Role model of stability remembered

Pleasure and pain, laughter and sorrow, good times and bad, all seemed to melt together into the unfathomable depths of Grandma Clearwater’s dark brown eyes. | Family photo

A visit to Grandmother’s house may not have brought fawning adoration, but important lessons were learned just the same

Over the sand hill, down across the red bridge, around the corner, and the clump of poplars that sheltered my grandparents’ homestead came into view.

As we turned up the lane after a spring shower, I looked back from the rumble seat of my Uncle Clark’s Model A roadster and watched the tire marks unraveling in the damp sand.

Arriving at the muddy stretch of road, my uncle parked the car, we donned our rubber boots and walked the last quarter mile.

The sound of our voices sifting through the poplars alerted the whole farmyard. A horse whinnied. Off in the distance a door banged, and a big collie dog came bounding down the lane. Not far behind it was the tom turkey, gobbling a greeting as he trotted out to meet us.

As if suddenly mindful of the protocol befitting a bird of his dignity, he’d turn abruptly and declare himself our official escort, strutting along in front of us with tail spread wide.

The poplars dwindled and we were into the clearing. The weather-beaten house stood on a slight knoll overlooking a scattering of granaries and chicken coops. Off to the right was the log barn and a small corral of peeled poplars.

As we drew near the house, I waited for Jack to come and greet me. Jack was the friendliest of Grandpa’s greyhounds, and despite the name, gave birth quite regularly to a motley litter of pups.

“Pa, you ought to give that dog a different name,” Grandma would say. “It confuses the young ’uns.”

Grandpa just chuckled and reminded her that Jack knew what “he” was about.

I sat out in the summer kitchen playing with Jack’s pups while the older folks visited.

Before long, I heard the squeak of the back door as Grandma went out to the icehouse for some “vittles.”

I tagged along out of curiosity.

Not far removed from the back step, a big gnarly tree provided shade in the otherwise open clearing. Under its sprawling roots was Grandma’s icehouse. On a blistering hot day, I loved an excuse to descend the rickety steps into that cool, dark hideaway. The smell of damp sawdust mingled with the tang of sour cream and smoked ham.

Grandma gathered what she needed from the various crocks sitting about on the dirt floor. Sometimes she filled the skirt of her apron with a dozen or more brown eggs from a wicker basket.

Before long we were seated at her big table, the red checkered oilcloth that covered it worn white at the edges from the elbows of her many visitors.

Lunch was usually homemade bread and butter, wild plum jam and a huge platter of fried eggs done sunny-side up in Grandma’s cast iron pan.

I sat where I could look at the myriad designs on the hexagonal face of the china clock decorated in the Blue Willow design. Its pendulum swung back and forth, back and forth.

We never talked much, Grandma and I. I think she was still too drained from raising a huge family of her own to make a fuss over any of her 38 grandchildren.

She accepted us. She didn’t idolize us and I respected her for that. I could just be myself in her presence and still feel perfectly comfortable.

If she noticed I had nothing to do, she sometimes suggested that I look through the back issues of the weekly farm paper.

So as not to offend her, I did so, but when I finished the last paper I’d put them all neatly away in the paper stand and go outside to play with her cats.

Despite her stern exterior, Grandma had a soft spot for felines. She had several that came to her summer kitchen at milking time, and Grandma gave them all a dish of warm milk.

She also baked enormous “cakes” for Grandpa’s hounds out of various cereal grains, leftover lard, meat scraps and sour milk.

Those cakes looked deceivingly good, especially when baked in Grandma’s big black pans. The hounds thought so, too. They could devour a whole cake in a few gulps, lick up the crumbs and beg for more.

Surrounded by eight sons and a husband, most of them avid hunters, I think Grandma had resigned herself to the collection of guns standing on the stairway landing, the hides being stretched on frames beside the barn and the annual influx of hunters in deer season.

Long before parkas were commercially available, Grandma sewed heavy twill jackets for her men folk, every stitch laboriously done by hand. She insulated the long, hooded jackets with feathers from her flock of black-and-white barred rock hens.

What seemed a paradox is that Grandma could not make her own dresses. Well, she could, and she did, but her tastes, shall we say, were unusual.

She had no eye for colour and design, so her garment might be made of blue gingham with a green polka dot collar and red-flowered pockets trimmed with maroon lace.

Such clashing colour combinations drove her three daughters to alternating fits of laughter and despair, but never in her presence. They loved her too much to tell her, but just before Grandma and Grandpa’s golden wedding anniversary, I heard my mother and her sisters having a little conference about what kind of dress Grandma would need. Having made the decision, they ordered a navy dress with a white lace collar from Eaton’s catalogue and surprised her. At least they thought they did.

Grandma seldom betrayed emotion. Pleasure and pain, laughter and sorrow, good times and bad, all seemed to melt together into the unfathomable depths of her dark brown eyes.

Without my realizing it, she became my role model of stability, and I think of her still when I read in the Good Book to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands.”

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