My grandmother died today. This post is less of a call for condolences, and more about acknowledging a life that I never really fully learned the whole story of. My cousin and I were corresponding the other day and bemoaning that fact (as, frankly, all “young” people do who believe there’s always time to do it “later”) because, as Cousin put it, “it was probably a really good [story].”
That is an understatement. Born in 1921, Grandma Mim went to college, got her BA in fine arts and interior design, and went to work as an interior designer for the phone company, decorating executives’ offices as well as the common spaces. Through that job she met my grandfather who, at the time, was a widower with six children ranging from Kindergarten all the way up to high school. And in 1954, she married him.
Let’s pause for a moment and let that sink in: At the age of 33, she became a wife, and a stepmother to six grieving children — a couple of whom were not all that much younger than she was. Can you imagine doing that? I can’t.
I’m not going to presume to even imagine what those early years of marriage and new family were like, but I do know that my Grandmother was the model of propriety and correctness, so this new family was introduced to rules like, “no milk bottles on the table,” and condiments in little dishes as opposed to straight out of the bottle. She undertook the task of organizing the children, going so far as to have color-coded hangers for each child, and she took on the task of my grandfather. (And I think I mean to phrase it that way.)
I am the number 9 (I think?) grandchild out of 18, and was lucky enough to grow up near enough to my grandparents that I saw them quite a bit. I slept over at their house, went on road trips with them, had Sunday dinners at their table. Decorum was always prized — but not in a restrictive, confining way. Grandma Mim was about elegance.
She was about dressing for dinner, tablecloths on tables, cut glass pickle dishes, and aprons. “She could make garbage taste good,” was the way we marveled at her cooking. You’d sit down to her dinner table and she’d hold a dish and announce that “this is ____ ” and if your mother offered it to you, you’d flee from the table, but it was Grandma and ….. it was good. Always.
Her rules extended beyond her house: If a man was wearing a suit jacket, he was to keep it on. This rule particularly applied at weddings, and is the reason that my husband did a lot of sweating at our reception. “Grandma Mim says a gentleman keeps his jacket on.” My husband still follows that rule (mostly).
A civilized person didn’t drink a beer out of the bottle, and you certainly weren’t photographed holding the bottle. This causes some scrambling at weddings — “Ack, wait, let me put this down or Grandma Mim will have a heart attack,” or something along those lines.
She hated blue jeans. It was a joke among the cousins that denim was verboten. Which made dressing for family picnic events that she was invited to a bit tricky, and later as she (and we) got older we could joke about it with her. She didn’t change her mind, but she could laugh.
Getting her to laugh was great fun, because it was one of the ways that she became a little less decorous. She sneezed like a small animal, and about a million times instead of just once or twice. (“Mother, sneeze like a human,” my grandfather would say, in a falsely exasperated way. We continued to say that to her on his behalf long after his death.)
The world lost a classy lady today, a lady who saw a lot, lived a lot, but — probably in keeping with her code of elegance and decorum — said very little about it all. She’s the reason my children know “no milk cartons on the table,” what a gravy boat is (and what it’s for), and why it’s not unusual to heat up the artificial (but real at her house) maple syrup and put it in a small pitcher.
If I had to guess, she’s up in Heaven now, lowering the hanging height of the art on the walls. She steadfastly maintained that “everyone” hung them too high and bemoaned the fact that the world wouldn’t lower their art 4 or 6 inches for better viewing. She’s wearing a flowered apron with lots of pockets, has a stepladder in one hand and a hammer in the other, and nails in her mouth. Best to say, “excuse me Grandma Mim,” and get out of her way.