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January 3, 2017

My grandmother isn’t well.  I am sure she would appreciate your prayers, if you’ve any to spare.  Or even just some nice thoughts, really.  It isn’t easy being sick.  Her husband too would welcome your support.

Grammy Sweet, as we grew up calling her, has led a nice long life.  Sweet?  Because that was my Mother’s maiden name.  Not because of a personality trait.  Her name would likely have been Stoic, had that been the root.  Grammy was born that spring just before the stock markets crashed in 1929.  (She’s an Aries while my sister and me, well, we’re of the more bull-headed Taurus variety from later in the month of April.)  Think of how she was sixteen years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; she had no more idea than Grampy, who helped construct the Tinian airstrip which took out Nagasaki, that history of that gruesome sort was about to play out.  (Grampy didn’t find out what the airstrip was used for until long after he had returned stateside.)  She didn’t have personal contact with the war, in essence.  Grammy was not all that helpful when the history teacher sent us kids home with the instruction to interview a survivor of the war.  She was, after all, just twelve years old at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; she was just five years old at the beginning of the year that radar was invented.  Both changed the world, but she was doing homework and chores.

Grammy was raised, initially any way, on a farmstead now no longer standing, on a road no longer in use, in a small rural town in central Penobscot County.  You would not be able to find the place any longer.  The logs once used as paving in the soft parts of that road have rotted away and the road itself has been largely reclaimed by scrubby trees.  Oh.  You can tell the trees are younger than the ones surrounding them, but when there are so many, you have to be paying attention pretty well to understand what time has really accomplished.  That old house, where Grammy Sweet was a tike, is today, just a cellar hole that was mostly filled in with rubble some years back.  The outline of the house is easiest to spot in springtime because the flower bulbs that my great grandparents left behind when they moved to their larger home at the top of the hill from where I grew up still remain.  Daffodils, tulips and snow on the mountain greenery dot the landscape.  Dutchman’s breeches and bleeding hearts fill the area under some now large oaks.  Some lovely white lilac, and the gladiola bulbs Grammy Rowe (Grammy Sweet’s Mom) loved were brought to the Corinth home on the Marsh Road, as were some of the apple trees and a current bush that got to be the size of a tree when I was young.  The grapes, the gooseberries, the rhubarb, they too may have come from Garland at the home where my Grandmother’s Grandparents resided, but it is hard to say with only one left, an elderly cousin of Gram’s, himself now in his nineties, to tell the old stories again.

Grammy Sweet’s upbringing was modest.  She was raised in farm country.  Her Dad, formerly the town clerk, among other duties he held in town, was the son of a school teacher and took the lessons he learned as a child at his Dad’s insistence and made a hobby of them.  He’d sit and calculate math equations for the fun of it, assuredly more challenging than making sure the town’s birth, death and marriage registries were neat, legible and orderly.  Her Mom was a strong Baptist woman who kept order in her home and farmette.  She didn’t allow for waste, writing on the backs of old envelopes as scrap paper and prohibiting my Mother, in her youth, from “hanging out of the icebox”.  Stray emotions were not free range in that household either, from what I have understood over time.  Good Old New England stock.  Grammy Sweet had a strong work ethic and never suffered from idle hands.  She was one of three kids.  The eldest.  The only daughter.  They all worked hard.  She would go on to have two kids of her own.

My Grandmother knows a thing or two about devotion and caring.  As role models go for relationships, I would say she ranked world class.  She was married in 1947 to a farm boy returned from the war, Gene, who admired how nicely she looked bent over in the potato field.  They were married some thirty-three years when he passed away in the winter of 1980, the year I was seven, and not long after he had bought me my first ten speed bicycle.  A red one.  From the Western Auto store.  It was a warm Christmas that year.

She was remarried two years later to a different sort of farmer.  They have been together ever since.  That was thirty-five years ago now.  And, if you are doing the math, you have discovered that my Grammy Sweet has spent sixty-eight of her eighty-eight married.  She wouldn’t have missed those two in between had she been able to choose.  She would have done all seventy.  She’s never complained of it though.  She has been happy twice, and differently.  With her first, she was a Mother, and a generally good one.  With her second, she was a farmer’s wife who had a bit more freedom to travel and spend the cold of winter in Florida.  Different.  Not necessarily better.  We have always been grateful to both of the men who have loved her over time.  We mourn the first.  Her second has his own health travails, but he is by her side day and night and cares for her deeply.  You can’t pay for that level of compassion anywhere.  He’s a good husband.  In short, Grammy celebrated twenty-five years of marriage on two separate occasions.  Many can’t manage to get to once.  Sadly, I was not able to attend either of her parties.

Grammy Sweet has been since shortly after she was first a bride a member of the Methodist church in town.  She never really said, at least not to me, why she left the Baptist Church her mother attended.  Her friends, like Helen, were Methodists.  I suppose that is what explains it.  Grammy dedicated much of her adult life to working with the Couple’s club there.  She served countless dinners and suppers at the church.  Catered weddings.  Hosted funerary luncheons.  She bamboozled more than just me with her large pots of hard boiled eggs at the church kitchen.  Just come help Grammy peel a few eggs, she said slyly of the small bowl of eggs on the counter near where she and her gal pals gossiped. Oh, my, look how well you did with those.  If you take a few more eggs out of that pot, you can show me how well you can do with those too.  Do you know how many eggs it takes to prepare a feast for a small town festival?  I do.  Too many.  We should have been watching our cholesterol anyway.  She was also a “worthy matron” of her local Order of the Eastern Star.  Quite an honor.  She made several of her friends quite jealous with that election.

Born nine and one half pounds.  Graduated salutatorian of her class where she was in sports (almost unheard of), dramatics, prize speaking and editor of a school publication, she and I had a lot in common that way.  We never managed to bond over it all though.  I can’t say why.  She was one of the town’s very first librarians, holding for many years ‘card number one’; I held card number thirty-four for a spell as a child.  I don’t know who has that card now.  Those were the days when your card still slid in the back pocket of the book when you checked it out.  Perhaps they don’t use cards any longer; I bet they do though.  She held jobs as diverse as clerk for a local auto parts store, to school bus driver.  She used to do secretarial work for the undertaker, retiring from that job when Clarence appeared to have kicked the inside of his box while she was recording the flowers recently arrived for his funeral.  (Turns out that the undertaker’s youngest daughter was getting drum lessons at school.  She should have warned Grammy she was going to practice.)

She made the best peanut butter cookies.  Criss cross fork design on the top.  Golden brown.  And, before people started tampering with Tylenol and kids’ Halloween treats, she used to make popcorn balls that were simply to die for:  good and sticky!  She combined 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup molasses, 1 and 1/2 tbls. butter and 1 tsp vinegar.  She brought that to a boil and added 1 tsp. vanilla.  Poured over two quarts of popcorn.  Stir and from the balls.  She got mad when Grampy let us kids help him shell two large pails of peas for dinner, but only end up with about a pint of peas in a small pan.  We weren’t allowed to ‘help’ after that.

We’ve not had much of a relationship, Grammy and I, since I left for college.  I’ve missed out on that last quarter century.  Lots of reasons, I suppose.  Stoicism being one of them.  My being too much like my Mother, and she in turn “Just like your Father”, as Grammy used to yell at Mom in frustration.  We both took the screams as badges of honor.  Mom and Me.

I am grateful to the people who have played a larger role in her life though.  Neighbor, Christine McCorrison, has been a God-send.  Her fresh out of the oven ‘left overs’ have sustained Grammy’s husband throughout Grammy’s long illness.  She claims that she does it just because Grammy was the one who introduced her to her church family.  The rest of us know it is because Christine has a saintly side we can’t quite appreciate fully.  Helen True has given her more than seventy-five years of friendship.  Helen Parkhurst, who just lost her husband recently, wishes her well even though they haven’t seen each other in a number of years.  There are kind and generous souls out there.  I wish I could recognize them all.

With all that said, if you have a bit of extra time for thoughts of kindness and compassion, send a few my Grammy’s way.  She sure could use them right now.  While she can’t make you a baked good in appreciation, I will gladly send you some of her favorite recipes which sustained us as a family over time instead.  And if you run in to any of her friend’s, give them the hug you might have offered Marie.  Tell him or her that the hug was from me.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2017 10:37 am

    Thank you for taking us down memory lane. I felt I was right there with you. You have a wonderful way with words and because of that, my thoughts will happily be with Grammy Sweet today and for some time to come.
    I hope she returns to good health.

  2. January 3, 2017 1:54 pm

    What a lovely story, James! I hope you’ll save it as one of the chapters in your book that you must be writing.

    I love the way you developed the story with images of your grandmother as a little girl, then as a married woman, and her “different” marriages. I also love the way she Tom Sawyered you into peeling those eggs!

    My grandmother lived in France, so I had an epistolary relationship with her that lasted until she died in her mid-nineties. As a kid, we took turns making the trip across the Atlantic. One summer we’d fly to France, the next summer she’d fly to the U.S. Since she had the freedom to stay and get the most out of the cost of the plane ticket, she was the one who usually came at Christmas time.

    My thoughts are with you and Grammy Sweet…

    Bonne Annee!



  3. Margaret Maroney permalink
    January 20, 2017 5:50 am

    I enjoyed your strong visual description of Grammy and the sensitive portrayal of the imperfection of human relationships.

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