My grandmother, as some of my younger friends would say, had skills. She grew up in the Depression when they were needed. She could sew and knit, and when I was a child, she would hem my pants and my shirt sleeves and knit me hats and scarves. She knitted blankets and clothes for my baby dolls.
One year, she made me a pink bunny rabbit costume for Halloween. It was much like the one in A Christmas Story, but cuter. And, that kind of costume looks better on a very short, 4-year-old girl than a 9-year-old boy. I loved it. I still have a picture of me dressed in it for my preschool party, holding the hand of the little boy who was my best friend back then.
My grandmother died a week ago Saturday, on Jan. 8. It wasn’t unexpected, but it hit hard since my mother was diagnosed with skin cancer only a couple of days before. We decided to rush the funeral and have it Monday morning so that my mother and I could fly to Chicago that night and she could go ahead with her surgery scheduled for Tuesday. The doctor says it was successful.
I flew to Baltimore on Sunday morning, and that night the family gathered at my Aunt L.’s for dinner. While others were cooking, I wrote my grandmother’s obituary. My mom, my Aunt L. and my Uncle W. refined their eulogies for the next morning. After dinner, we looked through my grandmother’s photo albums.
By the end of her life, she had traveled a lot, but her first flight was when she was in her 50s. She flew from Delaware to Alabama to be with my mom when I was born. My mom said my grandmother took one look at me and said, “Oh, B., that’s not yours.” I had thick, black, curly hair, which doesn’t run in my family. But then it all fell out, white blonde hair came in and I fit in just fine. My cousin M. was born three weeks later, and my grandmom took her second flight to Tennessee to be with him and my Aunt. J.
Six weeks after I was born, my father was sent to Vietnam. My mom and I moved to Delaware to live with my grandparents, and Aunt J. and M. joined us when her husband went to Vietnam too. Mom and I were still there when she got the call that my father had had a breakdown and she had to fly to Hawaii to meet him.
A lot of people turned away from us then. Mental illness wasn’t well understood, and my father was scary. He heard voices. He tried to kill himself. He got fired from a job because he would go to work and hide in the restroom, afraid he was being watched.
My grandmother was always there. When things were really bad, my mom would send me to stay with my grandparents. I was living with them in Texas when my mom finally left my father. He had threatened to kill my mother and I before killing himself. The threat against me was the last straw, but it wasn’t the last threat.
A year or so later, he threatened us again. My grandmother flew to Maryland from Texas, collected my mom and I and moved us into a hotel. I remember her buying pick-up sticks and playing game after game with me. We watched Lawrence Welk (my choice) and she bought me ice cream. It would have been like a vacation, except that every morning, my grandmother drove me to school and walked me into the main office. My teacher met me there and escorted me to class. At the end of the day, she took me back to the office where my grandmother was waiting. I was never alone. My mother and my grandmother watched me like hawks until my father came to his senses, apologized and checked himself back into a mental hospital. I think it’s a measure of how remarkable they are that although I had an idea of what was going on, I was never scared.
My mother said in her eulogy that whenever times were hard, my grandmother came and healed us with her presence. This is true. She came when my father was sick and when my stepfather died. She cooked and cleaned and was just there until, finally, we could manage without her. Then she would move on to the next family member in need.
My mom also talked about my grandmother’s cooking, and so did my Aunt L. and Uncle W. Like I said, my grandmother had skills. My uncle left for college at a time when most men didn’t cook, but my grandmother took him aside and told him he needed to know how to feed himself. She taught him to make a turkey with stuffing, lasagna and cinnamon cake. He still makes all three, and my Aunt F. said the turkey was one reason she married him. Not many men can make a good turkey.
My Uncle W. said he taught his three children to make cinnamon cake, and after the funeral, my cousin M. said my Aunt J. had taught him too. M. told his children about it, and the morning my grandmother died, his daughter woke up and, for the first time, asked to make it.
Wednesday night, when my mom was feeling better, we started talking about what we should make for dinner the next night. Finally, I said, “You know, all I’ve been thinking about is the cinnamon cake,” and Mom said, “Me too.”
So, that’s what we made the next night, along with a salad and some simple pasta. There’s a picture of only a few pieces because we ate almost all of it right away. It alone would be quite a legacy, but of course, my grandmother gave us so much more.
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Mix 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoon butter, 2 tablespoon flour and 1 tablespoon cinnamon in bowl and set aside.
Mix salt, white sugar and egg. Add melted butter, milk and vanilla. Add 1 1/2 cup flour and baking powder to form batter.
Pour half of batter into a greased 8×8 baking pan. Pour brown sugar mixture on top. Then add rest of batter to form top layer.
Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.