Porcelain PeaceRemembering the Quieter of My Two Grandmothers
My Dad's father died
before I was old enough to say the word "Grampa."
I'd been told he bounced me on his knee,
but I’ve no memory of it.
And in the decade to follow,
(the years I do recall)
I was too young to understand
that my quiet Grandma was grieving a loss
and learning to live alone.
When we entered Grandma’s house
as a family in a row
with Mom and Dad as bookends,
the glass-paneled door
from the large porch to her front room
was like Alice’s looking glass (in reverse).
We stepped in from
a whirling world of motion
to a lamp-lit haven of porcelain peace,
a serene world of doilies and Royal Doulton
forever waltzing on the walls…
beautiful, delicate, fragile...
to be admired but not held.
We didn’t do much in Grandma’s house
but sit on the sofa just inside the door.
To the left was a fireplace
but it seemed the space
was kept for its mantle not its hearth.
I never saw a fire there.
To the right, there was a smaller sitting room
and in it was a giant Oriental urn
with images of Samurai drawing swords,
a lavishly gilded “vase” that I was sure…
could swallow a small boy whole
if he dared to climb a chair and look inside.
I never did.
Straight ahead, beyond the arch
(with shelved columns of still more figurines)
was the dining room
that had not had a meal in years,
but in its closet was a cardboard box of toys.
During longer visits, if we’d been good,
Grandma would open the door
and pull the bare bulb's string above,
and in the shadow of the coats
we could pick some things to play with on the floor.
I always chose the bronze 1915 Model T
(which was actually a bank with a slot in the top
with the name of a local bank on the side)
and “drove it” on the floor around the table.
Mind you I didn’t race or crash
or whisper a “varoom"—
just crawled behind a quiet country drive
along the of patterns in Persian rug
Sometimes Grandma took us
to the kitchen for a drink of milk or water.
It was a tidy little galley in classic 50’s
chrome and Formica
and GE appliances.
I remember perching
on a white-and-yellow Cosco
(with little drop-down steps
for reaching the high shelves).
Whenever Grandma offered us cookies,
Dad always gave a subtle shake of his head to decline
and thus display our manners.
Then she would insist "they'll go to waste,"
and Dad would let us each have one.
It was a delicate dance of sorts
to see her slowly pass a plate
trembling at each turn...
” they called it.
The disease we rarely mentioned
made her soft and brittle
at the same time,
like an antique china doll,
fondly admired but rarely held…
This is not to say she wasn’t loved
nor showed love to us all.
She was a dear sweet "Mrs. Clause"—
in a less-than-jolly way.
She didn't laugh as those around her did.
When something struck her funny,
she covered her mouth to hold it in,
and tilted her head slightly toward
the cause of her hidden smile.
It was then that we could see behind her glasses...
and know that she was laughing—
her eyes would more than sparkle,
her eyes could laugh out loud.
While we kids never quite relaxed
at Grandma's house, there was one thing
that actually frightened me:
I never walked to the bathroom alone
(but never said why aloud).
It was an unspoken rule based on childish fear.
You see, it was there,
in that porcelain-tiled room,
that Grandpa died in the night a few years before
(or so I’d been told by my older brothers and cousins).
Venturing down the hall and past
the bedrooms that looked as if
they had never been slept in
was a frightening thing to do
even with a brother by my side.
The narrow room was immaculate
with little unused soaps of sea things
in a porcelain clam-shell bowl beside the sink.
On the wall were embroidered towels too perfect to touch
(so we used our pants);
on the floor were poofy pink rugs that showed footprints
(so we walked around them).
The tank cover matched the rugs, and on it
was a spare role of Charmin
hidden in a crocheted cap
beside a square bottle of diluted perfume
with a squeeze-ball atomizer that was by far
the most alluring thing (to a boy) in the room.
The room was such
that every sense of touch and sight and smell
belied its function altogether
and added to our fear
of disturbing its peace.
It was all these unexplored feelings
that made the whole house feel like a parlor,
a place to visit not to live…
and why Grandma, like her many figurines,
seemed so breakable.
The atmosphere created by my dad
may also have been prompted
by the whispered account we later learned…
of a “break down” Grandma had when she was young.
To this day, I'm not sure what it was,
but she convalesced for months before resuming life
and eventually entering marriage and motherhood.
(Such things were not discussed until we were adults.)
All I knew at the time
was she was my quiet grandma,
with the softest cheek I'd ever kissed...
She was mother to my dad and my wonderful aunt and uncles,
and there was nothing fragile or delicate
about the lives her children and grandchildren lived
whenever we gathered.
In fact, I remember one 4th of July
when Uncle Roy brought a trailer-load
of fireworks right there to Grandma’s house.
He lit them off in the front yard,
and gave us each a box of magic “snakes”
that sprung wildly out of flames
and left black circles on the sidewalk
that stayed for years.
But this was outside
the house, of course.
No such recklessness
ever stepped through the looking-glass door.
I do remember something else…
cleaning pheasant in the basement sink
after a day of hunting with Uncle Bob and friends
and helping Dad pick BBs from the meat
and keeping a pheasant foot
to pull the tendons that curled the toes
like puppet-string talons.
We played with them for weeks.
Some time later I recall
having a Thanksgiving feast
with all the cousins down there
in the open, brightly-lit basement
with the green-painted floor.
But upstairs was a different story;
upstairs we just sat and smiled
in the porcelain peace
surrounded by the fragile pieces
and admiring Grandmother's glazed grace,
trembling at each step
or sitting in a quiet chair.
And we’d wait there
watching for those silent moments
when her eyes would laugh out loud..
© Copyright 2006, TK, Patterns of Ink
Grandma K can be seen here between to talking women. The one to her left is my other grandma. My Grandma Spencer is another story--many other stories, in fact. She's still alive and well at 95. Lots of drafts about her waiting to be posted here someday. But there is a post about my Grampa Spencer here at Past Perfect.) Grandma K. eventually moved from her house on Griswold St. into my Aunt Betty's house in Indiana. I remember happy visits there. After some good very years there, she died in '72. My brothers, male cousins, and I were pallbearers.