Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Matriarch

“Well I declare!”

My mother reads aloud from a book she just purchased, a sort of comedic take on the customs, sayings, and mannerisms of Southern women. At least I hope it was a comedic effort. The title boasts of being a “guide”, but silly lessons in manners and a few catch phrases are a paltry substitute for the real deal in front of me.

The Grandmother stands at the stove, knotty fingers deftly dredging pieces of chicken in a flour concoction and transferring them to a popping frying pan. I lean against the door frame, as fascinated as ever by her ease in the kitchen. She laughs as my mother reads, hands flying from plate to pan and back again.

I remember being a girl in this same kitchen, white 50’s style table covered with baking paraphernalia. Those same hands, albeit less spotted with age, placed over mine, kneaded a ball of dough the size of my fat little head. Sunlight poured through flowered curtains and touched the ruffled yellow apron around my waist. Kneeling on a low wooden stool with my grandmother’s bare, capable arms on either side of me, gently guiding me through my first batch of homemade biscuits, I was happy.

I’m happy now too, but there’s a tinge of urgency that wasn’t here all those years ago. I feel time’s increasing pressure on this scene.

The Grandmother’s old sheepdog, Duchess, wanders in and nudges her leg. They are the perfect pair, a vaudeville act in the early afternoon, dancing around each other on arthritic limbs. Duchess is almost completely deaf, yet TG chatters at her incessantly. “Oh Duchess, you poor old girl! Mama loves that girl! Go on now, stop pawing at me, old thing!”

The dog’s facial expression is nothing short of exasperated. I can’t say I blame her. She can’t hear, she’s always tripping over things, and to top it off she’s just received her warm weather shave. Her white fluffy coat, spotted sporadically with reddish brown, is gone, leaving her bare from neck to tail. The hair on top of her head has been trimmed haphazardly and stands up in a way that makes her look like a canine Rod Stewart.

Bored with tangling herself between TG’s legs, she ambles slowly back down the hall where she spends the next 10 minutes lowering herself to the floor, still managing to look haughty in the process. Duchess indeed.

As we eat lunch The Grandmother flutters around the dining room table. Even at holiday dinners it’s impossible to get her to sit down for more than a few minutes. Its part Southern hostess and part OCD. I wonder if there’s a chapter in my mother’s book on that.

“You need to get out in the sunshine, get some good vitamin D in your system.” TG says this to no one in particular as she picks up plates and cups. Any offers to help clear the dishes are always rebuffed.

I’m not an outdoorsy person, much to her chagrin, so she takes my daughter out instead. I watch them from the window, wandering around the well kept backyard, stopping often to examine a new bloom. I can’t hear them, but I know she’s saying the same things she used to say to me at that age in her over enunciated southern drawl. “Look at this beautiful flower! I planted this with my own two hands and my little trowel. Wouldn’t you like to help Grandmother plant more flowers?”

Back when I didn’t abhor dirt she taught me how to loosen the roots on a plant before placing it gently in a hole. We wore brightly colored gardening gloves and carried our small tools about in an old strawberry bucket. Her third husband, Hubert, made me a swing out of a wide board and two thick pieces of rope. It hung from the huge pecan tree, the main focal point of the yard, and I would swing on it for hours. In the summer time, with the flowers and tress in full bloom, you couldn’t tell that it was a tiny backyard in the middle of our buzzing capitol. I would wear my great grandmother’s dress up beads and a flowy skirt and pretend I was Alice in Wonderland, swinging out over my make believe wilderness while my grandmother, in her wide brim gardening hat, was the mad hatter.

When they troop back inside I ask TG if she has any curtains she could spare for my bedroom. I want something long and thick to keep out the light and she has quite the obsession with curtains. She’s always buying them, ripping them apart, and sewing them together to fit her current style.

“Of course I do. Check the back room, there should be a zip bag full of them.”

I find them straight away and take them to the front bedroom. She begins pulling them out and making suggestions. In the end we decide to sew two sets together – pale pink cotton for the liner and a light green lace over top. She’s surprised that I want to start on them immediately.

I dig her sewing machine out and we settle at the dining room table. While the kid watches TV and mom gently snores in the rocker, we set to work. I rip out the old seams and baste a few gathers to make the two pieces fit and she runs each one through her sewing machine, making a place for the rod to go through.

While we work, we chat about the same old things. She lectures me on being more patient and soft spoken. Rather than rile her up, I just smile and nod in agreement.

She knows anyway, even as she’s lecturing, that I’ll never be patient or soft spoken. I’ll never be able to breeze around a kitchen quite the way she does, nor will I ever be able to keep any plant other than a cactus alive for very long. I’ll likely never sew anything more than a hole in a sleeve or a button that’s in danger of falling off. She knows I have a foul mouth and a temper that doesn’t become a lady.

And still she’ll keep telling me, and I’ll keep promising, to be the Southern woman she raised me to be, even though we both know the truth: The most Southern things about me are my accent and my ability to charm the pants off anything that wears them… “When you want to” she always adds.

We don’t quite finish all four curtains before it’s time for us to leave. As I gather my things she promises to have them hemmed and ready for me to pick up after work the next day.

At the door I kiss and hug her goodbye. Sometimes I’m relieved to get away from her lectures and her attention, but not today. Today I’m sorry to go so soon. Today a silly guide for Southern women made me appreciate learning from the real deal, even if I’m not terribly adept at the execution of those lessons.

She cups my face in her hand and gives me a look, one I recognize as mine alone. It’s a touch of amusement, a touch exasperation, a touch pride, and, of course, love. Patting my cheek she says, “Behave yourself, you hear? Be good.”

“I will Grandma”, I say with a smile. She chuckles and moves on to my daughter. I watch them hug and TG smoothes the hair back from her face.

I’m not the praying kind, not even sure if I believe in God at all, but I find myself pleading with something or someone: Please let this woman be around long enough to teach my daughter all the things I can’t.

25 comments:

The mad woman behind the blog said...

Beautiful. And I'm so jealous of your relationship. I teared up while reading this.

I've been meaning to talk about my grandmother for some time. Thanks for the inspiration.

Rusty Hoe said...

That was just lovely. I am rather jealous now. My grandmother was a vicious, bitter old cow. Try as I might I can't think of one kind word I ever heard or one moment of love and gentleness. I miss that I never had what you have with your grandmother. Is she available for hire?

sAm said...

thank heavens for those mooments that just make us slow down and appreciate what we have. I miss my Grandma's. Enjoy TG!

Tony said...

Wow...this was really a great post, Aly! Your grandmother sounds freaking awesome! :)

erin said...

She sounds awesome, but I 'know' this woman. Every second of awesome-ness is countered by drive-you-up-the-wall-ness.

Right Aly-Poo?

Excellent Post Aly.

Surly Scott said...

Really nice post. I too am jealous of this relationship as both my grandmas were gone by the time I was six. Bits of the post remind me of my mom who is also gone now. Thanks for this softer glimpse into your world.

mylittlebecky said...

i got something in my eye there at the end. damn eyes. very sweet :)

mo.stoneskin said...

Don't let not being the praying kind stop you from praying for good things, I tend to pray even if I don't feel like it.

Love the scene you paint, it almost brought a tear to my eye. I never baked stuff with my grandmother - or if I did, I don't remember it - but I have the fondest of memories, playing bowls in the garden, things like that.

Judearoo said...

One of your best, Ally.

Just lovely. I've nothing else to add.

Maryx said...

Great post! Makes my think of my own grandmother. Definitely the Matriarch in our family. And she doesn't take no for an answer either. It's just yes and amen from our mouths. Take care sweetie! She sounds awesome as always.

Colleen said...

I am jealous, but not of your relationship with your grandmother. I totally envy your effortless writing style. Easily, I could have been reading this post in a literary magazine. Please promise me you'll look into submitting it to one. Beautiful!

barefootchickadees said...

Beautifully written. Makes me nostalgic for my long gone nonna and recently gone nonno. It's funny, they were Italian rather than Southern, but still worked to instill the same traits. Maybe just at a louder volume than your TG...

Mama's Girl Alexis said...

This is one of your serious and loving posts that I have ever read since following you. I just love this so much, I wish my grandma was around. You have a great and blessed relationship with your grandma. God bless you and your family. I just love this post soooooooooooooooo much....!!

Jules said...

That's sweet!!!!! Go check out why else I love you on my blog!!

j said...

what a gorgeous insight into a quiet day with four generations of women, just doing things.

grandmothers are like that thing that can't fade. i knew exactly what you meant when you talked about her kneading the dough the same way as before, because it's like they just can't change in our eyes. i do believe in a god, but i can't really say exactly what or who i'm pleading to when i wish she could be there forever.
and i loved reading about the sheepdog. i always picture animals like that as a tiny human with an animal body. my grammie had a japanese chin named Tutu that was part of the family. since tutu died, grammie's gotten replacements but they're not quite as sassy or familial as tutu was.
goodness gracious, girl, you got that right on the time pressure thing.

Happy Frog and I said...

Beautiful post, really touching.

jessica o said...

"Canine Rod Stewart" killed me. Thank you for conjuring up sweet memories of my two grandmothers who have passed away. You are a gifted writer.

Baglady said...

Just wonderful post. So evocative and warm and so very visual. I hope TG stays around for some time - we could all do with one like her...

Steam Me Up, Kid said...

This is such a beautiful post, really. You brought me right there with you.

Eric said...

Whoa, when is the 'Steel Magnolias' episode going to be done?

Kidding, that was sweet.

mossum said...

Ditto. Beautiful post.

I miss you, Grandmas.

Ally said...

Wow, this is great.

Miss Welcome said...

I absolutely loved this piece.

BrightenedBoy said...

This is a side of The Grandmother I've never seen. This piece is moving and wonderfully descriptive. It's so apparent that you are maturing into a marvelous writer.

otherworldlyone said...

Thanks for all of the comments and for those that have never commented before.

I write a lot about how much TG often drives me crazy, she's not always the easiest person to deal with. But I love her very much, she's a wonderful grandmother, and I'm glad I got to share this side of her with all of you.