Sunday, October 11, 2009


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.


Zora said...


Linda Dove said...

A lovely tribute. I have sort of a minor obsession with grave sites, which includes feeling sad about how the vast majority of us will end up buried in a spot we've never been before, that has no relationship to who we were. I love that this one does.

And those photos are so evocative of the east. Love the milkweed!

kristan said...

Sigh. We all deserve a granddaughter so eloquent to mark our lives' ends, but so few are as lucky as your Granny.

Anonymous said...

so on my first visit you nearly brought me to tears.

what an eloquent post and a loving and honest history.

if only we could all be eulogized so well.

love the photos too. especiallly the cat!

AJK said...

I am sorry for your loss, what a lovely tribute, and the photos are amazing!

Christina said...

Zora: Thank you!

Linda: Where do you want to be buried?

Kristan: Honey, you are too kind.

UTBBS: Thanks for visiting. I find it interesting that the cat is your favorite photo--it's always fascinating to see what pictures speak to which people.

I hope everyone is enjoying their weekends!

Petrea Burchard said...

Christina, I'm glad I came back today. There's too much to say about this post.

I'll just say this: once again your photos tell a rich story--you didn't know some of it was mine, did you? That dark dairy barn takes me deep into my own childhood.

No, it's your story, and a beautiful one, too. I agree with kristan.

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

Beautiful, Christina. Just beautiful.

My own grandmother grew up on a farm and was sent by her family to seek her fortune in the big city of St. Louis as a young woman. And she carved out a life for herself there. But I think she would have been happier as a farmer's wife.

Unknown said...

Oh my. What a beautiful tribute to your grandmother. You write so eloquently.

the good soup said...

I wish I'd known either of my grandmothers that well. But I grew up in another country to them and then when we finally returned, we didn't have much grand between us. I still dream about them though. And one, Norma, sits on my shoulder to keep me company when I'm alone.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to be able to match this, Christina.

I'd love the words and pictures in book form. Cheap little me would buy the book.

My grandparents on either side never visited when I was a child, and by the time we got over the ocean, it was too late. But I love the stories about both my farfars, apparently both were cut-ups. As a result of this or not, my grandmothers were evidently on the depressed and depressing side, one highly and probably illegally medicated.