The grandmothers I remember came in three main flavors which would slide into each other like Neapolitan ice cream going soft on a summer afternoon: stern, formidable, ancient and kind; eccentric to down-right dotty yet ancient and kind; and those who were just ancient and kind.
Lady Pechell was formidable and kind. Each weekday morning she cycled into the village with one or two of her Pekinese dogs riding shotgun in her bicycle basket. She must have been twenty years, a war at least, older than the ladies she joined for coffee at Mrs. Max’s cafe. I never heard their conversation. I was too busy hovering, like one of her dogs, waiting for the treats she would magically produce. In a never secret whisper she would lean towards me, “Here, these are for you.” And three sugar lumps would be slipped into my hand. One for me to suck and other two for the milk cart-horse I rode at the end of the morning from our drive-way to the home-farm. Lady Pechell’s dogs eventually succumbed to sugar induced heart attacks.
Granny T was of the dottie variety. She lived in a small cottage across the road from her family and no longer strayed into the village but was content puttering in her small garden. When she came indoors she would cool her hot, tired feet by moving a kitchen chair up to the refrigerator, pulling off her stockings, opening the refrigerator door and sticking her feet onto the bottom shelf. Instead of tea she sipped a cool Pink Gin while she recovered. She was happy, and safe.
Then there was the ultimate Grandmother. Mudder became a constant in my childhood and was just ancient and kind. Bicycling to my friend’s house I would find her sitting in their kitchen. An old-fashioned apron was wrapped around her soft frame. Her grey hair rolled and unrolled about her softly aged face. Her bright eyes were soft and gentle in their seeing. She twinkled out a welcome as she sat shelling peas, snapping beans or scrubbing potatoes. My friend had never finished her chores before I arrived and so I would always have to wait – in the kitchen with Mudder. This was her chance. When we were alone she would pull out a florin, a ‘two bob bit’ and send me off to The Tuck Shop on the corner of Avondale Road. Here I was to purchase a packet of Craven A cigarettes. I think they cost about 1/6. “Go on, you can have it.” The sixpence was mine and the tuck shop my treasure trove. Mudder taught me that an apron was a part of the Granny Uniform, kindness and shared sweet secrets were the currency slipped in and out of its pockets.
One of the last gifts my mother gave me was the patience to pick up her knitting needles and relearn the ancient art that had keep her sober and filled her lonely hours with purpose. As she lay in bed in the evenings we took apart the last erratic sweater she had made for her grandson. Under her tutelage it took shape again. The result was a marginal improvement that was eventually returned to its rightful owner. Soon it became time for me to venture out shopping for wool and a pattern. I chose a light weight cardigan which was simple in design and happily knit away to have it finished in time for my mother’s spring birthday. It wasn’t until I was proudly sewing the seams closed and adding pearly buttons that I realized, with horror, that she would hate it. The sleeves were three-quarter length, the style only worn by fast woman. On the day of Granny’s birthday, as she unwrapped the cardigan and held it up before trying it on, I could see her lips compress in disapproval. And sure enough, once it was on she began to tug at the sleeves in an effort to pull them down along her arms. But she didn’t say anything. Over those last few months of her life she wore the cardigan almost daily, begrudgingly at first and then with a reluctant pride that seemed to have to been earned by the cardigan itself.
In that mind-numbing time of sorting through her belongings I reclaimed the cardigan. I couldn’t bring myself to let it go. As much for Granny as for myself. It lay folded away for months. At my mother’s memorial gathering one daughter said sadly, “Now we are Granny-less.” But in less than a year she was pregnant with the first of our grandchildren. “Now we will have a Granny again.”
As each of our daughters have entered their confinement and birthed, I have been blessed to be a part of that process. Older mummies all, with new ways and expectations, each daughter has wanted and needed different things from Farm Granny. When the new family leave the safety of the hospital, when the obstetrician, the midwife, the nurses and the lactation specialist are no longer at first hand and they return home, panic and fear can slip through the door with them, looking to stay awhile.
The mobile phone with its outside connections to the world is never far from the modern older first time mummy’s reach. There is no app for Abuelas but there is one for new mothers breast feeding. It shines from the phone with bright orange hearts and labels, right and left breast. Once the baby has latched on, you press go, and a timer begins. The seconds fly into minutes timing how long the baby nurses on the right and then the left, followed by the left and then the right breast. There are instructions and guides to follow which, although necessary and helpful, can also be intimidating to the new parents. The phone app can produce panic instead of measuring success while mother and babe struggle to adjust to the nursing process. The baby sucks for four minutes and then needs a breather. Does that count as time nursing or should one press pause? The app makes no allowances for tender nipples and full breasts. There are tears. The app is put aside, (the phone lucky not to be thrown across the room). And now an Abuela Granny can help. Somehow she knows how to soothe baby before putting him to the breast. She remembers positions that give the most comfort to a nursing mother and baby. She knows how to calm and encourage them all, and she does. Soon the parents are feeding, changing and bathing their baby as if they too have been doing it all their lives. As each confinement has come to pass I have added to my Granny uniform an apron with pockets and the old worn cardigan that brings with it the smells and texture of the Granny who came before me. Now they will be put away, until it is time to visit again.