Grandma was sitting in the living room reading a book. She always seemed to be reading something. In her bedroom, the floor was piled high with reading material. She once warned me, “If you stop reading, your mind will get old.” She was 77 that Christmas. The broad range of her knowledge was welcome in most circles and she laughed easily after which she would dab at the corner of her mouth with a Kleenex.
I walked into the living room and flopped myself on the couch opposite her. She always looked the same to me: smartly dressed, her pure-white hair nicely groomed, the ever-present Kleenex poking out of the cuff of her blouse within easy reach. Dabbing the corner of her mouth with a Kleenex had become so habitual she was no longer aware of how often she performed this ritual. The removal of a facial nerve had left the right side of her mouth paralyzed and it tended to leak saliva.
Her name was Florence, but she was known affectionately to her children as Flossie. I was not allowed to call her that. The reason, I suppose, was the 64 year difference in our ages.
Florence Mabel Gregg was born in Plainview, Minnesota, where her parents had moved after trying their luck homesteading in Walnut Grove. She had lived near the Ingalls family and was 12 years younger than Laura. She was the daughter of a furniture maker and the granddaughter of a Mississippi Riverboat captain whose first name no one remembered and who had died on his boat, in 1850, of smallpox. He was buried at Reed’s Landing on the shore of the great River. It was probably her having been descended from that infamous Scottish clan leader, Rob Roy McGregor that made her the proud lady she was. She had earned a Master’s Degree at a time when women didn’t usually attend college at all. She had successfully raised 5 children on a teacher’s salary after the untimely death of her young husband. Her proudest possession, and one that never left her person, was a pocket watch given her by her father, engraved with the date of her 21st birthday: May 21, 1900.
This was my grandmother. She had been in and out of my life all my life as she moved between her various children’s families, staying a few months with each one.
Grandma put down her book and turned to me. Her face and seemingly frail body betraying the twinkle in her eye as if she was always forcing her aging body to admit that it housed a young woman’s adventuresome spirit.
“How is school?” she inquired, a very logical way for a retired school teacher to begin a conversation with your 13 year old grandson.
Truth is, I hated school. It’s not that I hated learning. I just hated school. Everything about it made me feel dumb and I hated feeling dumb. My emotional maturity had been slowed by my father’s untimely death when I was 2, but my mother had to work to support the family and paying for a babysitter was not within her means. So, she had put me in 1st grade two months after I turned 5, and a few years later, the school principal talked her into skipping my 4th grade entirely. I was in 9th grade at age 13, but with the maturity of a child much younger.
To her question, “How is school? I answered, vaguely, “It’s OK, grandma.”
“What are you learning?” She was a schoolteacher, after all. This was what she wanted to talk about.
“Well, you know,” I answered. “Thanksgiving is next week and we are learning about the Pilgrims.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Grandma, gleefully, finding a topic she loved and that we could share. “Tell me what you’ve learned about the Pilgrims.”
Of all the things my 13 year old brain cared about, included in that were definitely not the Pilgrims. Unfortunately, I heard myself tell this to Grandma.
“I don’t care anything about the Pilgrims, Grandma. That was ancient history.”
A perceptible change came over my grandmother’s countenance. The previous look of inquiry and interest was now a look of disbelief. I knew I had said something very wrong, but, as with most things I said or did at that age, I was confused as to what it might be.
Suddenly a light appeared in grandmother’s eyes as if she had understood something important that pleased her. Slowly she nodded her head and she said, “I see”. Then, she picked up her book and began to read where she had left off. So ended our brief conversation.
I went through Thanksgiving and Christmas without another talk with grandma and she finally left and went to stay with one of my aunts.
The end of the school year was approaching. My mother said, “I have bought a canvas tarp. I want you to spread the tarp on the driveway and paint it with the waterproofing paint I bought.”
“Why?” I asked. “What would I do that for?”
“Your grandmother is taking you somewhere,” she said. “She will be here to pick you up the day after school is over.”
I was taken aback. “Taking me somewhere! Where?”
“You’ll see,” she said with such finality, I knew that was all the answer I was going to get.
Saturday morning I spread the canvas on the driveway and painted one side. The southern California sun soon had it dry and I turned the canvas over and painted the other side. By evening, it was dry and waterproof. My mother took out an old suitcase and sat it on my bed. She then dictated the clothes I was to put in it. She avoided all my questions about where I was going with Grandma and how long I would be gone.