You know it’s getting serious when you’re introduced to the family. That should tell you how I feel about those of you who invest 90 seconds of your day reading my ramblings. To thank you, let me introduce you to my mother’s mother.
But first some wisdom from Maya Angelou: “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I want people to feel welcome in my home. But like me, the house is old and tattered, and in need of serious repairs that I cannot afford at the moment, but I can buy a bucket of paint. So I’m going to re-paint the house and go with my second color choice—brain matter gray. (I’ll pause here and let you create a mental image of that inviting hue.)
I’d really like to paint every room white, install wide white wood planks and white kitchen cabinets. I’d like to buy only white towels and white bed sheets. And whitewash a picnic table big enough to accommodate my entire brood.
Not gonna happen. I can’t go all white because somebody once beat me to it. Grandma Madsen. She had this little country stone cottage with a completely white living room…a room that I was never, not once, permitted to enter. White carpet, couch, curtains, coffee table, pillows and even fake white flowers.
My memory is that her little house sat back from an acre of blooming flowers and grass she mowed herself. Grandma loved to garden and was known for her green thumb and her iron fist.
After she died, I spent a lot of time researching Grandma’s life. What I learned left me awestruck. But while she was alive the woman scared the beejeebers out of me. She was just over five feet tall, and by the time I knew her, she was widowed and had some girth around the waist. To me, she was bitter and mean and her tongue was as sharp as broken glass.
She had grandchildren whom she adored. I wasn’t one of them. She had grandchildren who were allowed to come inside and listen to her latest Charley Pride album. I had to sleep on a cot in the garage and got slapped for putting my ear against the door to hear Kaw-Liga.
Ah, it wasn’t as bad as I make it out. Grandma had wall-to-wall carpeting in her garage. It was essential. It’s where she parked her big pink, tail finned Caddy—the car that announced to the world that she was somebody.
At least thrice a week she’d wedge into her high heels, strap on her mink stole, and drive four minutes “into town,” where she’d become a one-woman Main Street parade.
“Grandma, why is there an old piece of yellow paper taped to your car’s back window?” I once asked, squinting to make out numbers the sun had faded.
“So people can see how much I paid,” she said with a nostril flare. “Ain’t many women who can afford a five thousand dollar Caddy.”
Rewind. Six decades before I was a kid, Grandma was born in Copenhagen. To an unwed mother. In a Catholic convent in a country where over ninety percent of Danes were Lutheran. If half the stories about her childhood are true, she had a hellish upbringing. At twelve, her stepfather put her on a ship and sailed her solo all the way to America where she found refuge working for a woman who ran, what we’d call today, an “escort service.”
Grandma learned the power of money early on. Groucho Marx, a contemporary of hers, said, “While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.”
Grandma did a lot of things to earn a lot of money, but the images I have of her sitting alone in her all-white room or parading down Main Street behind the wheel of her big ol’ Cadillac, are pictures of misery.
I’m grateful that later on, when I was in college and able to visit her on weekends, Grandma and I grew closer, so close she asked me to give her eulogy.
As for that white couch that I was never allowed to sit on…it’s in my garage holding Christmas decoration bins. One day, when I have the money, I’ll get it recovered. But not in white. Not a good color for my g-babies who see white as a welcome canvas to paint with things they excrete from their own bodies.
Besides, life’s not about furniture, is it? It’s about feelings. What matters is how we make people feel when they are around us, right?
Ha. Time to cut the bull. What really matters is that how we make our families, our friends, all those people we claim to love, feel..will determine what they write about us—fifty years from now.