When my Memo (pronounced Mee-mo) died on August 1, I didn’t write about it here. I referenced it in my last post, but I figured that I had some time to come up with what I wanted to say. And then, on August 29, my Grandmom died, too. So. Here’s a post about my two grandmothers.
Memo (my maternal grandmother) was an artist. She painted porcelain – plates, bells, ornaments, you name it. She smelled like turpentine and something earthier, in a way that was incredibly lovely. When I was little, we would go camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She would bring little porcelain items and paints, and during quiet times we would sit around the camper table and work away on some project or another. At other moments, we would leave the camper behind and wander along the trails throughout Loft Mountain, the campground where she was a volunteer park ranger. Loft Mountain was teeming with blackberry bushes, which we would often pick as we walked. We would return to the campground with our fingers and lips stained deep purple.
Memo kept everything. And I’m not talking about piles of garbage. Her house was (and still is) filled with treasures in every nook and cranny. In most of my life, I recognize that stuff is just stuff. I keep sentimental things, but I also have no problem giving things away and holding on to the memories. But Memo’s stuff is a different story. Each item is imbued with magic. Even the items that are gone are filled with a kind of legendary power. There’s a story about her dollhouse, long since discarded, and in my mind it is the most fantastical structure ever built. I have an old Spanish tortoise shell comb that belonged to someone in her lineage, and I imagine who wore it and when. What else was happening then, I wonder? And beyond the treasures, her house was like a fairy kingdom. There are huge (HUGE) old trees surrounding it. The backyard was full of secret little areas when I was a kid – small groves of trees that had been grown over with ivy, periwinkle, and wisteria. Papayo built several stone slab staircases when my mom was a kid, and finding them was like an expedition. I remember once, when we were staying at Memo and Papayo’s house for about a week, I decided to excavate one of these little areas. I spent days pulling up ivy and vines, unearthing an old concrete bench and a clothesline. I felt like I’d discovered King Tut’s tomb. “Memo,” I shouted, my excitement probably raising my voice to a shriek, “Did you even know this was here?” She always, always played along. And if she minded that I was literally destroying her yard, she never let on.
Afternoons at Memo’s house consisted of painting in her workshop area. She painted at a huge table with a thick, brown, faux-leather top. She would stir little pots of porcelain paint with a tiny knife, scooping a bit out and spreading it on a white tile for us to use. She never, ever said “no, you can’t paint that.” She would, however, insist that you finish a project once you’d started it. We would leave with dozens of Christmas tree ornaments, at various quality levels. The ones she painted were always prized jewels. Putting up our Christmas tree every year was like a treasure hunt. My brother, sister, and I each had our routines of what ornaments we loved the most. For me, Christmas still isn’t real until my nativity ornament is up on the tree.
Sometimes, instead of painting, we would take imaginary trips. Memo would prepare a picnic lunch – turkey sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper – and we would read up background information on Yosemite, or Muir Woods, or some other faraway place. The places seemed so distant that I couldn’t imagine ever seeing them – something that still makes my heart skip a beat when I pass the exit for Muir Woods. She would pop in a VHS tape, and we would eat our sandwiches and pretend we were walking through the forest. Other times, we would watch my all time favorite childhood movie: a recording of The Nutcracker On Ice. Professional musicians are disenchanted by Nutcracker, almost without exception, due to the frequency with which it is played. But to me, Nutcracker will always remind me of Memo’s basement, the smooth, cool cement floor, and sitting bundled up in her crocheted granny-square throw blanket.
Both of my grandmothers were named Frances. Until I was about 10 years old, I thought all grandmothers were named Frances. I also thought that Memo pads (the little notepads labeled “memo” on the cover) were called Mee-mo pads, as though she had invented them or something. Every time I see something that says “Memo,” I still smile.
The other Frances, my Grandmom (my paternal grandmother), had the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. They were clear blue, almost the exact color of the topaz ring she always wore. (My cousin, Rebecca, comes closest to having those eyes.) She smelled like baby blue, too, some mixture of powder and something else I can’t describe. She had the softest hands I’ve ever felt. She gave great hugs, and always kissed me with her lips smooched way out, a real “kiss face.” Whenever we arrived, she lit up like a thousand watt lightbulb. I’d run in for a hug, and after squeezing me, she’d hold me back at arms length and really look into my face. Within thirty seconds, she’d say, “Why are we all standing out here like this? Won’t you come in?” We would pour into the house, bypassing the living room for the screened-in porch. Sometimes, she had set out a port wine cheeseball and Triscuits or Wheat Thins. Later, when my Uncle Mike started working for Keebler, the Triscuits were out, and we moved on to something else. Every time we ate cheese and crackers after that, she would explain how great Keebler products were, and how she was proud to be supporting Uncle Mike with her choice of crackers.
Grandmom was an amazing maker of clothing. She sewed, smocked, and knit. When I was little, she made me a pale blue dress with smocked flowers on it. I wore it over and over and over, until it could no longer be altered to fit me. Then, she made me an identical one in a larger size. I particularly loved wearing my blue dress with the softest white cardigan in the world, which she’d made around the same time. I wore the cardigan until it was stretched to oblivion. It now lives in my cedar chest, and every time I find it, I think, “Wow, I’d really love for someone to make me another one of these.” I have an apron, emblazoned with native birds of Virginia, that she made me years ago. I wear it almost every day. She spent years (decades?) making a quilt out of her children’s old clothing. It was king sized, with a white background. Every 8 inches or so, there was a leaf (a maple leaf?) made out of some kind of sentimental garment. That quilt had reach myth status by the time it was finished. When I walked into her room one day, there it was on the bed. I remember feeling like it couldn’t possibly be real.
Grandmom was a singer. She met my Granddad during one summer break from Westminster Choir College. She had come to Natural Bridge, Virginia, for a summer job. I don’t know the details of their meeting, but I will never forget Grandmom’s description of the drive to Natural Bridge. She and two other girls were piled into the back seat of some old car. The back seat was essentially just a plank of wood. The three girls were all Westminster students, and they sang three-part harmony the entire way down. I have no idea who the driver was, but I envision this scenario like a Broadway musical version of The Notebook. In my imagination, the driver has rolled up sleeves and a wool cap, and the girls in the back are wearing scarves and hats and lipstick. In this dream world, everyone is full of hope and promise, heading out on a new adventure. There is singing and dancing, and of course, a handsome romantic love interest in the end. I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard that story, and developed this extended reality in my mind, but it informed basically everything about my adolescence. I became determined to be the star in my own musical, and spent hours - hours – I cannot emphasize enough THE NUMBER OF HOURS – playing the piano and
wailing singing, imagining my own romantic storyline. Whenever I knew that Grandmom would be visiting, or we would be visiting her, I’d up the practice sessions to a manic degree (my poor, poor parents…), anticipating the moment when I’d get to show her what I’d learned. She was enthusiastic without exception.
She loved and hated making Thanksgiving dinner. I once asked if I could bring a friend with us, and she said yes. She then became so anxious about hosting an additional person that she increased the quantity of mashed potatoes by TEN POUNDS. And then? My friend didn’t attend. She could shoot daggers straight out of her eyeballs at my Granddad, but loved him with every bit of herself. Until the day he died, he called her “my bride.” She would roll her eyes, but she always blushed. She made dozens of varieties of Christmas cookies every year. Snickerdoodles will always be Grandmom’s cookies in my mind.
There is no good way to wrap up a post like this, is there? Two grandmothers, both huge parts of me. From Memo, I inherited a boundless imagination and a sense of wonder at the beauty of the world. From Grandmom, I inherited a deep appreciation for handmade things and a soul-crushing love of music. Last weekend, someone important to me was talking about his grandmother. He said, “the parts of me that you are talking about are my maternal grandmother.” He went on to describe her, and how she impacted everything about who he continues to be. I aspire to that. I hope I can live my life in such a way that these two wonderful women, the two Frances-es (the plural of Frances? Franceses? Francii?), can continue to shine out of me like a light.