Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Memories of Mermaids

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.


  1. Courtney Menzel-JordanSeptember 14, 2010 at 1:47 AM

    I love you!!! This was a WONDERFUL story! I don't really have ANY memories of Grandma Mary. I may have one, but I'd have to confirm it with my mother. This is so vivid and wonderful! I'm so jealous.

    And yes, that German Chocolate Cake is fantastic! I plan on having one for my birthday again this year! My mom and I could eat the whole thing of frosting by ourselves :). Never tried the 9x13. We use three round pans I think. I don't know if we make extra icing, but it works. Thank you so much for this blog post! It helps me add to what I think she'd be like if I had more time with her. I DO remember a blue and green muumuu.

  2. Courtney, I am so glad that I could bring her to life for you. You and several of our cousins were so young when she died, I realize how lucky I am to have memories of her. As for the muumuu, the first thing Kara said when I told her I was writing a story about Grandma Mary was "her and those flowered muumuus', lol!

  3. Erin, your story brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing!


  4. Wonderful story. Your tight-lipped grandmother sounds a lot like my father's mother. I miss her too.

  5. Thank you Sarah, I'm so glad you liked the story. I certainly hope those were good tears :)

  6. How interesting, Clarissa, that my grandmother reminded you of your own. I hope it brought some of your own good memories to mind :)

  7. Wow...what a beautiful, vivid story. Erin the controller of busses! So great. And what a wonderful memory you get to have...I don't ever remember Grandma Mary swimming, so this is very special indeed. I do remember her taking me to see The Black Stallion at a free screening at the public library, and it is still one of my favorite movies, so maybe she knew us each better than I thought...
    Grandma Mary the Mermaid:)

  8. I have a recipe I associate with both my grandmother's. Kiffles (a rolled pastry/cookie with a nut filling) from my dad's mom and a coffee cake from my mother's mom.

    My kids never met my father's mother as she died before I married.

    My mother's mom is still alive at 94. We saw her over the Labor Day weekend. I think my oldest will remember her best as he met her before the dementia set in. (This visit she didn't know who I was, much less the kids. It was a hard visit for me but one I wanted to do.)

  9. Black Beauty :) Wow, Kara, she definitely had your number! I'm glad that we each have our own special memories of her :)

  10. I have never heard of Kiffles, Beth, but they sure sound good! Hopefully both of your grandmothers will live on through your memories of them as you pass those stories on to your kids :)

  11. I am fortunate enough to have memories not only of my maternal grandparents, but also my maternal great-grandparents. (Who happened by be German, so believe me, we had some yummy German Chocolate Cake over the years!)

    Summers were spent with them at the lake, and I, being the oldest great-grandchild was a frequent fishing buddy. Alas, my great-grandfather could not swim with me, as he'd had a trach, but he loved to boat.

    He died the summer I before I turned 15, so my memories of him are strong. Sadly, my grandmother (his daughter) only outlived him by 6 years, a tragedy that saddens me to this day.

    Thanks for sharing memories of your grandmother. We're lucky to have them, even if they are gone before we're ready.

  12. Wow, what a blessing to have been surrounded by both your grandparents and great grandparents, Heather! It is indeed a blessing to have them for as long as we can.
    And, I imagine you had *lots* of German delicacies in your childhood :)

  13. I remember when riding a bus seemed like the most adventurous thing in the world. LOL Now -- not so much!

    And I had to laugh that you were the only person in the world who had a grandmother who swam. LOL Another great story -- I really enjoyed this.

  14. LOL, Donna, I can't even remember the last time I was on a bus! Well, outside of an airport, anyway :) Thanks for stopping by, and I am glad that you enjoyed today's post!

  15. Beautiful memory, EK. Thanks for taking me there.

    Painting Santa Clauses with Grandma McCarthy. And her laugh. What a laugh.

    Grandma Devlin made famous stuffed cabbage. It's something I should have hated with all my childish might... but yet I loved it.

  16. I love your memories, Ryan! How ... interesting you actually loved stuff cabbage as a kid. You grandmother must have added a touch of magic to it ;)
    Thanks for stopping by!

  17. I had no idea! Great story, you've got one heck of a memory.

  18. Thanks for stopping by, Andy! I would love to know what memories you have of her. Next time I'm in town, we should reminisce :)

  19. We lost my maternal grandma waaaay too early; she was only 64, I was in 9th grade. I miss her and think about her often. I agree with Ry that her laugh was one of a kind. She was a talented painter and Christmas-cookie maker; she let the granddaughters wear her makeup and clip-on earrings, and we used to watch all 6 hours of Anne of Green Gables together. She also gave me my first taste of wine when I was 11, and I remember being very giggly during a game of Yahtzee :)
    I have so many memories of her, but fewer of my Dad's mom, who we only lost a few years ago. She was more like your dad's mom, harder to get to know, less affectionate but still a wonderful woman. My favorite memory of her is when I pushed her in her wheelchair on a crisp autumn day about 3 years ago; it was one of the last times she was lucid, and she told me all about memories of the neighborhood, where she'd lived since the 1940's. It was a special day, and I regret we didn't have more like it. But I'll take it.