Today is my grandmother’s birthday. Her name was Martha and she was born in 1903. She passed away in 1998 at the ripe young age of 94, just a month shy of her 95th birthday.
Martha lived in an era where nearly all opportunities were given to males. She had an older brother who was allowed to continue his education. His name was Harry and according to Martha, never amounted to much. Harry died when I was in elementary school. I remember very little about him except he had some type of throat cancer and had to turn on a flashlight in order to speak.
My grandmother valued higher education as she was forced to drop out of school after she completed the eighth grade. She read the newspaper daily and kept abreast of current events. She had an impressive vocabulary and could debate politics with anyone.
Martha lived solely on Social Security. She worked as domestic help to wealthy people in Kalamazoo. Although her means were austere, you always felt like you were in the company of one of the richest people in the world.
When I was growing up, I used to spend a lot of sleep-overs at my grandmother’s house. I don’t know how she did it, but she’d list the ingredients of items in her pantry and end up cooking a feast. It went something like this: “I have some spam, some whippin’ cream, some tapioca, some ice milk and some popcorn. Let me see what I can whip up.”
Every year, we would watch the beauty pageants together. They went in order: Miss Michigan; Miss America and Miss Universe. We would critique each one and guess who would win. By the time I was in high school, I was too busy with band and choir to continue the beauty pageant tradition.
I noticed a pattern with my grandmother. My mother would complain or share concerns about me, my grandmother would invite me over to spend the night and build up my self esteem. Apparently one year my mother was complaining about my weight and body size. My grandmother whipped out a column by Ann Landers where a mother was berating her daughter about her weight. I remember telling my grandmother that I wondered if my mother wrote the column. My grandmother told me that there was nothing wrong with the way I looked and that she’d seen many people twice my size. She always made me feel better.
One year, my mother had complained to her that I did not have a lot of friends. This was true. I never had the nerve to tell either my mother or my grandmother that I was not about to invite friends to our home as I never knew what the climate would be like with my father’s alcoholism. I did confirm to my grandmother that I did not have a lot of friends. She told me that she didn’t have a lot of friends and we could help each other out. Again, I felt loved and validated.
I often refer to my grandmother as the “original Martha Stewart” because she could have taught the latter a thing or two. My Martha could make anything, bake anything, cook anything, sew anything (even without a pattern) and grow anything. She lived in a run down part of town, however, she did own her home and was proud of that. She had the most auspicious flower garden that lined the entire back and side of her home. Complete strangers would stop to take photos. Her roses were stunning.
Martha maintained this garden until she was in her late 70’s. One year, some thugs in the neighborhood pulled every blossom off of every flower. That made her angry and she drank a beer and took her hand lawn mower and mowed the entire garden down. That was Martha’s way.
There were always good times to be had when you were in her company. She made the holidays more festive. She dressed up and always wore her mink coat (a hand-me-down from her wealthy sister-in-law); she wore costume jewelry and put on make up. Martha did not drive so we either picked her up or she took a tax to our home. Pay dirt! Mother lode! She would arrive with all kinds of homemade treats and gifts galore.
On rare occasions, Martha would come to our cottage in the summer to celebrate the Fourth of July with us. One year she spent the night. She slept in the bedroom that my sister and I shared. This was far better than any slumber party. She kept us up late by telling stories of some relative that we knew nothing about. She was the consummate storyteller.
Martha was kind, caring, loving, nurturing and talented. I always felt safe and secure when she was near by.
Wherever she is spending her afterlife, I’m sure she is whipping up a feast and sharing it with others.