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“Sweet Pea,” she used to call me, and her “little pea blossom” ( a very appropriate name for a toddler, I should think, especially the “pee” part). “Law, law, law,” she would say, when any news called for social comment, wagging her head topped with crinkly steel-gray hair.
Grandmother (she hated to be called “Grandma”) was a bundle of contradictions in an old-fashioned dress. She smelled of lavender and baby-powder, and Listerine. Her dour face was at odds with her teddy-bear body, suet-y from her seventy-plus years of a lard-based diet. She longed to get to know us on the rare occasions we could visit, but firmly believed her oft-repeated remark that “children should be seen and not heard.” She wanted to play with us, but rather than snuggle up with a good book, she taught us Canasta and Gin Rummy, and held her cards as close to her ample bosom as any riverboat gambler. She was just naturally prickly, when she really longed for us to see her as cuddly.
“You’re not holding your mouth right,” was her suggestion when we could not do something after repeated efforts. “Deader’n four o’clock,” she pronounced over a stopped watch.
“My stars and garters” she would exclaim.
Words can be apron strings.
Not that Grandmother wasn’t a good cook. My mind’s eye can see her in front of her huge old-fashioned stove, wrapped in a faded chintz apron. Memories of her cooking, unabashedly Southern, still make my mouth water. Steaming pots of soup beans, with golden cornbread both light and hearty; cooked greens with ham hocks; fluffy, flakey biscuits with the never-to-be-duplicated red-eye gravy; Sunday pot roast (always, only on Sundays) with roasted carrots and potatoes. I remember eagerly decapitating dandelions in her spacious back yard so she could brew her homemade dandelion wine (of which I never got a taste).
But the memory that stands most clearly is that of her sacrificing five whole dollars of her limited fixed income to entice me to learn The Apostle’s Creed and the Twenty-Third Psalm. I remember the glee of receiving that reward (a fortune for a child in those days). Though the dollars were long ago spent, the love of God she encouraged remained and grew.
My cooking is rather indifferent. But words have been my life. Both reading and writing, in school and throughout my career, my power to succeed, my comfort in distress. my worship, my fondest dreams, my daughter’s inheritance.
Words are the apron strings that tie me close to my grandmother’s memory.
Nancy Sliwa – July 2004