When Granny stretched herself as tall as she could be, she made it to five feet. Sometimes, but very rarely, she wore low sensible heels, but most of the time she wore laced Keds on her tiny feet. As a young woman, she usually wore her short near-black hair in a low ponytail, but later in her life, after she gained only a few grey strands, she tucked it behind her unjeweled ears. Her eyes were grey-green-hazel, the same color as my brother's eyes, the color of wet stones.
She was born and raised on a farm in Western New York named after the color of the stones that litter the creek on the property, the farm where we buried her ashes last weekend in an orchard of Wealthy, Macintosh, and Poundsweet apples, where we marked the hole in which we set her ashes with a stone my father lifted out of the small brook.
Growing up, I never thought of Granny as a farm girl. I'm not sure she thought of herself as one either. Her mother died when she was thirteen, and very sickly as a child, she was never expected to stay on the farm. Her father treated her education as her health insurance, and provided opportunities for her that his other children didn't all receive. Even in a snowstorm with no roads and no plows, my grandmother went to school. Her older brother would hook the work horses up to the sled and take her down the ridge and into town where she worked on putting together her ticket out of town. While her father always expected her to go to college, I don't think he expected her to leave the way she did, the way she left the state and left home. In college, she trained to become a librarian and met my grandfather, an artist who turned dentist who eventually turned artist again. Once, when I was a little girl joining my grandmother on her daily walk, she told me she met him on a hayride in the fall at school, and she found him so attractive, and when he helped her off the wagon, she knew she was smitten.
Harriet may have left the farm, but wherever she lived, she always had gardens; even in her 90s, in the last place she lived so very far from where she had grown up, she had a garden full of mint, russian sage, tarragon, and chokecherries. I believe she gardened because she was an observer. She noticed the insects and the tiniest flowers. Hummingbirds kept her company.
Somehow, through an adulthood off the farm, the toughness required of farm life stayed with her. My relative who runs the farm now, a middle-aged woman with 350 acres, gentle eyes, and a gentle heart, shows her toughness daily by keeping going. By raising young horses and training them herself. By raising meat chickens in the spring for her subscription customers. By mowing and plowing snow herself. Granny did not have those same challenges, but far from small were her own: having one ovary and still bearing two hale boys, being a mother to two small children while a father was away at war, being married to a man who eventually forgot nearly everything. Last weekend, in the company of a family bigger than I ever remembered knowing, I was able to wander over the soft hills and along the rich hedgerows that nourished her childhood. I could see the barns and granaries her father had built himself, still standing strong and usable.
I'm going to break the rules of propriety that protect the recently dead and tell you more of part of the truth: she could be mean. So tiny, but she had a way of looking down from great heights on those who didn't have the same kind of deep-rooted American history. And no matter how intelligent, how educated, a woman's opinion—other than her own, of course—was never as wise as a man's. Oh, here I go, dragging out some family business—my grandma was sometimes downright mean to my mom. My mother, another strong woman of a completely different breed, a Western, fiercer, more physical breed, a woman who counts Riding the White Horse Home as her literary soulmate, has known how to stand up to her. As my father told my grandmother when he first told her about my mother, my mom is smart. And even though they didn't always see eye to eye (hard to do, as my mother towered over my grandmother), they both knew how powerful education could be. To my grandmother, education meant solid stone; to my mother, it meant freedom; to me, it meant adventure.
It was books that held my grandmother's heart forever. Books and books and books. She didn't give me dolls, she told me stories from books. She and my grandfather gave my brother and me our first cassette player, and the two of them would make us tapes, tapes of the two of them singing songs and her reading stories for us. Where there was occasional discomfort between my mother and my grandmother, there was also shared passion. They both loved learning and knew its power, and they both loved a very intelligent man. And last weekend, as I couldn't sleep in an old house with slanted floors, I could hear my parents, both also unable to sleep, reading to each other in the early parts of the morning.