A tribute to my late great-grandmother.
I think what I think first is the smell.
They probably stopped making that stuff fifty years ago, and yet she still wears it. How is that possible?
Your sense of smell is incredibly powerful.
It’s a memory trigger. People remember things better when there’s a smell associated with the memory.
Probably even more so when it’s a good memory and a good smell.
Maybe that’s why obesity is such a problem in America.
She’s a patriot. Flags, eagles, red white and blue.
She painted a picture of Mickey Mouse as Uncle Sam for me. I had it on my wall until we moved to the apartment. I still have it somewhere. In a box. Collecting dust. Somehow, even though it’s in a box.
I remember she would come stay at our house. In Moreno Valley, we actually had a spare room for her stay, a guest room. I always liked it better than my room. My room was pink.
I learned to tie my shoes in that room. I was 6 years old.
She taught me to read. I was 3 years old.
I remember reading My First Potty, a book about using the potty.
There was a video, too.
Sittin’ on the potty, potty.
Yeah, we’re sittin’ on the potty, potty no-ow.
It’s not a hat, it’s not for the cat, it’s not a bird bath.
It’s only for me.
I can sit on it, sit, think, and sing on it.
I’m so proud and glad.
Yeah, I still remember the song, too.
I would read that book all the time with her, as she meticulously sounded out the words and I would parrot them back.
Pretty sure I merely memorized the words, rather than read them.
Eventually, of course, it moved from memorization to actual reading.
I never learned my phonics, though.
She was a teacher. A good one, all told.
I’ve never really asked about her teaching life. I suppose when I’m not at school, I’d rather talk about anything but.
I’m sure she has great stories, though. I should ask her.
[Memo to self.]
When we lived in the apartment, I don’t think she stayed much. There simply wasn’t any room. I had a bunk bed.
In the house we bought in Riverside, she would stay in my room.
I always had to clean it really well before she came.
It took me hours because I would find books and then read them. Just sitting on the floor. Surrounded by trash and dirty clothes and toys and games and more books.
The books I read as a little kid were mostly science books.
She bought me the entire Time Life science library for kids.
Dangerous Animals. Dinosaurs. Everyday Life. Our Bodies. Feelings and Manners. Flowers and Trees. How Things Work. Geography. Health and Safety. Insects World. Inventions. Music and Art. Life in the Water. Pets. Simple Experiments. Ecology. Sky and Earth. Where Things Come From. Amazing Facts. Animal Friends.Wild Animals. Wind and Weather.
Everything I knew about the world, I knew from those books. They had pictures and easy to understand terminology.
[Though I would secretly read the pink “For Parents” box on the right-hand corner of the page. I didn’t always understand it, but I was thrilled when I did, because you know, I was a little kid and could read the special Parent box. I felt smart.]
I remember falling asleep while reading Dangerous Animals one night and it was open all night and in the morning, the spine had cracked a little because I had slept on top of it and so it wouldn’t and still doesn’t close properly and if you drop it from a standing position, it’ll flop open to the page about lions.
I never really outgrew those books, per se. There was more information in them than in the books I had at school, and it always amazed me when kids didn’t know the same things I did.
Didn’t everyone’s great-grandmother buy them science books?
And Highlights magazines and activity books?
Later, I got the ~older~ kid science books, from The Nature Company Discoveries Library.
Stars and Planets. How Things Work. Ancient Rome. Ancient China. Mammals. Sports and Games. Under the Sea. Ancient Egypt. Dinosaurs. Insects and Spiders. Volcanoes and Earthquakes. Weather.
They had realistic pictures and lots of words and questions that were on the side of the page so you had to tilt your head or turn the book to read them and one day I was really bored so I got all my books out and I went through every book to answer every question, which was hard because every page had one and there were some on the back of the book itself and there weren’t any spaces under these questions in which to write the answers and that threw me for a loop but I eventually just wrote in teeny tiny writing and scrawled all over the back cover but then I finally got smart and got a piece of lined notebook paper and wrote the answers on that and just stuck it in the back of the book so now if you look at them, some have writing all over and inside of it and others have a yellowing, crackly piece of wide-ruled notebook paper slipped between two shiny pages.
I think she just wants me to learn.
She was probably more thrilled than anyone else when I got into college.
I mean, not to sound totally arrogant, but it was pretty much a given that I was going on to college. It was just a matter of where?
I think when I got the letters back and had to pick which university to go to, I turned to her.
“Which one should I pick, Gramma? They’re all pretty expensive. Maybe I should pick the cheapest -”
“Hayley, don’t worry about that nonsense. It doesn’t matter. You need a good education. Knowledge is power.”
Alright, maybe that’s not exactly how the conversation went, but she made it clear that learning was the most important factor in my decision.
I ended up with a compromise, as is my wont.
Not too expensive, not too far, not too stupid.
Just right for me.
College has been the best thing that I’ve ever experienced.
Have I wasted most of it?
And not on the usual things college students waste their time on.
I do love to read.
One of the best things, that was the most unintentional, was getting closer to her.
Or rather, her getting closer to us.
I always liked visiting her in Fresno because we got to stay in a hotel.
The closest hotel had the best air-conditioning in the world
And no one ever used the pool.
She used to have cats. I don’t really remember them specifically, but they were there.
She also had this weird organ piano thing that had lots of colorful buttons and I would sit and tap out “God Is So Good” because it was the only song I could remember the notes to from playing the flutophone in school.
She also played the saxophone.
I wasn’t inspired by her, though.
Papa was right.
I wanted to play the sax because Lisa Simpson played the sax.
She gave me a picture of her in her school band, smiling and black and white and holding her sax all professional-like with her snazzy uniform.
I remember staring at her self then and her self now and not believing it was the same person.
The smile is the same.
She has a nice smile.
I think I used to think she was grumpy back when she lived in Fresno.
Maybe it was the heat.
Maybe it was that she asked me a lot of questions.
Maybe she just wanted to know what was going on in her only great-grandchild’s life.
Maybe she wanted to make sure that I still loved to read and still loved to learn.
I got that from her.
She always been there for me.
Especially when she moved to Corona.
Fresno was far. A five hour drive.
I sort of always liked that drive, though.
But now, she’s much closer, and I can visit her practically any time I want.
Or talk to her on the phone.
Her cell phone.
I’ve asked her what it’s like living for over four score and seven years and seeing radio become TV and dial up landlines become cell phones and the inventions of iPods and WiFi and cable.
It’s been an unbelievable 89 years.
And she still drives around in the same kind of car.
Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to pick the kids up from school.
So I just called her.
And she would get up early and get dressed all nice even though it was just driving to the school and back, I mean I normally just throw a sweatshirt over my pjs and I’m good to go but no, she would put her face on – a rather frightening term actually but that’s what she calls putting her makeup on – and her pink blouse and white pants and white shoes and comb her hair and make her way down the elevator and to the parking lot and then she would take her Behemoth and go to the school and she was always early, I never had to worry about that.
I don’t like driving her car because it’s huge and objects are much much closer than they appear.
But I’ve had car troubles and have had need to borrow her car and she always says yes.
She always says yes to me.
If I may be so bold to admit, I’m the only one she lets talk back to her.
I’m not sure if that’s something to be proud of, but it’s certainly something.
Papa used to say I was something else.
I never liked that because I never knew what that “else” was, and was it good or bad?
She used to call me, “babe”.
I never liked that either because Babe was a pig.
Baa, ram, ewe.
Baa, ram, ewe.
“That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”
I wonder if she’s ever seen that movie. I should ask her.
[Memo to self.]
Whenever I want to go see a movie with my friends and no one can watch the kids, I know who I’m gonna call.
I wonder if she’s ever seen that movie.
No matter what time of day it is – because I’m forgetful and don’t think about these things until early in the morning or late at night – I can call her and she might be asleep and I might have woken her up but she’ll still say Hi and What can I do for you? and You need me to watch the kids? and No problem Sweetheart and Just bring them over and You just have a good time and I love you.
We used to write letters to each other.
Real, honest-to-goodness letters with stamps and envelopes and ink and paper.
I think I still have those letters somewhere. In a box. Collecting dust. Somehow, even though it’s in a box.
And at the end of every letter, she would write:
I love you AMTAM.
No one knew what that meant.
It was like a secret code.
Whenever I was feeling down, I could just look at her letters and feel better.
Ah, yes. That’s right.
She loves me.
A million times and more.
I love you, too, Mamo Gigi.
Virginia “Mamo GiGi” Straub, my great-grandmother, died in July 2013. ThIS piece was written in March of that year, given to her for her birthday, her 89th. I wanted to do something special, something beyond a physical gift. She was always very proud of my writing skills (lacking though they were), and she always wanted to be a writer herself. In fact, she wrote many mini-memoirs and short stories, some of which was collected into a little book after her passing, which we printed and gave to everyone at the funeral. As you can hopefully tell from the above stream-of-conscious piece, I greatly admired her, and she was quite an influential part of my life, especially in the last few years when she lived nearby. She was fiercely independent, lived by herself, drove a huge car, and never stopped wanting the best for all of her great-grandchildren, her grandchildren, and her children. I loved her very much (AMTAM), and miss her greatly.