Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Grandma Mac

The picture above was taken sometime between 1949 and 1951 at a partial family reunion in Colonial Beach, Virginia. I'm the little kid sitting on the chair arm with Aunt Grace, my father's sister. Leaning over Aunt Grace's right shoulder is my mother, age about 40; to my mother's left is her father, James McLaughlin, known to all as Grandpop. Minnie, his wife, my mother's mother and the woman known universally as Grandma, completes that center composition. The man on the far left in the wife-beater shirt is Aunt Grace's husband, Uncle Charlie Sterner. The girl on the far right sitting like a bathing beauty is my sister Marie. The rest, including the girl in the very graceful pose next to Marie, are cousins.

I was born into the family relatively late in my parents' lives--my mother was 34, my father, 38. My mother said she wanted more kids, but was told by doctors that she "wasn't built" for many children, so basically took a chance on me, 9 1/2 years after giving birth to my sister. (I suppose to start all over again with a new baby at that age was a healthy thing for my parents' marriage, but one unanticipated development it led to was my hitting puberty exactly when my mother hit menopause. Toxic. If you're planning a family, throw that possibility into the mix as you contemplate.)

I was always "the kid." Everybody seemed old. Well, there was no "seeming" about it, they were old. There were no kids my age among any of the cousins, and we weren't that close to the rest of the family anyway, so I had to either look for kids outside the family to play with or, more often, just fend for myself. Being forced upon my own resources very early probably explains my rich internal life now, and the fact that I've always felt like a law unto myself.

There were always Grandma and Grandpop Cherry and Grandma and Grandpop Mac. I never knew Grandma Cherry (another Minnie--what are the chances?), who died before I was born. Grandpop Cherry (another James) I only remember as ancient from the day I first set eyes on him. He lived in a nursing home and came to our house occasionally for Sunday dinners. I remember him as distant and rather austere. That austerity was passed on to his children, including my father. My mother and father spent little time socializing with my father's siblings, there being not a great deal of warmth or closeness, and my father was standoffish and never shared much of himself. Grandpop Cherry died at 90 in 1953.

Then there was my mother's family. Other people have warm, apple pie- and lavender-scented memories of their grandmothers. Not I. I remember my grandmother's house as chaotic and not very clean. Instead of huge family dinners, Grandma Mac was known for her enormous lunches, where you'd find piles of white bread, all sorts of deli cheeses and meats, salads and beer.

My mother was the eldest of five living siblings. Fixing things when they went awry for her brothers and sisters, as well as for her parents, seemed to fall naturally upon her shoulders, and she always felt both duty-bound to carry out these duties and resentful of them at the same time. Grandpop was a larger-than-life Scotsman, 6'3" and well over 200 lbs. He dominated any room he was in, as he dominated his family, especially his wife. He could be violent and crass. He was a diabetic who took his insulin, but did little else to look after himself.

When I entered the picture Grandma and Gandpop Mac were living in a townhouse in Washington, at 3rd and I Streets NW. In the early 50s they bought half of a duplex in the new subdivision of Hillcrest Heights, in close-in Prince George's County, Maryland. Every Tuesday for many years, before I started school and during summers after, I traveled with my mother to her parents' house, where she picked up the pieces of the previous week. She would help clean the house, do laundry, take Grandma shopping. When Grandpop's diabetes became more serious, it was my mother who studied low-sugar and low-fat diets and devised menus for him, even cooked the meals. (An interesting aside: Grandma and Grandpop built the first "Florida room" I had ever seen onto that house, complete with louvered, "jalousie" glass windows. They bought some very beautiful, heavy rattan furniture for it which is still in the family and nearly priceless today.)

More Saturday. Tomorrow will be an early Food Day.

1 comment:

Marilyn said...

Ralph - what a gem you have created! I've read all your entries and enjoyed every one. You really are a wonderful writer and should consider writing a book.
You know, even though you have been a friend for several years, I'm still learning so much about you through your music, which is so cool and I can't wait to try your pasta recipe!
Well, I'm definitely going to be a regular on your blogsite and I'm sending the link over to Wayne, who was avidly reading over my shoulder. Well done!
Hugs, Marilyn