Earlier today, I recommended another blogger’s site … “StoryShucker”. In today’s post, “Just Some Vanilla,” Stuart talked about his relationship with his grandmother and a lesson he learned later in life about helping others feel a sense of purpose. (I won’t share any more of the story – again, I encourage you to visit his blog and read it for yourself … then spend some time reading some of his other posts. You’ll be happy you did!)
Anyhow, I replied to his post, telling him about how his story reminded me of my own grandmother. I proceeded to write about her in the context of Stuart’s post regarding “purpose”. Stuart replied, “You just wrote a blog post for yourself there, a great one!” His reply got me to pondering – not just about doing a blog post, though. In remembering my grandmother, I realized that I don’t have many good memories of my time growing up. Oh they’re there. Not many of them, but they exist. The problem is that they’ve been almost completely smothered by the bad memories that so easily invade my thoughts.
So, I decided to follow Stuart’s advice and write a little bit about her. Maybe in reclaiming some of the good memories when they’re conjured up, the bad ones won’t have as much space to occupy.
For the whole time I knew her, Grandma Tice was blind. I’m not sure what caused it … I know she was sighted up to the time she was a young mother to five kids because I saw an old home movie of my mother from when she was a teenager … the movie camera had caught my grandmother feeding chickens on their farm in northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio river from Cincinnati. I could tell she had her sight then. I vaguely remember someone saying she had contracted Scarlet Fever at some point, and that’s what caused her blindness. It wasn’t talked about around my house because both she and my mother were Christian Scientists, so whatever physical ailments or infirmities someone had weren’t really addressed in the way you and I might talk about them. (As an aside, I wonder if my grandmother even saw a doctor when she first became ill, and if she had, whether it might have made a difference. But I digress.)
When I was growing up, Grandma and Grandpa Tice lived in Stony Point, NY, on the banks of the Hudson River as you drove up to West Point from northern New Jersey. It seemed like it’d take forever to get there as a kid. We’d go up to visit after church on Sunday because church was the half-way point between our house and theirs. They lived in a small cottage on top of a hill. The three things I remember most about that place are baseball, the apple orchard and a marble. Any time we visited, my grandfather was glued to either the radio or the TV (sometimes both) enjoying a baseball game … that’s how I developed a love for baseball. As an aside, that might be the subject of a future post. The orchard was right behind their cottage and it was there that I learned how to climb trees (I do love apples!) The marble? The house was surrounded by a cobblestone patio, built into the side of the hill, with a stone and mortar retaining wall on the west side. And at the end of the wall, a cornflower blue marble … what we used to call a “moonie” … was two-thirds embedded into the mortar. I tried to release it from its prison a few times, but gave up after a while. It just seemed like it “belonged” there. The thing about that marble was that it matched my grandmother’s eyes. Whatever had damaged her eyes had left both the irises and pupils a solid, opaque blue.
One of the amazing things about my grandmother was her memory. She had stored the layouts of about two dozen houses in her mind: those of her children, her sister, a few cousins and several church friends. She’d navigate them as well as any sighted person could because she had memorized the number of steps it would take to go from, say, the living room couch to the entrance to the kitchen. I remember we were over at my Uncle Al’s house one time for a family get-together. Grandma and Grandpa Tice arrived and my Aunt Helen met them at the door. They had rearranged some furniture in the living room. She took my grandmother by the arm and led her around the room, showing her where all the pieces had been moved. My grandmother then went back to the front door and walked to each one, mentally counting off the number of steps she had taken. She repeated that, coming from the kitchen door. And that was that. It took her only one time to replace the old layout with the new one! In the 18 years I knew her, I never saw her bump into anything (except for the end of the summer of 1971, shortly before she passed away).
One of my first jobs when I was a kid was making braille for Grandma Tice. It started as a Cub Scouts “do a good deed” thing, but I kept doing it long after that particular project had ended. I had a braille slate, a device made specifically to write braille. You’d put a piece of paper in a clamp … one side of the clamp had concave bumps on it, grouped in 2×3 sets. I’d use a stylus to press down on the bumps, creating a dent in the paper. When you turned it over, you’d have braille. I’d spend Sunday afternoons creating the Bible verses that were in the following weeks lesson plan from church and she’d read them during the week. As I write this, I’m again remembering Stuart’s story – she could have bought a braille lesson from the Christian Science Reading Room, but instead she decided to let me do it for her instead. She was giving me a chance to help her! I have never thought about that little “job” in those terms until this moment!
My sister was born in June 1965 and two months later Grandpa Tice died from a massive heart attack, so Grandma Tice moved in with us. It was a tiny house, so we were forced to move into a larger home. A new house was being built down the street from us, and we wound up moving there in March of the following year. It was a bi-level … we all lived upstairs except for Grandma Tice. Her bedroom was downstairs, along with a family room and a wash/utility room. I used to get her LP’s set up on the record player spindle so she could listen to music: her two favorite singers were Andy Williams and John Gary. She’d sit and listen to those albums for hours at a time, and really looked forward to when the Andy Williams Show was on TV (I can’t remember what night that was. Thursday? Friday?) When it was on, she’d sit on the edge of the couch with her elbows in her lap, leaning over so far I thought she’d fall flat on her face. That’s how intently she’d listen. It was a variety show, something like Jackie Gleason’s old show, with skits and guest performances. I remember getting such a kick out of her – I’m chuckling as I write this story. She’d listen to a comedian tell a joke as she was leaning forward. It took a couple of seconds sometimes for the joke to register with her, but when it did, her head would raise from that hunched-over position and she’d have a big smile on her face. Then she’d look off to where she thought someone else might be sitting, as if she was looking at them, shaking her head and laughing.
Here’s the part of her story that Storyshucker brought to mind (and which I shared with him in a reply over at his blog) …
Grandma Tice played a big part in dinner time. I’d come home from school to find her sitting at the kitchen table with a colander in her lap. She’d be doing something to get the meal ready, whether it was shucking green beans / peas, peeling potatoes or carrots, making meatballs or something else. And once dinner was over, she’d man the dishes. I was really glad when she moved in with us – rather than exchanging washing and drying duties every night with my brother, my chores were cut down to drying the dishes every other night .
We moved to Dallas in October 1968 when my father’s company transferred him. One of the big changes was that for the first time, we had a dishwasher. After a couple of weeks, my mother noticed that my grandmother was sort of moping around. She definitely had a different mood to her. My mother asked her a few times what was wrong, but got a typical, “nothing’s wrong” response … Grandma Tice rarely complained about anything. Finally, my mother said something like, “look, I know something’s bothering you. What is it? Are you mad at me for something or what?”
Grandma Tice finally spilled the beans – “You’ve taken my job away! It’s like I have no purpose here. I feel useless!”
There my parents were, thinking they were giving her a break! From my grandmother’s point of view, exactly the opposite was happening. From that point on until she passed away, that dishwasher remained unused. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, seeing as how I was back to dish drying duty, but I sure appreciate it now. I do know that I learned a big lesson at the time about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to see things from a perspective other than your own. That alone had a big impact on how I’ve tried to live my life!
My grandmother was one of the few people that stood up for me. I remember hearing her quietly asking my mother, “Why does Bert have to treat him like that?” after one of my routine beatings. My mother just told her to mind her own business. Every now and then, after those beatings, I’d hear her quietly say, “I wish he wouldn’t do that,” referring to my father. I know one particular time, she asked me out of the blue, “do you know the story about Joseph in the Bible?” I told her that, yes, of course I knew it. She then said, “Joseph went through a lot of horrible experiences when he was growing up and even when he became a young man, but if they hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t have been in a situation where he could save his family. You have to remember that! Sometimes you don’t know what good comes out of a bad experience – you just have to trust that at some point, something good will happen if you have faith.”
(I’m still waiting for that “something good” to happen, Grandma. Haven’t seen it yet and quite frankly, I’ve pretty much lost faith that I ever will!)
My grandmother passed in September 1971. I was away at college when it happened, recovering from my accident (which I’ve mentioned in other posts), so I couldn’t come home for the funeral. In the weeks prior to her death, she became very disoriented. My parents had to tie a string from her bed to the bathroom so she wouldn’t get lost going from one to the other. My mother told me that a couple of days before her death, she went into my grandmother’s room because she heard her carrying on a conversation with some invisible guest, talking and laughing away. My mother asked her who she was talking to and she replied, “I’m talking to all these people here!” When my mom told her there was no one there, Grandma Tice said, “Yes there are. They’re telling me that I don’t need to be worried about where I’m going. They’re telling me about where I’m going to live. Isn’t it funny how I’m the one who can see them and not you, when it’s been the other way around for so long?”
I don’t know if she was actually talking to someone or if dementia had taken hold of her. Quite frankly, my whole belief in an afterlife has been shaken over time. I used to believe that there was. I’m not so sure now. I haven’t thought about my grandmother’s experience for years! She sure believed there was an afterlife. Not “heaven” in the traditional sense of the word … Christian Science teaches that when you die, you simply move to another plane of existence. Sort of like going through a door from one room to another. The transition helps you realize the “nothingness” of the material world and you become that much closer to understanding the “true” concept of spiritual life. I don’t know if that’s true, or if there is a heaven. I do know there’s a hell.
Years later, when I moved back to New Jersey from California, I spent most of a Saturday morning and afternoon trying to find the old Tice cottage in Stony Point. There were a few intersections off Highway 9 that looked really familiar and a couple of roads that carried some memories, but there were no old cottages to be found. They had all been replaced by McMansions. I think she would have liked knowing that I had given it a shot, though.
So that’s my Grandma Tice. She was an incredible woman, full of spirit, undaunted by a physical disability, holding on to a sense of purpose when others … even unwittingly … tried to take it away from her. Remembering her right now was a good thing. Thanks, Stuart!