I was fortunate to grow up knowing two of my four great-grandmothers. Grandma Nora and Grandma Grace were as different as a bed and a bedpan.
Grandma Nora was what we used to call a “big woman.” She wasn’t fat – she was what my mom called “big boned.” She stood nearly six-feet tall, was extremely strong and lived to be over 90. She never spent a day in the hospital and had all her faculties at the end.
Although not highly educated, Grandma Nora knew about things that mattered, like how to grow a garden, tie a bowline and thump a watermelon. She taught me how to prune roses, how to sharpen shears and what to feed orchids – bloodmeal.
Grandma Nora’s clan were oilfield folk – roustabouts, roughnecks, drillers and pumpers – and she’d led what I’d call a hard life.
She kept her cussing to a minimum and worked hard right up until the day she died. She had to because her husband died early from tuberculosis.
For years she ran her walnut ranch – always a ranch, never a farm – taking no charity from anyone, and she lived a frugal life. Her home and her yard were spotless. She was an early riser, and after shaking hands with her big, calloused paw, it took a while before regaining feeling in your extremity.
She knew how to hobble a horse, drive a team and considered asking for help a sign of weakness.
Grandma Grace was the exact opposite. Being very delicate and frail, she spoke softly, and from what I could tell, had never done any hard labor. She was what one would call “a refined woman,” and she was a bit snooty.
She had both a housekeeper and a groundskeeper – that would be me. She didn’t live nearly as long as Grandma Nora and lived in a rest home before being committed to a mental institution to live out her days.
Grandma Grace’s father was a preacher, and despite his meager salary, Grandma Grace always thought of herself as “upper crust.” She never sewed or canned, and she wore gloves all the time.
Grandma Grace did marry well. Her husband was both the mayor and fire chief of our volunteer department, and he was a town leader. Grandma Grace played the role of his first lady.
Grandma Grace was a terrible cook and apparently didn’t know the difference between canned cat food and canned stew, because she was finally sent away when it was discovered she’d been eating cat food instead of the stew.
On Thanksgiving and Christmas, grandpa would make two separate trips to pick up my great-grandmothers and deliver them to our house where they spent the day in recliners not four feet apart. They never said a word to each other the entire time.
Knowing it would heighten tensions, I always asked if I could bring either one of them a beer. Grandma Nora would always have one, but Grandma Grace was horrified I’d even ask. Alcohol had ever touched her pious lips.
My siblings and cousins thought Grandma Nora was mean, but I really liked her and always thought I was her favorite, and not just because I took care of her yard. Even before then I enjoyed going to her home because she had the neatest collection of porcelain dogs she had bought at the five-and-dime store.
She insisted I never touch them, but I think she liked it when I would point to one and she would tell me what breed it was and all of its interesting traits.
As I recall, she didn’t care much for poodles, and the collie was her favorite.
One day when I was about six, my mom and Grandma Nora were engrossed in a canning project, and for some reason, I just had to pick up the Boxer.
Sure enough, I dropped it and snapped a hind leg right off of the delicate dog. I was terrified so I snuck around, found some cheap white glue and performed a hasty operation to reattach the appendage.
I thought I’d gotten away with it until one day she caught me eyeing her dogs and asked, “Which is your favorite?”
“The Boxer because my cousins have a real one,” I replied rapidly.
“An interesting choice,” Grandma Nora replied, staring me down. “They are amazingly fast healers, but they don’t stay where you put them.”