Saturday, January 26, 2008

Grandma Mac Part 2

Grandma Mac walked with a limp and used a cane for her entire 70-odd years. The story we always heard was that when she was a baby, someone had pulled her foot through the rungs of her crib and twisted it. Accidentally or on purpose? That was not determined because the question was never asked. All of us, my mother, her siblings and we children, simply took the story at face value, as just something that could happen in those impossibly long-ago days when Grandma was a baby. "Somebody twisted her foot through the crib." It appeared as though the protruding ankle bone that is normally on the side of the foot was positioned on the top, right where the foot attaches to the leg. Grandma never complained once about this state of affairs, at least in my hearing. For her, the way she walked was simply walking. But it must have made housework difficult for her, especially with five small children in a big house without many conveniences, "modern" or otherwise.

Grandma presented a simple, child-like character to the world that was no act. Many realities of the modern 1950s simply eluded her. My earliest realization of this came when I was very young, five or six years old. My mother and I had gone over to Hillcrest Heights one summer Tuesday. I had brought a box of crayons and unthinkingly left them in the sun on the shelf behind the back seat of the car. A bit later when we got back into the car to go to the store, the crayons had turned into a colorful wax puddle on the shelf. As clear as day I can still hear Grandma say in utter surprise, "oh, do crayons melt?" I remember thinking I was surprised, but that Grandma shouldn't have been. And my mother was so shocked at the question, she forgot to reprimand me for being careless. (Thanks, Grandma!)

Grandma loved her "stories," the soap operas she had started listening to on the radio and followed to television. But her involvement with them went beyond mere entertainment. She was convinced that there were real people in those boxes living out their problem-fraught lives. More than once she declared, "someone has got to tell that woman what her husband is doing behind her back!" If you told her it wasn't real, it was just a play, she gave you a pitiful look that clearly indicated she thought you were crazy. These people were in real trouble and here you were doubting it! There used to be a TV show called "International Showtime," a review of circus acts from around the world. The actor Don Ameche hosted from a seat in the audience, where he'd look into the camera and introduce the acts. Once when Grandma and I were watching the show together, she took the opportunity to clear something up she'd been wondering about. When Ameche starting talking, she asked, "can he see us like we can see him?" I explained he couldn't, that he was looking into a TV camera that broadcast his picture around the country. "Camera?" she asked. I let it go. I'm sure she never quite understood what this TV phenomenon was.

After Grandpop died, Grandma came to live with us in Falls Church. She was very religious. Every afternoon she'd go to her room to say the rosary and then take a nap. Hoping to get her interested in reading, my mother gave her one of her favorte inspirational books, The Sermon On The Mount. Every now and then Mother would ask Grandma how she was doing with the book. "Oh, I like it!" she'd say. "I'm up to page 37!" For her books were things to be got through, not understood. She'd watch Bishop Fulton Sheen on TV and get the message, but books were not known for their messages, as far as Grandma was concerned.

If it is true that women in her day were not expected to learn any skills beyond those necessary to care for a home, then Grandma Mac was a prime example of her generation. Of a piece with her ignorance of crayons and TV was the fact that she knew nothing whatsoever of the larger concerns about running a household, such as money management. She was given an allowance by Grandpop to spend as she saw fit. When Grandpop died, Grandma was in her late sixties and had never written a check. She knew nothing of budgets or paying bills. In order for the lights and heat to stay on, the Hillcrest Heights house budget became one of my mother's jobs until Grandma moved in with us.

In spite of her simple nature, or maybe because of it, Grandma loved to laugh. She was always up for a joke, and in spite of everything she possessed an unshakable, core-deep optimism that passed from her through my mother and now resides in my sister and me. It wasn't a matter of persevering against odds, or showing a game face to life's challenges. She was just, in her heart, happy. Grandma had a stroke when I was around 12, from which she never recovered. Soon after was taken to the hospital, my mother and I went to visit her. The stroke made it impossible for Grandma to form intelligible words, but evidently she didn't know that. She saw us enter the room and immediately began a long and animated discourse in utter gobbledygook sounds. My mother and I glanced at each other and burst into embarrassed laughter, the kind that is the more irrepressible because it isn't supposed to be happening. Grandma saw us laughing and joined right in. Whatever the joke was, she wanted to be a part of it.

That picture of her broad, laughing Irish face is my Grandma Mac's final, indelible gift to me, and I will carry it with me until my own last laugh. When that time comes, may I be half so generous.

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