Sunday, August 26, 2012

My Grandmother's Garden

A few weeks before my big move to Rochester, MN I received news my Grandma Daphene "Daffy" was having health problems. It seemed imperative I make the time to go and visit her because I wasn't sure when I would be able to get substantial time away from my new role at the Food Co-op as Deli Manager.  I had already postponed a trip to Montana to visit my father,  but my last day of work in La Crosse left me with about a week before the start of my new job--the perfect amount of time to spend with family in Washington State.

When I arrived Aunt Kim picked me up from SeaTac--I don't think either of us had slept at all the night before so our first stop was coffee at a really cute cafe near my Grandmother's house.  We sat and chatted and caught up in real time with all things that were going on in our lives.

Grams was still at church when we arrived home--the front of Gram's house looking like it always has--truly the front yard has changed very little since I was a baby.  I know this because of the pictures in all the albums my grandmother has collected over the years. Typically there are petunias, maybe irises, and the  sand-babies, smooth flat rocks that are round like bubbles caught, flattened and turned into stone.  This year, due to Grams' health issues, the petunias hadn't been put in yet and the flower boxes under the windows were empty.

The inside of my Grandmother's house has changed very little since I was a child as well.  Now being nearly thirty years old I realize why I have always loved being in her home.  Even though the very same paintings and photographs hang on the wall year after year, they have a sense of refinement and timelessness.  A photograph of a young woman holding a conch shell to her ear hangs near a photograph of two young women talking with a bicycle held between them.  A photograph of a rose, and painting of birch forests in winter also hang in the living room.   How many times have I wondered exactly how the ocean sounded in that conch shell, or what those two women were talking about when they were photographed?  How many times did I imagine what it was like to walk through those woods, white trunks towering around me?

Simply put, visiting my Grandmother always makes me feel young.  Young in the sense  I don't have to worry about anything when I am with her. I can simply just sit and talk, drink a cup of coffee or eat a  our favorite chocolate chip mint ice cream from her jade colored desert dishes.  We can recline in the lazy-boy rocking chairs and watch Jeopardy and both know the answers to many of the questions, congratulating each other on our wins.

When Gram's got home from Church, I was so happy to see physically she hadn't changed so much from our last visit.  I was worried her stay in the hospital would have been really hard on her health, but she looked so well, very upright and sturdy.  She has never been shy about hugging and kissing me, and I have never been shy about receiving  love from her, or from my aunts or father.  I have often wished our family was much closer than we are, but I can say we do know how to show affection when we want to.

That evening Aunt Kim served us her always delicious Vegetarian Lasagna from the Laurel's Kitchen Cook Book.  Aunt Cathy, my cousin Marki and her boyfriend Zack joined us for dinner.  Marki is about ten years younger than me--and is now facing all the challenges and choices of being recently graduated from high school. Where to work, where to go to school, what to do with your life--I know these are all questions that follow us past our early twenties, but seeing her so poised and well spoken, I know what ever decisions she makes will be the right ones for her.

The next day, Grams, Kim and I picked Marki and Cathy up for an afternoon of one of our favorite activities: Thrift Store Shopping.  Washington has amazing thrift stores--and looking for vintage clothes, kitchenware and furniture has always been a pass time we could enjoy together.  I gravitated toward the used books, keeping my eye out for any early Caitlin R. Kiernan novels, but sadly did not find any, and we were all on the look out for shoes.  The women in my family have incredibly small feet, and I am learning as we get older it is even more difficult to find a pair of shoes that fit. More often than not we were looking in the children's section. We are tiny people, but fierce.

The next morning I took a run through Spanaway Woods.  Countless times as a child I wandered those little woods so close to my grandmother's house--they are the very same my father would play in, although smaller now due to the development of the area.  When I was about 12 years old, my father, sisters and I buried my childhood cat, Rambo, in those woods. Rambo was a white kitty with a green eye and a blue eye. He literally played in my crib with me as a baby, and I always thought of him as my little brother rather than a pet.  When we lived in Spanaway while my father was still in the NAVY, Rambo lived with my grandmother because we couldn't have pets in our rented house. I lived for the weekends we would stay with Gram's, going to church Sunday morning, and spending the afternoon snuggling my favorite kitty.  Rambo eventually got so sick that we did bring him home with us for the weekend, but after an rough evening of hiding behind the toilet making very sad sounds, we knew it was time to make the visit to the vet and have him put to sleep.

We took him the woods in a small cardboard box. My Dad dug a whole and placed him in, and then handed the shovel to me, saying we all had to put a little dirt on him. I did as I was told, and then passed the shovel to my sister, Rose, and then she on to Jessica. My father finished the job, and that was that--we didn't have anymore cats in our home until I moved out on my own. Now I live with two.

Walking down the dirt trails, giant ferns closing in on either side,  I thought about the hands of boys I had held in those woods.  Andrew, Russell, and most recently Ethan.  I thought about my nephew Cole and my father, who  several years ago, spent an afternoon exploring with me, skipping rocks in the streams and looking for turtles and picking blackberries.  I thought about how many more times I would have a reason to walk in those woods.

It was Memorial Day, so Kim, Grams and I stopped at Safeway and picked up flowers to take to Grandpa George's grave.  It has been nearly 10 years since Grandpa George passed away, and I don't think there is day his absence isn't felt.  Grandpa George was my grandmother's second husband, she and my paternal grandfather Carl having been divorced many years before I was born. So when we went to visit Grandma Daffy, it was always a visit with her, and not with a grandfather--until she and George married when I was in middle school.

For the first time I was able to see what it was like for my Grandmother to be in love. I witnessed their courtship, their marriage, and Grandpa George loving and taking care of my Grams, her children, and grandchildren.  How many people can say they witnessed all of that?  When George passed, I was already living in Wisconsin, making very little money, having almost nothing saved, so I was unable to visit for the funeral--but just earlier in the year I had been able to see him play his ukulele and hold my nephew at the family reunion I attended in Illinois for my Gram's side of the family.

We took the flowers to George's grave, he was laid next to his mother, Grandma Pauline.  We told him we loved him--and then I took a few of the flowers to the grave of another person I knew who is buried not too far from my grandfather---Theresa.  Theresa was a girl I knew in middle school who was a year older than me who had died while riding a moped. It looked like it had been awhile since anyone had visited her. I dusted her grave of the dried grass and put the flowers in the vase. I thought about the kid I was when I knew her, how silly and strange I was back then, the choices I was making.  I hoped her family might visit her soon and see the flowers I left and know they were not the only ones who remembered.

On the evening I was to go back to Kim's house in Olympia for the last few days of my visit, Kim, Grams and I looked through photographs and report cards from years before I was born.  My grandmother was a wonderful student, receiving mostly straight A's throughout high school and college.  There was the birth announcement given by the hospital for when my father was born.  There were school pictures of all my aunts and my dad throughout the years, first looking sweet as children, then awkward, and then unmistakably at the people they were becoming.

My grandmother gave me a photograph of her mother, my Great Grandmother Eula Coston, who married my great Grandfather Ben Coston when she was only 14 years old. My great grandfather was already in his 20's at the time of the marriage.  Gram's told me Grandma Eula went to live with Grandpa Ben's family and mother when they were first married, and because she was so young, she often felt like just a child instead of someone's wife.  Yet, Eula and Ben went on to have six children; five girls and one boy.  I never met my great grandmother Eula because she died a few days before I was born. My grandmother has often told me the day she laid her mother to rest was the saddest but also one of the happiest days because it was also the day she was given her first granddaughter, they day I was born. Shortly after the funeral, Gram's took a bus to come visit me.

Since the first time my grandmother has held me, I know her love for me has never failed--even through the difficult times, she has always been there, supporting me, telling me she is proud of me. That evening looking through those old photographs and papers of the past, Grams gave me a silver shawl she once wore to an Officers Gala with my Grandpa Carl.  Grams would sew all her own dresses for these events, having a clutch dyed to match. I don't know if the dresses still exist, but a few of the handbags do, and inside one we found a place tag, for finding one's seat at a table.  It is amazing how whole events, real people, dinners and dances can be reduced to a single card holding a person's name hidden inside the purse of someone's grandmother. Whole histories hide inside those pockets and drawers, entire worlds and universes where my aunts and father played, where they grew and learned and then grew apart, and in some instances grew back together. They are my Grandmother's garden.

I have been struggling for weeks to write about this trip. What did I want to say about a visit that meant so much to me where very little happened?  I realize the most important thing I took away from my visit is I do have a history, a family. It is easy to remember everything in black and white, to see only the flaws and the mistakes, the sadness. I think it takes a brave person to love the bad times as much as the good because that is what makes our history unique. Maybe it isn't always the one I wanted, maybe it isn't perfect, but it is mine, and for that I must be proud.
My Grandmother's Garden. 


  1. I am so glad you are writing.
    And gladder that you have written this.

  2. Maura, this is beautiful. Seems to me you found precisely the right words to capture moments and memories that touch your heart, and the photos together are perfect.


  3. peggy in la crosseAugust 27, 2012 at 7:46 AM

    Even though your story is unique to you and your family, the picture you paint reminded me of the many times I sat in my Grandma's house hearing stories about photographs and sovenirs. While we may not fully appreciate those times when we are younger, as adults we realize (hopefully) that those times are essential in creating an oral tradition of family history. Good writers play an important part of reminding us of that fact. Thank you for the reminder.