Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Grandma Mary: My Father's Mother

Mary Lewis (Gould), about age 3. Posted by Picasa
"My grandmothers are full of memories
Smelling of soap and onions and wet clay
With veins rolling roughly over quick hands
They have many clean words to say,
My grandmothers were strong."
~ Margaret Walker
This is a picture of my grandmother, my father's mother, Mary Lewis Gould. I found it a few weeks ago in a box with scores of other pictures; most of the people I did not know or did not recognize and yes, most were relatives.

I love this picture; the dress, her ringlets and hairbows, the lace up shoes and small details like the delicate choker at her neck and her china doll with real hair, not the painted on kind. She looks so young, such a little girl and yet she has the same look on her face that I remember when I stayed at the farm. Some might say she looks angry or mad. Maybe she was a lot like most little kids when they have to dress up and stand still while they would rather be outside running or swinging or making mud pies. To me though the look is that of fierce determination. She never lost that look or that drive.

Grandma was a farmer's wife in southern Illinois. She was hardy; she had to be to marry a tall red-headed farmer and raise four boys and a girl during the depression. Grandma had a brother who was "afflicted". I don't like that word, but it's the vernacular of that day. I remember Uncle Guy and looking back he probably had some type of cerebral palsy. Grandma brought him to the farm after her marriage and took care of him for many years. Grandpa built him a little house with a sitting area and a bed and a stove for heat. It sat up on the rise near the barn. Uncle Guy always wore overalls and a light denim shirt with work boots. He had two pails, milk pails with covers. Every meal he would bring his empty pail to the house and Grandma would have the other one filled with food. I don't remember him ever eating with us at the house, but he was a grown man. Maybe he was embarrassed by his appearance when he ate or maybe he just liked the feeling of independence; of deciding when he would eat that fried chicken and potatoes. Uncle Guy seemed happy in his life on the farm and Grandma loved her brother and took care of him until he passed away. His little house is gone now, but I still remember him.

Grandma's farm house was over 100 years old. Until I was seven or eight they did not have indoor plumbing. The boys and Grandpa decided to dig a basement under the house. Dad said they put braces under the supports in the floor and jacked the house up off the foundation, then dug the cellar out. The floors started creaking in the kitchen and Grandma would run to the back and yell for them to stop, she was so afraid her floor would fall in. But it didn't and finally they had a cool cellar/basement ready. There they installed the first plumbing with a shower, a round one; the drain in the floor and no real tub to stand in. They also put in a full bath at the back of the house and put water plumbing in the kitchen. I remember the old pump she had at the kitchen sink and that she would let me pump (or at least try to) the water into the pot to heat for dishwashing.

With Grandpa I fished; with Grandma I learned to hull peas and pit cherries with a straight hair pin. She and I would sit on the big wrap around porch of an evening and swing slowly, counting the fireflies. We went to the chicken house together and gathered the eggs and spread the grain for the chicks. Along the back fence in the yard she had a wild growth of gooseberries. We would pick them and she made pies; I never really cared for them as it is almost impossible to get enough sugar to overshadow the intense twang of the berry.

Grandma believed in education and she loved to read. She subscribed to the Reader's Digest Condensed Books series and when she had finished several, she packed them away and stored them into the old smokehouse attached to the side porch room. I found them and would spend hours sitting in the smokehouse on a box or a blanket, reading by the light of the one small smoky window, the old smell of cured ham still in the air. Those were my best secret daydream times. I was in my own private world there. Some days I wish I could go back to that place, that time.

There are fourteen grandkids. I am the oldest by five years so for a while I had her all to myself. The younger ones lived in Illinois on adjacent farms, and I didn't so they became closer to her eventually over the years, but I always knew I was special to her. Sometimes she had trouble remembering my birthday since it came so close to Christmas, but I in my senior year of high school she sent me a heart shaped red crystal necklace for my birthday. I loved it.

My sophomore year in college I dyed my hair black. My mom noticed of course but didn't say anything. I thought for sure Grandma Brown (her mom) would notice and say something; she always spoke her mind and I knew she didn't like people to dye their hair; but either she didn't notice or she held her tongue (hard to believe the latter). I had carpooled home from Oklahoma to Delaware with two other college students. On the return trip, we took two days instead of driving non-stop for 24 hours; we stayed the night at the farm. Grandma made supper and as she cleared the table she looked at me and said, "You made your hair black. Why on earth did you do that?" In a million years I would have never thought she would notice. But she did. I was special to her.

In the spring of my junior year at college, Grandma became ill suddenly and died in just four days. At the funeral all her children and the grandkids were weeping and crying; some really carrying on. I was sad but she had always been afraid of having a stroke and being unable to care for herself. I knew she had died exactly the way she wanted. She had not suffered. She had not had a long illness to wear on her husband or children. She looked exactly like I had seen her last. I knew her. Grandma was a no nonsense, determined, plain spoken woman who had never taken a cotton to hysterics and carrying on. If you scraped your knee, she would clean it, band-aid it, kiss it and then hug you. If you continued to wail, she would say, "That's enough, your not going to bleed to death, it's just a scrape." I could just see her standing up in heaven looking down on us and shaking her head. "My goodness, what is all this for?" No, she wouldn't have been pleased at all.

A year later at my wedding, Grandpa came up and put his arms around me, giving me a big hug. He told me that of all the grandchildren I was most like Grandma. "You look like her; the same height; the same build; the same staunch determination and no nonsense attitude. He didn't realize it then, but that compliment was the best gift he could have ever given me.

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