By the time Momma died, all my siblings were grown and gone. Now alone as a single dad raising a way-too-cute-for-her-own-good teenage daughter, Daddy needed help. He invited his widowed mother to live with us. Grandma was very different from my mom: This fact by itself would have made her highly suspect, even if I had not already disliked her for as long as I could remember. Momma and Grandma never really got along. On second thought, that is not entirely true. They got along all right, somehow always managing to be civil to one another, but neither of them had been happy about it.
Grandma was a no-nonsense kind of woman. Nonsense had been my mom’s middle name. Momma coddled children, bought every new gadget, and visited Disneyland once a year. Grandma pinched pennies, crocheted baby blankets out of thrift store yarn, never went to Disneyland, and, as far as I knew, never coddled anyone, most especially herself.
Before moving in with us, my only vivid memory of her was when I was four years old. Grandma came to stay with us one of the times that Momma was in the hospital. She had fixed us kids a proper meal which was to be eaten at a proper table with the proper utensils. In an age of the Red Skelton Show, Man from U.N.C.L.E., Sing Along with Mitch and, best of all, TV trays, we rarely did such a thing. Grandma told me to sit up straight and cut my meat. I didn’t know how, and I must have told her so in a way that she mistook for insolence. She quietly excused herself from the table, walked out to the drainage ditch and cut a willow switch. Without a word of explanation, she spanked me and instructed me to obey. I was a quick learner. I sat up straight, cut my meat and decided from that day forward that she was a mean grandma.
Every little kid needs a grandma-type lady to adore him unconditionally. Grandma Mollart was not that kind of lady, but I had two other old ladies who filled that role quite nicely. My mother’s mother, Grammy, lived in Southern California. Laden with as many presents as the bonnet of her 1962 Chevy Corvair could hold, she came to visit us once a year for the expressed purpose of spoiling us rotten. Her twin sister, Aunt Doll, lived in another house on our ranch, and worked hard at spoiling us the rest of the time. I saw absolutely no need for Grandma Mollart to move in.
She could live with us and try to take care of me, if she wanted to, but I made up my mind not to love her. Grandma was a quiet woman who worked hard and kept to herself most of the time. Not loving her would be easy. Besides already having Aunt Doll to love, I was going to be too busy with school, 4-H, square dancing and boys to worry about Grandma’s impact on my life. Besides that, a couple of weeks after Momma died I started my first job, so I would not really have to interact with her, if I didn’t want to.
I worked at the only dry cleaner and shirt laundry in the county. We washed, pressed, folded and delivered uniforms and linens for the National Guard and most of the hotels and restaurants within a sixty mile radius. It was physically very hot and strenuous work. The shirt laundry department averaged temperatures in excess of one hundred degrees with humidity at around eighty-five percent. I lost about ten pounds in the first eleven days of work and became very, very sick.
I missed work and stayed in bed miserable, sweating and retching. Grandma brought me cool cloths; she changed my sheets, and emptied the garbage pail next to my bed. When I was better, I said distantly, “Thank you for taking care of me. You have been very kind.”
Grandma was visibly taken aback. “Why, darlin’!” she said in surprise, “You’re one of my babies! Of course, I would take care of you: I love you!”
I was shocked, and a little embarrassed. How on earth could she possibly love me? After all, I was only one of her twenty-seven grandchildren. She barely knew me. Worse than that, I was one of the four that belonged to my mother, whom she had clearly never liked. I was afraid to love her back. To do so would have seemed almost a betrayal. Despite my resolve, I opened my heart a crack and decided to give her a chance.