Her name was Peggy (or at least that’s what she called herself, but we’ll get to that later). She was my maternal grandmother, and from the time I was born she lived by herself in the same house where she raised my mom and aunt. I remember visiting her many times as a young child, likely afternoons when my mom had errands to run or bathrooms to caulk. We would sit in her yellow kitchen and she would make me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread. For dessert, she would give me one of the Archway oatmeal cookies she kept in the refrigerator. After lunch, she would take me down into the basement, past the large sign that hung in the stairwell that read something like “I WILL TRIP AND FALL DOWN THE STAIRS IF I AM NOT CAREFUL,” written in her own cursive capital letters. But these signs were a common site in her house. She had reminders for everything, little notes placed here and there that were either instructive in nature or served to jog her memory. At first glance one might assume she was a writer – and perhaps, for all intents and purposes, she was – but she never kept a journal, diary, or wrote anything about her life that was longer than a sentence or two.
Downstairs, she would let me water her orange tree that grew to the ceiling beside the only window in a dark, unfinished basement. As a child, I used to love this task, though I have long forgotten why. Then we would go back upstairs and she would close the basement door and lock it with a skeleton key tied with a scrap of red cloth. Sometimes she would let me lock and unlock it, and then lock it again, always making sure it was secure.
I would lead her into the dining room, past the table that was always covered with newspaper clippings, ads, photographs, and more handwritten reminders, of course. She had a display of a few figurines that I regularly liked to pick up and examine, and hear the stories of where and how she had acquired them. One figurine was a porcelain girl in a pretty dress with her mouth in the shape of an ‘O.’ Grandma used to say she was an opera singer, and I would beg Grandma to make her ‘sing,’ which was her attempt at an opera solo that just sent me into giggle fits. When I had tired of the figurines, I moved on to the coloring book she kept in the drawer beneath them, along with the pack of chunky, made-for-small-fingers crayons that would last me up until I was too big for coloring books, and beyond.
Sometimes she would show me the paintings she had done in her earlier years. Most were landscapes, but one was an overview of the city I didn’t recognize, likely from some bygone age. I would ask if I we could paint, but she would tell me she didn’t have the supplies anymore.
Finally, I would ask to go upstairs. She would follow me up the old, creaking, wooden staircase – always a few steps behind – and into the largest bedroom in the house. There she kept her ‘toys,’ though she never called them that. “These are antiques,” she would say, “so you have to be very careful.” These ‘antiques’ were actually barely a decade old – Strawberry Shortcake dolls and dollhouse, Barbies and Barbie-related clothes and furniture, Care Bears, and other toys reminiscent of the early 1980s she had purchased at neighborhood yard sales and the Big Lots up the street. Painstakingly she watched as I pulled them out of their boxes to dress and arrange them under her careful eyes. Some were still sealed in their respective packaging, and I asked why she did not take them out. What good are toys still in the box? “They are worth more money if you keep them in the box.” I didn’t understand, so she explained, “I might sell them someday,” unaffected by the possibility that a young child might not be able to comprehend why on earth one would sell a perfectly good toy.
I repeatedly asked her over and over again if I could take some with me. The answer was always no.
In another bedroom was her pride and joy – a large 3-story furnished dollhouse that probably was an actual antique. Under her watchful eyes, she would let me examine the furniture inside and even “play” with the 1950s-era family who lived there. Grandma couldn’t help herself with this, her favorite yard sale find. She would squeal with delight over the miniature toilet paper, toothbrushes, and every household item you could think of sized down to the length of my little fingernails. She especially loved the pink canopy bed that belonged to the little girl of the house, and we both agreed we wished we could shrink ourselves down to size and live there.
“Tell me about when you were a kid,” I would ask.
She would tell me stories about growing up on a farm in Tennessee. She liked playing with the baby chicks, she would say, and she would try to steal them away from their mother! The mother hen always came after her, she said, pecking at her skin, trying to get her baby chick back away from the hands of my grandma. Then every year, the circus would park on her family’s farmland and she would get to ride the rides for free. I listened with eagerness to these stories, wondering what it must have been like to grow up with a circus in one’s backyard, with a plethora of baby chicks to play with.
Then we would hear the front door open downstairs. “Mom?” cried a voice. It was my mother, coming to pick me up.
When I told my mom about her childhood stories, she would always look confused and then surprised. “She never told me those stories,” she said indignantly.
My mom would call her on the phone every single day for years. Sometimes I would ask to talk to Grandma, and I still remember her little old voice on the other line when I held the receiver up to my ear – “Hi, Colleen.” I don’t remember what we talked about, except I often asked if I could come over that day. “No. Not today,” she would usually say. And I would follow with, “Tomorrow then?” But she usually told me no.
When I was ten years old, she broke her arm and had to stay with us for a while. She slept on the trundle bed in my bedroom, and I used to think it was funny she liked to sleep with her feet uncovered “so they would be cold.” She was a hard sleeper, and therefore didn’t mind when I turned on my flashlight and read books late into the night, though she herself was not a reader at all.
I used to ask her what she did at home by herself. “Oh, I don’t know,” she would say, her voice trailing off. “Sew. Watch the evening news.”
“What do you do before you go to bed?”
“Listen to the radio.”
“No. Not music. Just the news.”
As we both got older, her mind began the slow descent into dementia. Eventually, it became clear she couldn’t live by herself anymore. By then, one of my brothers had moved out and a bedroom was free. She moved in, leaving her old house and the place she probably considered “home” – her beloved dollhouse – to live with us. She was not happy about it, and often wanted to go “home.” In order to ease the pressure, I took it upon myself to keep her mind occupied. “Grandma’s depressed today,” my mom would say. “She needs you to make her laugh. You’re the only one who can do it.” For whatever reason, that was the honest truth. She would laugh at my goofy attempts to humor her, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was I said or did that was so funny to her. Sometimes I would read her passages from the books I was reading at the time, which she also enjoyed. But over the years, as her mind continued to dim, so did her ability to concentrate and comprehend.
The year I got engaged, she fell in the dining room and broke her hip. At 80-something years old, this required major surgery and a long, painful recovery. My parents and I were unable to provide the 24-hour care she needed. It was decided she would have to stay at a nursing home, a decision that broke my mom’s heart. It was difficult to watch a woman in relatively good health suddenly take a turn for the rest and never quite recover. Still, my mom would visit her almost every day to feed her, scold her nurses, and generally make sure she received the best possible care. If the nursing home wasn’t living up to her standards, she moved Grandma to a better one. When that nursing home failed as well, she moved her again, all the while my grandma’s mind was successfully being defeated by a cruel foe.
During this time, my mom did some digging into her own mother’s hazy past and ancestry. She knew very little about her parents, and what she uncovered was rather shocking. My grandmother had always hinted she was a great beauty, that she had many boyfriends, and that the boys liked to call her “Pretty Blue Eyes.” She ran away from home in Tennessee at sixteen, and married my grandfather at age 24. Sometime in the years between, she had another great love. On the back of the only photograph she kept of the two of them, she had written, “I really loved him.” But she had told my mom that his mother didn’t like her, and she was the catalyst to the end of the relationship. Out of spite, she then married my grandfather, who was only seventeen. In fact, they lied about their ages on the marriage certificate! And my grandma, who had gone by the name ‘Peggy’ for years after a boyfriend (perhaps the one she “really loved”) decided it better suited her, legally changed her name to Peggy Florence and never told a soul her birth name was actually Florence Naomi.
In the years following, my grandfather went off to fight in World War II, and my aunt and mother were eventually born. Sadly, my grandparents’ relationship was no love story. My grandfather was an alcoholic and rarely home. My grandmother retreated into herself, often locking herself in her bedroom for hours, leaving her two daughters to themselves. Eventually when they were older, she finally divorced my grandfather and never married again.
My aunt married and moved to Arizona. My mom married at eighteen and my parents lived in my dad’s hometown a few hours away for a some years until they eventually moved back to raise their young family just minutes away from my grandma and the house where my mom grew up.
All those years in between, my grandma lived alone. She didn’t have any friends. We were her only visitors, and only when she wanted us to visit. She was somewhat of a hermit, and preferred not to share her life with others. As a little girl, I could hardly understand why my grandma was just a little different from other grandmas. My friends’ grandmas were always a beloved topic of conversation, with the time they would spend with them baking cookies and going shopping and being showered with presents at every opportunity. My grandma was not like other grandmas. But as I got older and we all got to see through a small window into her past, we realized that perhaps that wasn’t her fault. She had a difficult life, it seemed, and perhaps the result was the person I knew as a child.
But in the time she lived with us, some of that brightness she used to possess was somewhat restored. It was in her smile, in her laugh, and in the “Pretty Blue Eyes” that sparkled when she shared a few pieces of her fading past. I’m glad I was able to have those moments, otherwise I may never have seen a glimpse into the woman my grandma used to be.
She passed away this year at the age of 91. There were just a few people at her funeral – our family, and some of my parents’ friends came to offer their support.
But it can hardly be said she was ever “alone,” or that her life was not significant. Like most of us, she was burdened with her own “ruins” from a life she probably never expected, or maybe even wanted. But that wasn’t who she was. And it isn’t who she will be. We may never have known that person, but I hope to one day. I want to hear her story as much as I want to tell her mine. By then, however, our stories will long be the stuff of legend, as much the “antiques” that she used to collect when I was a girl.