Have I ever mentioned that I was afraid of my grandma? My 5-foot-2-inch, maybe 120-pound grandma? I was, and I probably still am. "Grandma-fear" was a respectful, hop-to-it, don’t-get-caught-not-doing-it type of fear. It was also a fear born of uncertainty because I actually had two grandmas. I realize that, mathematically, everybody does. What I mean, though, is that my grandma was made up of two parts, and I could never exactly predict which one was going to make a showing on any occasion.
On the one hand, there was "Western Hospitality Grandma." This was the grandma who had raised baby chicks under a heat lamp. When we went to spend the night at her house, that’s how it was for us. She shined the warming light of cozy, fluffy bliss on us, and I can promise you, I have never been so well taken care of as I was during those visits.
First off, no matter what time it was, no matter if I had just eaten a mammoth wherever I had come from, Grandma fed me. She’d go down her list of comestibles until she found something I couldn’t say no to, and then she’d “whip it out in no time.” She’d serve me a precision-cut piece of berry pie or a frosted square of cake on a silver-rimmed dessert plate – napkin tucked to the side, silver fork on top.
And when it was time for bed, she’d feed me again. “Just a little snack before you turn in – just to take the edge off.” Often the snack was simply bread and butter, cut into triangles and sweetened with a little dab of strawberry jam on top. Sometimes it was a glass of malted milk or a mug of steaming Ovaltine. She would sit me on the top step of her stepping stool – the kind with the seat that pulled down over the top – and pull me up to her counter, where I would regally hold court. Somehow, the before-bedtime snack tasted like the best thing in the world. While I ate, she would slip into one of her guest rooms and turn up the electric blanket on the bed to "toast out" the chill. Although always half frozen herself, Grandma tirelessly paroled her perimeter to keep invading chills from overtaking the rest of us. Her two guest rooms were named. One was the blue room, the other was the green room. Queen Elizabeth II and my grandma? Same type of people. While I brushed my teeth, she would turn down the bed covers – neat and trim as a pin, folded back just enough so that I could slip right in like a duck into water. That was Western Hospitality Grandma.
Then there was my other grandmother – "Teapot Grandma." This grandma kept a steaming hot temper simmering under her hood, and we never knew exactly when she was going to erupt. She’d grown up poor on a hand-to-mouth dirt farm and had known hard days and harder prejudices. She’d been hired out to work in other people’s homes as a teenager, had married young during the Great Depression and had put up with Grandpa for more years than he was worth. Whatever was tough as nails, that was Grandma. But she lived in fear that her grandkids were growing up soft, and we were. Soft as dandelion fluff. She warned us time and again that we were unprepared for the cruel realities of a world that was just waiting to take us down a peg, starve us if we didn’t know how to work hard, and mock us for not holding our heads high and pulling our stomachs in. She feared so much for us that she made it her personal mission to whip us into shape.
The teapot half of Grandma was legendary. One day when her own kids were growing up, Grandma caught a couple of men out back poaching fish from the stocked pond. She took out her rifle and told them to put down their poles and leave because she wouldn’t miss. They knew she wasn’t bluffing. “She’ll do it,” one of the men said. “I’ve seen that woman shoot!”
You can guess that there was no way to tell this woman that I didn’t care for her sweet potatoes when she told me, "Yes, you do. You just don't know it yet." I also couldn’t tell her that I didn’t wear polyester pantsuits or want to cut my hair pixie short. Grandma had fixed ideas about what was right and how things were supposed to be done, and – sandy clay though I was – she was determined to shape me into someone that would amount to something.
One day, she came to the house to find me and my sister busy in the kitchen making chocolate chip cookies. Just to be clear, we were making them from scratch, so it wasn’t like we were buying them premade or cutting them out of a store-bought roll of dough. We weren’t committing any of the crimes of belonging to the modern age that Grandma was so suspicious of. But again, I just never knew what would set her off, and watching us use the mixer somehow needled her past endurance. She decided then and there that we had to learn how to make cookies without one. Forget that she had her own state-of-the-art mixer sitting in her kitchen. That day we creamed the butter and sugar together by hand. She didn’t even let us use a spoon. Raw eggs, flour, vanilla – we cracked and measured it all into the bowl and went to work with our fingers. Maybe it gave her peace of mind to know that in the event we had no mixers and no spoons – but somehow still had butter, eggs and chocolate chips – we could get a batch of cookies into the oven.
It’s a skill I have yet to need, Grandma, but I’m ready to go when the time comes. I’m ready.