving.

Grandma was my time machine. Even back then I saw everything through an historical lens; through her I found out what it was like to be a kid during the time of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. She remembered those guys and a host of other famed figures, which to me was fascinating stuff. She couldn't tell me too much about them specifically, but she talked about her life in the context of those times. Knowing that she was around when they were made the host of hazy characters from my reading and in the classroom seem real.

My questions were nonstop, about everything under the sun, including some really silly ones like, “Grandma, you didn’t have TV when you were a kid. Did you guys watch your radio back then or something?” I asked it as a joke, but the funny thing is the answer was yes. It didn’t matter what I asked, she answered everything the best she could; and her answers would generate even more questions, exactly like an interview. I know it wasn't always easy for her, because I made her think of some things that she hadn't considered for decades.
My sister came through just before I was going to post this with some pretty cool reminiscences written in a “stream of consciousness” style. I think this is the perfect place to insert them:

* She always fell asleep in her chair. (Just like our Uncle Bill…grin!)

* Gail & I shared a room with her for a year and when she was sleeping in bed, she had the most incredibly loud snore. (Again, just like our Uncle Bill…grin!)

* She had an awesome treadle sewing machine. I always wanted to learn how to use that. I'm not sure if she even did.

* I loved looking at her tea cup collection in that glass breakfront/curio cabinet against the kitchen wall. Mom used to tell me that some of the pieces were her grandmothers & great grandmothers. I used to imagine these old time ladies having "tea."

* She made the best chocolate cake in the world, put coffee in the frosting. Amazing. She was an incredibly devoted mother.

* When the dementia/Alzheimer’s set in (not sure if anything was really diagnosed) she hid half eaten bologna sandwiches in her dresser drawers. She also took to cutting people out of her old snapshots. Can't remember who she cut out or if it had any significance.

* She loved me to bring Jamie to see her at the nursing home when Jamie was a baby. Jamie sat so still on her lap and Grandma seemed so calm as Jamie's little fingers every so softly ran up and down the veins that stuck out on Grandma's arms.

* When she was dying and couldn't speak at all she had the most peculiar look about her eyes when she just stared at you. I think she was trying to figure out who I was. This may sound weird, but when Stacy's cat meows for attention, I swear those are Grandma's eyes looking back at

We watched lots of TV together. I still chuckle remembering a Merv Griffin talk show we watched together one afternoon on her little black and white while we sat at her kitchen table. One of Merv’s guests was Charo, at the time a very flamboyantly sexy Spanish guitarist. She actually played pretty well, but that’s not what she was known for. She did this over-the-top cuchi cuchi thing, where she shook her ample round boobs while saying “Cuchi Cuchi Cuchi.” Now, being a typical hormonally-charged young teen I thought Charo was wonderful, but Grandma was not similarly enamored. She wouldn’t turn the channel out of respect for my choice of programming, but with pursed lips she sure made me understand that Charo’s behavior was unacceptable. It was classic — a case of Victorian Age sensibilities clashing with the Age of Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, and as far as my grandma was concerned ne’er the twain shall coexist.

Back then, from 71 to 75, while we spent so much time in each other’s company, I could not imagine her as anything other than what she was then—a stooped wispy haired old woman in her late 60s and early 70s. I had not yet seen the photos of her progression through life, first as a young girl, as a young woman, and then as a married lady passing into middle age.

I asked my mom, now a youthful 75, to share a few memories of her mom and she had this to say:
“Right now I picture her as a young graduate from High School. She found school a little hard, could have been ADD, they knew so little about that then. Anyway, her parents sent her to boarding School, St. Mary's of Monroe, so she could get more one-on-one attention. She did well there and graduated and had many wonderful memories of her years there. That picture of her as a young woman was her graduation pic. She was 20 yrs old. Also, (she made) many lifelong friends from those years. She saw those women often. When my Dad died (in 1962 at age 58) they all came over and hosted a lovely lunch for the family after the funeral.”

I’m struck with how pretty my grandmother is in that photo from 1922. Photos like that make me sad. Looking at that beautiful "young woman grandma," she has her whole life in front of her; growing old, going through the pain of life’s hardships and tragedies is the last thing on her mind.

Alas, it happens to us all; with age she lost some height from a moderate case of kyphosis in her upper spine. She had worked as a secretary for some time as a young woman, and that, according to what my mom used to claim, was the cause of the hump in grandma’s back—bad posture my mom would say. I used to think of that whenever I caught myself slouching. Whether it was true or not, it certainly worked to remind me to sit up straight over the years.

After I left for the marines in the summer of 75 she was able to only write me about a half dozen times before the letters stopped. I was saddened when our relationship pretty much ended when she became afflicted with some kind of Alzheimer-like condition. She kept a portion of her personality for a few years, but it would come and go, and basically, she was never the same. Bits and pieces of who she was gradually broke off and floated away forever. It was a slow heartbreaking process that thankfully I did not have to witness due to my service in the military.

My mom and aunts would always say things like, “She had a good day last time I visited her; it seemed like she knew who almost everyone was.” My stomach sank every time I heard something like that.

In 1979, before she was too far gone, I was able to present her with my first child, her first granddaughter. It’s always amazing to see the very young of a family meet with the very
old. The one picture I have of that event will always be a treasure to me. You can tell from the photo that grandma really enjoyed her moment with her little granddaughter — it was precious. I should have taken more photos; it was a mistake to presume that there would be other times to do so.

I was most of the way through a 60 day deployment to England in 1987 when my acting first sergeant came knocking on my barracks room door. The Red Cross had called and asked that I be allowed to go back to Michigan; it was then I learned grandma was dying. I called my mom who told me that she “sensed” that grandma wanted to see me before she passed away. Whether that was true or not I wanted it to be so and I began the long journey back across the pond. But seeing her one last time in life was not to be. By the time I got back to Dover on a C5 Galaxy I learned that she could not hang on—she was gone at age 85. Still, I was gratified to be able to be there for her funeral. It’s hard to believe she’s been gone 22 years already. She was a fine woman.


Ed said...

I've tried the tape recorder thing a time or two with my relatives but they seem to go mute with it. So now, I just listen and try to write like mad when I get home to get everything I've heard down on "paper."

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yeah, know what you mean Ed. It does work though; you just have to prompt them with lots of questions and followup questions. The real work begins when it's time to transcript. The word is tedious.

OPASS said...

My granny too was a whole library of information about the past. I kept prodding and poking and at first I think she was embarrassed about her primitive past and was hesitant to talk. But with time she realized her goofy grandson really did want to know these things and she opened up. In my mom's family all generations are very long, with my mom being in her 40s when I was born, and my granny in her 40s when my mom was born. . . well you can see how my granny was born in 1869. Jeez! It was fascinating talking to her about about moving in a wagon train from Minnesota to the Dakota territory through area still considered Indian territory. And about the goofy and traitorous uncle of her's who deserted from the Union army in the Civil War and hid out in the woods near the family farmstead. That of course to her was second hand information but still part of the family chronicle. With what I now know about history I sure wish I could again talk to my old granny and fill in the gaps. They don't seem to realize how valuable the knowledge is that they have accumulated. Bless your Granny, Phil. May she find her highest good!

PhilippinesPhil said...

Holy moly! You're grandma was born in 1869 and she was still alive when you had a chance to "interview" her? Dude, you need to expand your comment above into a full blown post. Tell me more of what she said. Great stuff! Nothing like learning your history from those who lived through its life and times... so to speak.

Alicia Pavlawk said...

Phil, your story about grandma is a story your children need to keep! I don't have the type of memories you do of grandma, but I was so much younger and lived so much farther. Audrey though, when we talk, she seems to feel a similar closeness to her as you do. We talk about how she felt it with Grandma Haley, and I with our Grandma Walkowiak. I do have to say though, her china cabinet was also my very favorite spot in her house. I too used to stand in front of it with my hands behind my back, so as not to touch anything. (they were pretties) But just imagining the tea parties that accompanied those tea cups. When grandma passed, that tea cup that I received was one of my most prized posessions. The memories that it held were priceless to me even though I never even touched it before. However looking at the pictures you have posted within your story, that is what amazes me the most. It's like looking at my mom and Uncle Mike (grandpa)! Wow!
Thanks for letting me look into your window of memories. It was very touching and like you, I too love a good story!

PhilippinesPhil said...

Glad you think well of my effort to remember our grandma. You've never seen those pics before? Hey, I think I'll post all the old Haley pics I brought back here with me on a Flickr set for you and the other cousins. Cool? As far as the tea set that you and Mary Kay remember so fondly, geez, must be a girly thing! chuckle!