grandmother

Dibs on the MatchBox Car

In my grandmother’s home was a magic box. Every child in our family was magnetically attracted to it. It sat almost at the end of a long hallway that divided Mama’s shotgun house, directly in front of the single bathroom.

It wasn’t a grand thing. Only about as wide as a five year old’s arm and covered with brown shelf paper, it was an unassuming vault of treasures. It was Mama’s toy box.

As soon as we entered the house, my younger brother and I would beeline through the living room, dart through the doorway from the dining room and race down the hall to the awaiting trove.  Lucky was the kid who arrived first, she or he got first dibs on what was the choice item of the day.

It varied from time to time what things it held for us to discover. Slinkys, yo-yos, soldiers with their feet frozen in blobs of green plastic or some ViewMaster reels might be found. Often, Matchbox cars, HotWheels and Tonka trucks were at the ready to populate the small, two-story garage handbuilt by my Grandfather or race down the long hall.

There was never anything large or very expensive in the box. Mostly just odds and ends left over from birthdays or Christmas’ past. Things to be discarded or treated with possible childhood distain would be magically transformed into an object of desire. Mr. Potato Head might not have both ears, but his pipe and glasses were there and that was great. Only a few Spirograph gears might be available, but there was enough to create fabulous designs to captivate any willing adult art admirer.

Palpable delight was felt in digging through the bit and pieces, mining for just the perfect toy to claim for the day or the hour or until Mom told us our turn was over. Imagination would take over when we found the stray crayon or some pirate coins hidden in the back corners.

Built way before mandatory locking hinges and I’m sure repurposed from another use, the box had a lid with the tendency to fall back into closed position. You really had to make sure that it was all the way back before starting to rummage. Once, in my haste to grab a good toy, I failed to push the lid all the way back. Slap! across my nose the hasp came – blood, tears and a lesson well learned.

The inevitability of growing up and its cruel disassociation with the magical never really affected Mama’s toy box. It never moved. Even as we grew and became busily involved in the ways of adulthood, it remained steadfast in its place guarding the long hallway ready to offer any passing child a chance to play. The next generations would soon experience the joy of running through the house to claim their daily prize.

In these often harried and tense days, it is nice to bring to mind the magic box in Mama’s hall. Though the home she kept for 40 odd years or so has been gone for quite some time, claimed by urban planning, the memory of it and that box full of childhood joy will always be there ready for another day of play. Race you there.

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A Full C Note

Today is my grandmother’s 100th birthday.

October 18, 1911.

My older brother Stravos, the first grandchild, called her Mama, following our mother’s lead.  It was never changed so our grandmother was Mama from then on out.

All of us have our own memories and images.  Those who lived with her directly have different images than those of us who just visited.  The children have different images than the grandchildren.  All of that is the way it should be.  We are all correct and wrong, just as our children and grandchildren will be about us.

This is a true story that gave me a little insight into my grandmother.

 

The Place at the Table

 

Girls were raised up right back then; Ginia, the eldest by two years and her mother’s namesake, helped cook and clean, while Annie Caroline had to set the table.  Forks on the left, spoons and knives on the right, knives to the inside, blade in.  Plates two fingers from the edge.

Her mother made Annie set the place each night.  A plate in front of an empty chair.  Empty, negative space in the tableau of the family.   What did Annie think about as they calmly passed the butter beans around and over that empty plate?  What small talk took place to fill that void amongst the quiet clinking of silver to china?  “How was your day, Frank?  Anything interesting down at the train yard?”  “Nothing much, Harriet dear, how was your day?”  “Please pass the beans.”  Did she want to scream?

Not quite five years old and sitting next to a ghost.

My heart aches for the little girl, who had to set that plate.  My grandmother.  Mama.  The sister of the boy who carried her father’s name.  Two and a half years younger than Annie, two year old Francis died during an influenza outbreak in 1916, one day after his second birthday.

Her mother said she wished Annie had died instead.  My great-grandmother.  Mar.  The matriarch of the family I love.  Annie was four and a half years old.  I wonder at the despair that would drive a mother to wish her child dead.  Was the promise of a son so much better than that of a second girl?  Annie, the spare child; the real extra place at the table.
Her brother gone and her mother mad, was Annie allowed to cry or mourn?  Was the plate a punishment for being the stronger of the two?

Girls were raised up right in the time of my mother, too.  She was the cleaner and has no stories of setting the table.  My mother, the third to bear the name.  Mom.  Mama never told her of Mar’s words.  Possibly, it was too fresh, too touchable to set before Mom.  Or maybe the warm, crusty, but yielding Mama the grandchildren knew was too much a hard baked fortress to her children.  The distance to the plate was still too narrow, two fingers from the edge.

Mama took me in when my brother was born.  For six weeks, I was Mama’s.  I was Mama, too, displaced by a younger brother.  Another plate at our table.

Mama offered sustenance, succor and security to my parent’s second daughter, the one who bore her name.  Perhaps, the seeds were sown during that time for her revelation to come.

Fifty years had improved our family’s mortality.  My brother survived his rough arrival and my mother recovered.  I’m told that months after I was returned to my mother, I would still grab my things and get ready to leave with Mama after she came to visit.  I had staked my heart’s claim.

Mama told me of her mother’s words, while sitting on the front porch of her home.  It was set before me in a moment of time right for the revealing.  A moment between a second daughter to a second daughter.  She was seventy years old.  I was twenty.  I never knew Mama had another brother until that moment.  Her words rang flat as she told the story.  Sixty-five years later her mother’s words still served her memory.  How could she sit there so calmly snapping green beans and tell me her mother wished her dead over another?  Did Mama still feel the emptiness and hunger for her mother’s love?  In my youth and shock, I couldn’t find the right questions to ask for more.

Mama never mentioned the plate or Francis again.  It, and he were put back in the cupboard with the rest of the mysteries of her life.

I treasure the moment Mama gave me that afternoon on her porch.  A gift and memory written on my heart as indelibly as the recipe card for her famous macaroni and cheese.

Girls are raised up in this day and age, too.  My daughter.  The fifth to bear the name no longer lives in our house, but there is no negative space set at the table by my son, her younger brother.  There will always be a place, but no empty plate to pass over. Forks on the left, spoons and knives on the right, knives to the inside, blade in.  Plates two fingers from the edge.

 

Mama passed away in 1989, only 78 years old.  And while her absence leaves an empty space in our hearts, there is never an empty space at our tables. Her place is filled with the laughter and kind thoughts that time and memory create.

 

Happy Birthday, Mama.