So, how many dresses do you have now?
Oh geez, Grammie, I don’t know… I guess I’ve been to like, five dances, so five? Now six for next weeks?
I just don’t understand why you need a new dress for each dance, especially when your sister and her friends and your friends all have so many, too!
It was no use explaining to my wizened, almost-five-feet-tall grandmother that 6-year-old dresses were no longer ‘in,’ or that my sisters’ and friends’ dresses didn’t work with my body type. My sister and I had this conversation every single time we went to a dance in high school (with the exception of Sadie Hawkins’, obviously) and by the time I graduated I learned to simply smile and silently ignore what sounded like criticism to my ears. When I went off to college and my grandmother explained that I would be able to stretch my old twin-sized sheets to fit my twin extra-large dorm bed, I debated whether it was worth telling her that sheets cost a mere ten bucks at Target. In the end, I’m not sure if I rejected her advice or simply listened to it to humor her, but now that I’m living on my own I realize how many of those lessons, born of growing up during the Great Depression and feeding four children on the meagre salary of a pastor, I have internalized. My sister and I have happily inherited countless pieces of furniture, refinishing it to make it our own. We drink out of old peanut butter and pickle jars so that we don’t buy drinking glasses (which truly are a waste of money, since we break everything anyway), and every time I look through my closet I am struck by how much clothing I really have, and do I actually need something new? (and then I try it on and realize that yes, I do, I do indeed)
Anyhow, I wish that I had taken that advice for what it was, rather than seen it as criticism. My grandmother’s frugality was a way of life, and while it may seem miserly to scrimp and pinch as she did, it allowed her to give generously to every cause she cared about and everyone that mattered to her. There was a beauty in her frugality as well. While she had moved from her silken skirts and suits to her “grubbies” (clothing only suited for gardening) by the time I came along, she created a world of magic out of almost nothing for my sister, my best friend, and I. We spent an afternoon a week at her house, and she captivated us with dollhouses made out of old cardboard boxes, walls papered with wrapping paper, floors lined with old rug samples or fabrics, hand-drawn dolls made from old milk cartons, and our dish gardens, tiny worlds that we planted inside pie-tin sized dishes – mountains out of moss and rivers that we made out of blue seran-wrap. On rainy days, we would work on our dish gardens on her covered porch, listening to the rain on the plastic roof, and drinking hot chocolate with diagonally-cut cinnamon toast, after which we would retreat to the living room, where we built forts of furniture and sheets. During one particularly rainy el nino year, those forts stayed up for weeks, and I guess we’ll never know if she left them up at her own great inconvenience, or carefully re-built them right before we came over. Sunny days were similarly joyful – we would sip lemonade from concentrate out of aluminum glasses (which somehow made it so much colder and more delicious) before spending hours in her peppercorn tree, designating different branches as rooms and rigging up pulleys out of baskets and string.
I only realized this year when cleaning out her apartment that my grandmother hadn’t worn her “grubbies” all her life; I found treasures of beautiful jewelry, perfectly tailored suits, silk paisley skirts and an incredible assortment of belts and dresses that I never saw her wear, and which I have happily adopted, and it is a pleasure to know that she had a side of her I never knew, a mystery. The parts of her that I did know were so important, and I can only hope that I can be half as selfless. My grandmother was the trumpeter of any and all causes and worked tirelessly to advocate for those in need, from the homeless, to the infirm, to those not receiving justice. She was so giving that she almost couldn’t receive help, and absolutely hated asking for it. Last spring, she began having strokes, and despite the fact that she couldn’t use her words, she had a special laugh for those times when she thought we were offering too much, for the moments when we were worrying about her excessively. She would wave her hand and laugh at our offers to get her more pillows or more clothes, or painkillers, or anything, not wanting to trouble us over her discomfort.
Beyond her frugality and constant campaigns for equality and justice, my grandmother was a funny woman; in the same breath she would warn me against the dangers of becoming an alcoholic and request more wine; in the piles and piles of papers that we thought were pure junk, we would find a treasured note or beautiful piece of art; her bookshelves were equal parts Christian literature, information about earthquakes and geography, and books from the Hemlock Society.
Despite the fact that I’ve known this day was coming for years, the reality of her passing is just as hard to grasp as a sudden death. This is, perhaps, because I was in Lebanon when she died, and a combination of no phone, little internet, and heat-and-food-poisoning-induced-delirium made “reality” a difficult concept. But, more realistically, because she would surely be horrified that the whole family was spending so much time thinking and talking about her. And this is why it’s so hard to wrap my mind around her death – she spent so much time being as little trouble and as much help to anyone else that there really isn’t an “absence” – she was no obligation, and so there is no change in our routine, but she is a definite gap nonetheless. I’ll always miss her little laugh, her insistence that she can do it on her own when she really needed help, and her happy presence at family gatherings even when she could hardly hear the conversation.
To Grammie, good wine, and life lessons. May we ever appreciate and learn from them.