My Grandmothers in Their Kitchens
|My grandparents, gorgeous, in 1940.|
This week I found out that one of my father's grandfathers was Catholic. He was Catholic (though lapsed) and his wife was Mormon. This was, I think understandably, very fascinating news for me. All week I've been begging my father for whatever he remembers about them, and asking my aunts for the same, and boy have they come back with some fantastic details. All week I've been swimming in these stories, working on an essay about what it's like to be married for nearly five years and find out your great-grandparents sort of had a similar thing going.
Maybe I'll write more about it all here, fill you in on some of these details. But right now, now that I've finished writing the essay, there's a story about my grandmother (the one in the picture up above) that I keep thinking about. It's a story my Aunt Dawn told me, illustrating the easy-going, let-it-go style of my dad's side of the family. When my aunt was a little girl and her brother would tease her, she would go running to her mom to tell on him, and her mom would always ask something like, "Well, are you fat baby?" And Dawn would say, "No!" And her mom would say, "Well, it doesn't matter then."
I've been running this dialogue over in my head for the last two days. I say it to myself when something has the potential to hurt my feelings. I ask myself, "Well, are you a fat baby?" And sometimes I am a fat baby, but mostly I'm not, and then I get to realize it doesn't matter. And today, when Henrietta was beginning to fuss, I practiced on her: the two of us alone in the kitchen, I asked her, "Well, are you a fat baby?" Which is just funny because she's a very small baby, as babies go. But I so much like the idea of this approach. It's not without it's flaws, which my aunt acknowledged, but it's not half-bad, either. If a sucker punch comes your way, the first question is whether the sucker punch has a point. They so often don't.
My grandmother died fairly young. She was 65, and I was thirteen or so. And though that's old enough to have some clear memories of her, I wish I could have talked to her as an adult. She was gone before I grew up. My aunt described my grandmother and her family as "unassuming, mildly amused with life, and down to earth," and gosh, I could have used more of that rubbing off on me.
It's a funny thing to remember those that are gone: to in a way get to know them better or understand them more as you continue to mature. At thirteen, I didn't yet know how to fully appreciate my grandmother, but I find I think of her more and more now. As an adult, I think of her less as my aging grandmother, and more as my dad would have seen her, more the way I see myself now.
It's as if all the women that are important to me are, in my mind, exactly as I am now: they're all brand new mothers. My great-grandmothers are in their 1920s kitchens, their babies rolling around in the living room. My grandmothers are in their 1940s bedrooms, folding laundry, pausing to give their babies back their rattles. Even my mother has never been so real to me as a new mom. She tells me now about what it was like, and I can picture her with my siblings, leaning over them in their bassinets to ask them what's the matter.
It's a shocking solidarity, motherhood. It spreads its arms across generations, decades, centuries, and your baby is like my baby and her baby was the same. This is why stories about the fat baby question matter so much. I'm still bumbling about, new and fresh-faced and likely very silly. But my grandmothers and great-grandmothers, they had it all figured out, it seems. They've been in those kitchens forever already. When I think of them, I somehow think they could have provided the secret clue that would give me perfect balance and show me how to run my household with ease and flair. Or at least they could have patted my head and told me I'm perfectly normal. I don't know why I think this. But I do. And since I don't have most of them to talk to anymore, I hold onto stories. I tuck them in my pocket. I pull them out, when I'm alone in my kitchen, and practice being as wise as they once were.