It occurred to me today that my grandmother’s birthday was a few weeks ago. No, not Nana, who is my mother’s mother, but Grandma Mary, my father’s mom. I don’t speak of her often, dear reader, for the simple reason that my memories of her are much more limited. She died when I was in 7th grade, but even before that, I rarely spent much time with her, as we didn’t often make the 2 day trek down to Atlanta.
She was very different from my mom’s parents, who were fairly close to the quintessential embodiment of indulgent grandparents. Grandma Mary was … well, just different. Abrupt, plain spoken, never one to give false compliments. You could trust her hugs and throaty laughs to be genuine. In honor of my Grandma Mary’s birthday, I have decided to share with you a vignette, an ethereal memory from my youth which in all honesty could be the trailing ends of two wispy memories knitted together. Among the fuzzy recollections I have of my father's mother, this post captures a few of the most vivid.
Grandma Mary had a particular fondness for flowered housedresses. Actually, I guess they would more appropriately be called muumuus, which was in keeping with her particular fondness for Hawaii. I can only remember one time that she was not dressed in one of the large, billowy gowns with a pair of slippers on her feet.
On this day, it was a hot, muggy day on the south side of Atlanta. The air was heavy and the house, though dark from the pulled blinds and abuzz with the sound of fans spinning, was nonetheless oppressive. I was alone with Grandma Mary, and truly I can’t recall where my siblings or parents were.
On this day, she was dressed in a short sleeve, button down top with a pair of long walking shorts. Her short, curly grey hair was topped by a green visor and sandals adorned her socked feet. A small bag rested over her shoulder, and she reached her hand out to me. “Let’s go, kiddo.”
Together we started down the hill, following the street as we walked along sidewalkless front yards. My hand, sweaty just like the rest of me, was tucked limply in her firm, dry grasp. She walked with purpose, as if she had a schedule to keep, and I soon discovered that she did. We arrived just moments before the great, lumbering city bus pulled up to the curb with an exhausted groan and swung its doors open with a hiss.
This was my fist experience with a bus. Only weeks away from kindergarten, the great yellow monstrosity that regularly swallowed up my siblings had yet to ingest me, and even that beast seemed friendly when compared to the boxy, dirty, low-riding MARTA bus that now impatiently awaited us.
Grandma Mary stepped forward and efficiently dragged my reluctant weigh behind her, paid our fare, and towed me towards the back where a few seats remained empty. I knew I shouldn’t look at the strangers we passed, but of their own will my wide eyes took in the various passengers we went by. My stomach churned at the unfamiliarity of the whole situation, and soon Grandma Mary was no longer dragging me; I was pressing myself against her earnestly.
At last we took our seats and the bus roared forward, the engine loud and smelly from our position in the back. I settled in, wedged between the window and Grandma Mary’s side. This spot felt safer than the exposed stretch of the aisle, and my heart began to slow its erratic flutter. Soon I was staring rapt at the passing scenery, engrossed with the wilds of downtown Atlanta that I had not experienced before.
“Pull the cord.”
Her rough voice snapped me back from my observations, and I looked at her in confusion. She smiled, her thin lips pressing together and spreading wide, and nodded towards the wire that ran along the ceiling. I looked at the apparatus, and then back to her timidly, afraid to do anything that might upset the beast.
“Go on,” she encouraged, not allowing my timidity to get the best of me. “You can do it.”
I stood gingerly on the cracked leather of the seat and grasped the headrest with one hand as I hesitantly reached up with the other. I wrapped my fingers around the thin cord, closed my eyes, and yanked.
Ding Ding! My eyes flew open at the sharp, unexpected sound and I dropped instantly to my knees, hiding behind the seat in front of me in fear of getting in trouble for raising a racket. Is this what happened when you push open an emergency-only door??
The bus started to slow and pulled off the road to the curb. Oh no! They were kicking us off! I looked to Grandma Mary in a panic, and she winked at me as she rose and took my quivering hand in hers. I blurted out “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I won’t do it again!”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about, silly girl. We’re here!” She chuckled gaily and pulled me towards the exit. My stomach picked itself off the floor and landed back where it belonged, and I smiled tentatively in response. I controlled the bus! I pulled its cord, and it stopped, powerless to deny me!
With a smug swagger I followed along besides her as she wended her way though the crowd. I am the master of the bus! The beast was putty in my hands. I was so absorbed in the excitement of the ride that it didn’t immediately register where we were when we stopped in front of a window and Grandma Mary pulled out her change purse and handed the woman a few balled up, wrinkly bills.
Suddenly I smelled the chemically euphoric smell that brought a whoop of delight to my lips. Chlorine!
She had brought me to a pool! Outings with Nana and Papa involved one of two places: a restaurant or a movie theater. Never, ever had they taken me to a pool! The single most glorious destination that my five-year-old brain could conjure, and Grandma Mary had brought me here! Not Andy, not Kara, not any one of my jumble of cousins that my dad’s nine brothers and sisters had provided; no, Grandma Mary had brought me!
Dressing in the locker room was a blur; I have no idea what it looked like or how long we were there. I can only remember my first glance at the shimmering, sparkling, glorious expanse of the biggest pool I had ever seen. There were black lanes waving gaily on the bottom of the pool, and neatly painted numbers at regular intervals along the curved lip of concrete at the water’s edge, and impossibly high diving boards beckoning to me with each resounding thwap that echoed across the surface when a swimmer jumped. There were children of all ages, and colors, and skill levels.
Excitement overwhelmed me, and before I could stop them my feet flew across the sidewalk, and then I was flying, and then I was weightless. The cool, refreshing water enveloped me, muffling sound and drowning my sweat. I twisted and turned, kicked my feet and thrust my arms in wide arcs until I broke the surface again.
I sucked the hot air into my starved lungs, laughing even as I panted, while I looked around on the pool deck for Grandma Mary. But I couldn’t see her. Fear sprang to my heart instantly, and I paddled in quick circles looking for her black bathing suit and grey mop of curls. Within seconds my pulse had increased and my breathing was coming in gasps. Where could she be??
Suddenly, the water beside me erupted skyward, and like Triton rising from the depths, a body emerged from the crystal liquid, white hands pushing back dark grey locks from blinking blue eyes. Grandma Mary! Just as I had moments ago, she laughed aloud as the water fell from her body and her lungs filled again.
I stared in awe at the woman besides me. Never before had I seen an old person swim. And like a fish she swam! My jaw unhinged and fell to my chest as I tried to wrap my head around the wonderful sight.
I couldn’t believe it, even as I started to giggle and swam along side her. Overweight and somewhat lumbering on land, she glided freely and beautifully through the water. Nobody else in the whole wide world had a grandmother that could swim. Nobody but me. I knew that I would be just like her when I grew up.
After hours of frolicking in the water, we eventually dried off, dressed and returned to the bus stop. This time I waited in front of her and eagerly boarded as soon as the departing passengers had cleared. The whole ride I squatted on the seat, ready to spring when the timing was right.
“Pull the cord, Erin.”
And I did. I controlled buses, and my grandmother was a mermaid.
Do you have any unexpected memories of your grandparents? What was a special moment or activity that you shared with them, that sticks with you even now?
The dessert I associate most strongly with my grandmother is none other than German Chocolate Cake. Interestingly enough, though I normally dislike coconut, I must say, it is pretty darn awesome in this recipe :) I will give you the same recipe that Grandma Mary used: the one on the back of the Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate box! Click Here for the recipe. I have also used the Duncan Hines box mix, and it does just fine since the magic is really in the frosting for this cake. Due to the consistency of the cake and frosting, I recommend making this cake in a 9x13 pan.
Coconut pecan Frosting (modified from this recipe):
1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
3 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
1 and 1/2 cup coconut flakes
1 and 1/4 cups chopped pecans
In a large saucepan over medium heat, combined the condensed milk and butter. In a separate bowl, temper yolks by adding a small amount of the hot milk/butter mixture (about a 1/2 cup) slowly to yolks while whisking. (if you don’t temper eggs, you will end up with scrambled eggs!). Once combined, stir the yolk mixture into the saucepan with the milk and butter. Stir constantly for about 10 minutes until bubbly.
Remove from heat, stir in vanilla, coconut, and pecans. Cool to room temperature before spreading.
Note: This frosting is not generally suited to layer cakes, so I recommend making this in a 9x13 pan.