Memories of my Grandmother
This year we mark for the first time the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, which was established by Pope Francis in January and is to be celebrated each year on the fourth Sunday of July to coincide with the feast of Ss Joachim and Anne, Jesus’ grandparents. It will be a good time for us to remember our grandparents, and, if they are still alive and in reasonable proximity, to visit them.
I shall remember my maternal grandmother, the only one of my grandparents who lived long enough to see my birth. Her name was Emilie and she was born in 1895.
As her first-born grandson, I was very special to her, and she was very special to me. I knew I was loved. I spent about a third of my childhood at her home, which was about 2km from our house. As a two-year-old, one day I decided to visit grandmother on my own, crossing a busy intersection to present myself at her door. All the adults were horrified but also a little amused by my unilateral declaration of independence.
My grandmother’s home was a refuge from my noisy family. Whereas at home I had to work to make myself heard, at her place I was the undisputed king, enjoying the benefits of having a granny who liked to spoil her grandson. She was also good company. Emilie was very witty, and enjoyed playing board and card games.
She loved music, and passed that passion on to me. She bought me my first self-chosen record when I was five years old. I also liked to play her old records. My favourite of those was “Va, pensiero”, the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Verdi’s Nabucco. She didn’t approve of those “hopping birds” with their wild hair making pop music on TV. But I liked the hopping birds — so we watched them!
A living time machine
My grandmother gave me another lifelong gift: a keen interest in the past. And here I don’t mean world history, though that too is a hobby of mine, but particularly an interest in how ordinary people lived, the anthropology of their times. I attribute that interest to the stories from her life which my grandmother would tell me so vividly. My favourite one went back to her primary school days, involving the village’s blacksmith giving the hated schoolmaster a thrashing in front of the class for having administered excessive corporal punishment to his son. This must have been around 1905.
As an aside: relatives of people with Alzheimer’s have an opportunity to tap into such memories. Experts advise that one shouldn’t correct (and upset) those suffering dementia with the facts of the present, but rather ask questions about what they are remembering, and join them in the time-travel of their fading memories.
Fifty years ago the soul singer Bill Withers recorded what might be the finest song about a grandparent, titled “Grandma’s Hands”. I recognise some of my grandmother in that song. Not the church stuff Withers recalls about his granny — my grandmother did make me pray before bedtime and would exclaim “Mother of God” when presented with upsetting news, but she was not a churchgoing woman. But, like Withers’ grandma, mine would advocate on my behalf when my mother believed I deserved punishment.
And, like Withers, I remember my grandma’s hands. Wrinkly and blue-veined, they cooked my favourite meals, handed me sweets, combed my hair (which she always thought was far too long), and held my little hand when we’d walk in the busy city.
My grandmother remained physically and mentally fit till her final year. In her 80s, she still climbed ladders to fix roof tiles and walked to the local supermarket for her weekly shopping (including every magazine she could find with crosswords).
But as I grew into a young teenager, I had diminishing need for my grandmother. I’d rather hang out with my friends. And I no longer was the boy she had known: I had my own mind, and adopted views on politics and society she did not share. When she died at 85, I was barely a presence in her life — a thoughtless neglect by a typically self-centred youth which I regret to this day.
So this month especially, I will remember my grandmother and honour her memory. Like that two-year-old toddler, I’ll knock on her door, hoping she’ll open it, at least in my mind. And I shall remember and honour the three grandparents I never knew, for they formed the two people who made and shaped me. I am also because of them.
This article was published in the July 2021 issue of The Southern Cross magazine
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