Memories of My Grandmothers
Growing up, the classic line from The Wizard of Oz when Glinda asks Dorothy “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” made perfect sense to me. From my very earliest memories I was always surrounded by formidable women, women of vast and mysterious powers, some of them very good and some of them rather frightening. Most of the women I was raised by and around had astonishing strength, talents, tenacity and seemingly endless energy; in so many ways I do not live within a mile of the standards they set. And while I mourn this a little, I am grateful that I grew up knowing without a shadow of a doubt that women CAN (and frequently have to) do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING.
The “good witches” in my life are too numerous to count, but include my own mother, her best friend, and so many of the neighbors and teachers I was fortunate enough to encounter. But the good witch in particular who had such a special and validating place in my life was my Father’s mother, my Grandma Peg. I was your typical “girly-girl” and she was always the one who had time for a tea party and the patience to crochet my dolls elaborate outfits. Not that she was your classic warm and fuzzy at all–she was a working woman, and sharp as a tack. I’ve never met anyone as facile with a New York Times crossword puzzle. She wore slacks, not skirts, did not suffer fools gladly and although she was a very good cook, I can’t ever recall seeing her don an apron.
She did not have an easy life in many ways; she worked full time, raised five children on a very limited budget, and stuck with my Grandfather until the day he died even though he was often a challenging man. Her patience with him was a great lesson in love because she was no sap; no weak-willed woman “standing by her man” out of fear or limitation. She indulged him with a dignity most of us would have difficulty mustering while accepting the Nobel Prize for peace. Their love story was not a fairy tale, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any magic in it.
And speaking of her knack for indulgence, as I grew up she easily adapted to wherever my interests and whims turned. During the childhood years I spent furnishing and decorating my dollhouse, not only did she contribute to my collection, but she actually got a dollhouse of her own so the hobby could be mutual. When I was a teenager and became curious about…well, those things teenagers are curious about, Grandma Peg did not sit on the sidelines and cluck her tongue disapprovingly. Instead, she started watching the same soap operas, swapped racy novels with me and picked up my lingo. If we saw a good looking man, she’d nudge me and (discreetly) say, “He’s a real fox, huh?”
She never talked down to me, never embarrassed me, never belittled or questioned my dreams and always went the extra mile to be involved in my life in an intimate, real and impactful way. Before she died she wrote me a letter I’ll always cherish, encouraging me to go for my dreams; there would be plenty of time for marriage and motherhood later on (she was right). She was a powerful good witch in my life, and I miss her to this day.
My Grandma Pat, on the other hand…well, to be blunt, she was a “bad witch”. I want to be clear that there is no lack of awe for this woman on my part; she was as astonishing as she was frightening. And I won’t bother with the “make-you-gasp-are-you-kidding-me-???” stories from my own Mother’s childhood; suffice it to say, she was no one’s Mommy.
What she was instead was a woman so far ahead of her time that the challenges of conforming to the restrictive stereotypes and expectations of her era left her angry and defiant and quite possibly stymied any nurturing instinct she may have naturally had. She was brash, temperamental and completely unapologetic; as a child she intimidated me, but I never questioned her love. It was the way she affected my mother, a woman of boundless energy, endless resources; the way she could deflate her with a glance that made it clear to me that I was dealing with one Bad Witch.
A championship athlete (high school basketball and later tournament golf and bowling), my grandmother was as strong as she was smart. Gorgeous, broad shouldered and big-laughed, she didn’t so much talk as she barked, categorically stated and issued mandates. Her 50 + year marriage to my grandfather was full of passion, contention and mutual admiration; to his dying day my Grandpa Jim insisted on referring to her as his “bride”, a mocking endearment that never failed to get a rise out of her.
My Grandmother was a successful career woman who worked as a fashion buyer for an upscale department store so she had style to go with her sass. She was the kind of person who could make demands without any doubt she would get her way, whether at work or in her home. So while she did a great deal of good in this world when it came to “shattering the glass ceiling”, around her we were always tiptoeing on broken glass.
To the best of my recollection, Grandma Pat never baked me a cookie, read me a story, or comforted me when I was hurt. She did buy kick-ass gifts, let me eat junk food when my Mom wasn’t looking and watch cable TV without adult supervision, so she wasn’t completely clueless about a grandmother’s role in a child’s life. And she did love babies! My brother, who is 7 years older than me, likes to tell a story from my own infancy, when we used to spend a lot of our summers at a camp my grandparents owned on Lake Ontario.
One day when Grandma had been left in charge, he and my cousin Jeff were inside rough-housing. Intolerant of noise and mess, she ordered them outside and they resentfully obliged, only to crawl directly under the building. She was bouncing me on her knee and singing, “Oh, the baby-baby-baby!” over and over again, so my brother and my cousin, annoyed by the doting I received in the face of their own expulsion, began to imitate the cadences of her voice and then giggle. The cooing was immediately replaced with cursing and stomping, “You goddamned kids get out from under the camp!” (once we learned to talk back we were pretty much all “goddamned kids”).
This kind of behavior is what I like to call “Classic Grandma Pat”. Classic Grandma Pat: when my older sister was a toddler, Grandma crushed her foot under a rocking chair and sniffed it was the baby’s fault for getting too close. More classic Grandma Pat: when my Uncle’s dog attacked my younger sister on her 4th birthday, Grandma insisted she had provoked it. The reality is, we were all pretty terrified of her.
She lived into her 90’s but developed Alzheimer’s over the last decade of her life and ironically became the sweetest creature you can imagine. She “loved” everybody (even though she wasn’t quite sure who we were) and just spent most days laughing to herself. I like to imagine she was secretly reminiscing about a life spent taking guff off of no one. No matter how you look at it, she was a hell of a dame.
We think of “mothering” as a unique, exclusive relationship, but I believe I was “mothered” by a diverse and amazing “coven”…the “bad witches” taught me as much as the “good witches”, although their lessons were always more difficult to swallow. I am grateful and indebted to all the strong women who raised me for the magic that they shared.
Image Credit: The Three Witches from Shakespeare’s MacBeth by Daniel Gardner, 1775