“You’ll have some sugar twists,” she said to us kids.
Hosts usually shaped those kinds of sentences into questions, but not at that old farmhouse. Grandma’s sugar twists were a foregone conclusion and meant to be washed down with ample amounts of hot cocoa.
That day and a thousand days like it, my siblings and I scrambled into chairs around Grandma’s Formica kitchen table while she lifted the cover off a container of her baked treats. Then she scooped some homemade cocoa mix into plastic mugs for all of us. Her slippers scraped the linoleum as she shuffled the few steps to the wood stove to fetch the screaming tea kettle. She returned and filled each of our cups with hot water. With the job accomplished, she settled into her chair.
“Now let me look at you.” Grandma’s eyes gleamed with satisfaction as she watched us eat. Then she reached into her craft basket and pulled out her newest tatting project.
My brother brushed crumbs from his mouth. “How are you doing, Grandma?”
“I can’t kick about a thing.” She smiled, poking the tatting shuttle in and out of the strands of thread she held. There was nothing dainty about Grandma’s hands, but delicate art came from them anyway.
Gifts flowed from her crochet hook, knitting needles, and sewing machine too. Because of her industrious hours, lacy snowflakes hung on our Christmas tree, and slippers and scarves warmed us. And long before Mattel introduced the black Barbie, Grandma had sewn us dolls of many colors.
Besides the treats and gifts, Grandma doled out her own brand of medical attention, when needed. And one summer day when I was ten, I needed it. Some of us cousins had wanted to swim in the ditches, but we hadn’t thought to bring swimsuits to Grandma’s. She found us some T-shirts and boxer shorts, though, and solved the dilemma. So, in Grandpa’s old underwear, we swam through the culverts that ran under the road, and we slimed around in the cattails. After we had exhausted our fun, I felt something scratchy in my eye. I complained to Grandma.
“Go lie down on the davenport.” She dug around in a kitchen drawer.
I followed her instructions, placing my head on the armrest of the couch in the living room, and waited.
In a minute, Grandma hustled to me with a wooden matchstick in her hand. “Now hold still.”
A match? What was going to happen to me? And would it hurt?
It all went so fast; she picked up my eyelashes, tucked them around the matchstick, and rolled up my eyelid.
“I can’t blink.” I squirmed. “This feels funny.”
“Almost through.” Grandma’s finger came at my eye and brushed out the offending speck. Then she unfurled my eyelid and let me go.
As a child, I thought about Grandma, the producer of treats, homemade toys, and thirty-two cousins for my entertainment. But as an adult, I thought about Grandma, the woman. She had given birth to eleven children whom she had raised with Grandpa in Newfolden, Minnesota, in an old farmhouse made up of different additions—completed over the years—and cobbled together into one dwelling which was nestled on a plot of land in the country. And there, Grandma developed a reputation: she befriended anyone and cooked for everyone. Neighbor ladies would tote their children to her for visits that lasted all day and into the evening. She housed people who had suffered car accidents and house fires. And when her kids’ school bus went into a ditch across the road during a blizzard one winter, all the students trudged to her house where she fed them creamed peas on baking powder biscuits until their stomachs were full.
One day in the 1960s, the county social worker drove out to Grandma and Grandpa’s place to ask them to be foster parents. They declined. Their home was too small, they said, and not nice enough. But the man said it was perfect, and knowing Grandma’s heart, he added that if they couldn’t take in kids, those troubled ones would be sent away to a home for juvenile delinquents. After the social worker’s visit, my grandparents gained more children whom they loved for the rest of their lives.
Grandma’s goodness marked her days. She was a sounding board for many discontented wives and floundering people. She mailed hundreds of greeting cards each year, wrote letters to those who were in jail, and sewed quilts for mothers whose babies had been “born out of wedlock”, because churches didn’t throw baby showers for them in those days. And for two years in the 1970s, she took care of several of my cousins—and their baby sister, born two months early—when their mother died of leukemia a few weeks after giving birth.
In 2001 at the age of ninety, Grandma passed away. Mourners grieved the loss of her and the loss of her prayers for them. But stories of her bolstered us. Some called her “the neighborhood social worker.” One friend said, “When she looked at my children, she saw they were people.” And another told the story of when her three-year-old boy met Grandma. Enthralled by her from the start, he had whispered to his mother, “Is she Jesus?”
Goodness comes in different forms and in some unlikely times and places throughout our lives. But in the days of my childhood and beyond, goodness was never far away; it lived on a plot of land out in the country in that old farmhouse.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date
*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.