by Betsy Seeton
When she talked, and she loved to talk, she picked a place in the air not far from where I’d be sitting, like she was looking through a window to the past, and she’d smile in that way sweet memories make all of us smile. She’d kind of rear back, her hands folded in her lap with one hand always clutching a tissue and her legs crossed at her thick ankles. With great pride and affection she’d resurrect her childhood. Her eyes would dart back to mine every now and then to see what reaction I might be having and then they’d head back to her imaginary window.
She had an infectious laugh. I can still hear it and it still brings a smile to my face. Born twenty five years before the 1st World War, she was the youngest of five children and full of pepper. A native of Colorado, she was a happy kid and fearless too. When she would tell me stories about her tomboy ways, I always liked that we had that in common. She spoke of riding her father’s bulls in their pasture and jumping on unsaddled horses. She was a sharpshooter with a rifle and pistol, and just as savvy with a fly rod. She could out fish any man and used to tell this story about an old guy who ran into her on the stream one day.
He couldn’t seem to catch a fish that day and when she appeared with a basket full of plump, fresh trout like she could always catch, he was quite put out with her. For more dramatic effect she’d lower her voice to imitate this man and as she did so her chin would nearly touch her chest. Then she’d blurt out what he had said to her that day, “What’s your name???!!” I don’t remember much else of that story, but it was so funny to hear her tell it because if you hadn’t been paying close attention, as a friend of mine hadn’t been one time, when she’d say “What’s your name?” in that demanding tone, my friend was completely startled and quickly but feebly muttered her name. This would throw my grandma off balance for a moment, but she’d laugh it off and continue with the story. I guess I was too busy laughing at what had just happened to follow along until she was finished.
When she’d tell me she was quite the looker in her day she’d squeeze her blue hair with both hands and her blue-gray eyes would take on a fresh sparkle. It was hard for me to envision my plump, short grandma as a young woman with long, thick auburn hair, but that’s the picture she painted of herself and there were family photos to prove it. She used to talk about the many beaus that pursued her. There was one story about her gentleman callers she was very fond of telling. It was when grandpa came to see her one day (long before he became my grandpa) and she had to sneak him out the back door while her other beau was knocking at the front door.
When she spoke about her father it was obvious how much she adored him. For a short time he was the mayor of the small mountain town they lived in, but what he was best known for was being a successful miner. The family argues to this day about what kind of a man great-grandpa was. There’s no disagreement about him being nice and loving, but there’s speculation about whether he was a gambler and a drinker partly because of the way he made and lost fortunes. Either way, he always sounded like an interesting character and someone I thought I would’ve enjoyed knowing.
I grew up sharing a room and a double bed with her through my first year in Jr. High. Looking back, I can’t believe I was that old and still sleeping in the same bed as my grandma. But it was what I’d always done so it didn’t cross my mind as being unusual at the time. And I know I was in the seventh grade when we were still sharing a bed because that was the year I had my first crush and I remember telling her all about him. He and I were friends first and briefly something more and then quickly back to simply friends. After that he fell hard for a friend of mine and she for him. But I digress.
I have this very special memory of her around Christmas time when I was about five or six. I awoke during the early morning hours of Christmas day. I was so excited to go see if Santa had come, and to maybe get a peek at the jolly man himself. Grandma was awake too. In fact, she probably woke me on her nightly jaunt to the bathroom. I was just about to get out of bed when she told me about how she’d just seen Santa that night and that he wanted her to tell me how proud he was of me. She said Santa knew I’d stay in bed like a good little girl because he’d been watching me throughout the year and he knew I was special. She told me I’d best not get out of bed for a few more hours because of course I wouldn’t want to disappoint Santa since he wanted me to get a full night’s sleep. I was amazed she actually talked to Santa and that he knew who I was. I was so glad she’d caught me before I headed out to see what was under the tree. I quickly pulled the covers over me and forced myself back to sleep content in believing that Santa and my grandma loved me very much. Grandma often told me I was the apple of her eye. I always thought that was a funny way of telling someone how much they meant, but the way my grandma would say it made me feel very special and loved.
Grandma was in her thirties before she got pregnant with my dad. She and grandpa had been trying to have a baby for over seven years and had all but given up. So when she finally got pregnant for the first time she was elated. And since she didn’t know if she’d ever have another child it was easy to understand how much she adored my father. To hear her talk my father was a prodigy. She often told the story about him getting into their 1920 Ford truck at the age of three and driving it around the block. She said he stood up to reach the gas pedal and held onto the steering wheel real tight. I didn’t know if she was being entirely accurate, but it was a favorite story of mine.
She was the first to admit how protective she was with my dad and she didn’t argue when he said if it weren’t for his father intervening on occasions, she’d have raised him up to be a real sissy.
I guess there wasn’t a drinking age in my dad’s day because grandma used to talk about serving up hot toddies on cold days and how much my dad liked them. He’d come in after a rainy day of fishing when he was about five years old and he’d shiver real good in an attempt to get her to warm him up with one of her famous hot toddies. She’d laugh when she told this story. She thought it was so cute and smart of him. I thought it was too.
I loved that my grandma had her own cabin in the mountains, and I loved staying with her when I got the chance. She heated the place with a wood/cook stove and we used a chamber pot at night and the outhouse during the day. Her bedroom was always cold at night because it was kept closed off from the heated part of the cabin, and when I was little she’d let me warm my cold feet on her stomach. I’d giggle every time because she’d make these loud sounds when my feet landed on her. Just thinking about it makes me smile. I remember cuddling with her and listening to the sound of rain hitting her tin roof. For some reason the taste of cantaloupe to this day reminds me of her because it was something she often served at breakfast when I spent the night.
Ever since I could remember, Grandma had a bad hip . She would struggle to get up whether out of a kitchen chair or from a couch. When she’d finally stand she’d take a step or two like babies do when they’re first learning to walk. It would be slow and uncertain and she’d pause between steps until her muscles and joints got loosened up. I could see her face wince from the pain and her shoulders would tighten. But I don’t remember her ever sitting around and complaining about it. She endured her pain like a champ. I remember thinking how I wouldn’t have been such a good sport.
As I think of it now I wonder if her silence was partly because she was afraid of doctors. My dad wanted her to consider getting a hip replacement but she never came close to entertaining the idea. It took a long time for the family to even convince her to use a cane. I never really thought about it before but I guess she had her stubborn ways.
Because of her hip giving her so much pain she couldn’t bend over much past her knees. As a result of this she couldn’t trim her toenails or put on her right nylon stocking very easily. For a while she learned to put the stocking on by first placing it around a piece of bent cardboard. She’d get it just so and then drop it to the floor. She’d slide her foot into it and after some finagling she’d bend just far enough to reach an edge of the stocking. With more wriggling and enough time she’d get the stocking pulled up.
It wasn’t long though before she asked me to help. I’d like to say that I volunteered to help and maybe I did; I’m really not sure. I just remember how there were times it bothered me to always be the one who had to put on her stocking. She wouldn’t ask anyone else or let anyone else help her but me. As I sit here today thinking about how I clipped her toenails and put that stocking on, I can only hope I never let on that I was put out by those chores at times. I loved her very much so I hope that my love concealed any irritation I was feeling.
She started smoking when she was fifty years old. It was after the unexpected heart attack and death of grandpa. I never met him, but his death left a huge void in grandma’s life, so she came to live with us soon after that. She smoked Kent cigarettes and she always used to tell me that she never inhaled. She really believed she wasn’t inhaling even when as she was saying it the smoke would pour out of her nose. I used to giggle at her about that one. Even a child knows when someone is inhaling a cigarette. She used to hold the cigarette between her forefinger and middle finger and often propped that same hand up near her face when she took little naps. The smoke would rise up into the front of her hair and turn it yellow.
Something grandma used to do every day was the section in the local newspaper with the scrambled words. She was very proud of her two year college education and was a whiz at grammar and spelling. She used to teach grammar school and she always corrected me if I spoke incorrectly. Every now and then I’d get to help her unscramble a word if she found herself particularly stumped, which wasn’t very often. I still think of her when I see that section in the paper. And when I unscramble the words from time to time she’s never far from my mind.
Another thing grandma liked to do was play cards and she even liked to gamble a bit. Every summer she got together with some ladies in the area and they’d play a game called Spite and Malice and bet with stacks of pennies. I always thought it cool to have a grandma who’d bend the law by gambling even if it was just for pennies. She was always available to play a game of cards with me. In fact, I don’t recall her ever being too busy to play with me.
I used to pull pranks on her. She'd be doing the nightly dinner dishes and I'd sneak in the kitchen and move something or take something. While I hid to watch her reaction, I could barely contain my giggles. For years, I had no idea she was playing along with me. She had me believing I was a successful trickster. One time I rolled the portable dishwasher out of the kitchen and she pretended she had no idea what happened to it.
Her favorite television shows were Red Skelton and any of the Lucy shows. She watched other shows but those were the ones I remember the most. She also liked the Red Fox show, which no one in the family understood.
People liked my grandma a lot. She had a real pioneer spirit having been born in Ouray, Colorado and raised out west in the Rocky Mountains. Being a fisherwoman and a sharp shooter set her apart from a lot of other grandmas. And she knew how to pan gold which a lot of people were fascinated by. She was rich with Colorado history, which made for good story telling. But like a lot of young kids I didn’t appreciate as much as I should have the wealth of information she possessed. I remember the high lights like her being the first woman to come into the mining camp in Taylor Park over Tin Cup pass on a horse drawn sleigh. What I wouldn’t give now to ask her more questions about those days.
She had a secret code for I love you. She'd squeeze my hand once for each word. So no matter where we were, she could reach over to me and gently squeeze my hand three times. I passed that down to my own children. I don't know if she made it up, or if was started by someone who loved her, but the code lives on.
I don’t know that she ever believed man really landed on the moon. Deep down I think she wondered if it weren’t somehow just a big hoax. She used to tell me the older she got the dumber she felt. She didn’t understand all the advances having to do with technology. (I have some understanding of what she meant by that as I grow older.) Having lived in the days of oil lamps, horse and buggies, outhouses, and telephones that routed through operators, by the end of the seventies life bore only a fossil-like resemblance to what she grew up knowing.
My grandma died the same month and year as Elvis Presley. I was twenty years old that year and her death hit me pretty hard. She was the first person in my life to die. I’d had great-aunts and uncles die, but no one I loved with all my heart the way I did my grandma. Every child should have the opportunity to know a grandparent the way I did. She shaped me in ways I’ll probably never fully know, but I’m certain I’m a better person because of her. And I know my life was so much richer for having her be such a big part of it.
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