I Am My Grandmother’s Granddaughter
It is Samhain and as much as I love the decorations and the fact that I can openly proclaim I am a witch, it is honoring my ancestors that drives this festival. Every route to my ancestors begins and ends with my deeply beloved grandma.
A decision by my parents when I was six months old to have me live with my maternal grandparents altered the course of my life forever. I ended up living with them for six years and after that every holiday, most weekends and summers even after they moved from that beloved tiny town. We would come into Milwaukee for family dinners ( my fathers very large family) and holidays. I was always with my grandparents and when they left any event I usually went with them.
My grandmother was the source of all herbs, potions, lotions, helped deliver a few babies and dealt with farm animals in Hustisford, Wi. Doctors and veterinarians were very scarce in that tiny town, especially when she moved there in the 1930’s. Divorced, a single mother, excommunicated by the Catholic Church during The Depression she managed to forge a very good life for both herself and my mother. Not an easy task. Small towns throughout America held deep bigotry against Catholics, excommunicated or not. It was my mother that was dealt the worst blow from that bigotry. An incident that was never forgotten and left the young man who delivered it with a justly deserved miserable life. My mother was terrified of her father and my grandmother who divorced him because of his unacceptable treatment of my mother, was not willing to let her continue to suffer. She shrewdly offered her ex-husband to give her a one time payment and then to never see my mother or her again. Oscar’s lifestyle was hampered by a having a child, my mother, once born, he had little real interest in, other than scaring her, so he willingly accepted. Grandma then had enough money to become the proprietor of the Lone Pine Tavern, the only place you could get alcohol for many miles. She had all the locals throughout the year. In the 1930’s people did not bring alcohol fifty miles from Milwaukee or many more miles from Chicago with them as they opened summer cottages on the islands in Lake Sinissippi , including my father’s very large family. All of them would give her orders each week for what they wanted. She remarried in 1938 to my very dear and beloved grandfather, a lapsed Lutheran, setting tongues to wag. He would be the man I would come to judge all others by. Only one has truly held up.
My grandparents understood how to let me have what they called “a thinkabout ” . A quiet loving environment where I was allowed days before answering questions or talk about what bothered me. As an adult I realize both how rare and truly special it was for them to respect my introverted nature that wanted time to look at all possibilities and to really let all my feelings surface before answering questions or asking ones I had. They were quiet people who spoke volumes in touches, glances and a word or two. I learned about real love from them. Truth is without them I would never have learned nor known how to truly be happy or create a very happy marriage.
Any months when the lake was not frozen, was filled with many moon lit row boat rides, especially full moons. In that boat grandma would fill me over and over with her stories of Baba Yaga, Freya, Frigga, Skadi and host of other Goddesses that she only shared with me. She would repeat my favorite fairy tales, ones that were “Cinderellaesque”, without a prince, but always with a girl who usually had a doll in her pocket and Baba Yaga. She told me tales of a princess who had a glass heart that was broken so her heart would become larger. Every story I know about Faery came from both she and my grandfather who was both a believer and storyteller in his own right. They guarded and grew my empathic abilities, took me for walks in the woods almost daily. I learned about life and death as we would walk through the ever changing seasons with plants that appeared dead to only return each spring and find baby animals or dead ones. Grandpa insisted that even very young children should understand the cycles of life and death thus insuring I would fear neither. Both of them helped me understand land spirits and elements including the stillness of bitter white winters. Grandma insisted that if I wasn’t at least a little dirty, stained with grass, trees or plants, wet from the lake or snow and without my beloved raven during the day and owls that nested in the maple tree outside my bedroom at night, I simply had not had a proper day. She would buy the odd pieces of any china that neighbors were selling. Tea, supper was filled with miss matched china that no one worried if it got broken. Nothing is more magical than when adults trust a four year old with real china, pearls and a beautiful dress my Aunt Celia would have recut around a stain or cigarette burn and sewed just for me to wear as I pleased. Grandma was comfortable with eating baked cabbage with neighbors as she was eating a twelve course dinner. By the time I was six I knew how every fork, knife, spoon and even the odd escargot thongs were to be used. It was her belief that I should be comfortable in any setting with any combination of people that gave me great confidence to go anywhere, make friends from every walk of life and become whatever I wanted, if only for a day.
Grandma loved their home. She had five gardens that included a large wonderful vegetable garden and lots of wild berry bushes. She had every kind of tree that would grow in Wisconsin. I believed she could grow anything. She also had a second structure, “house”, my favorite, that was built by my grandfather and neighbors who had never found a way to thank my grandma for all the help she had given with her healing ways and my grandfather who never turned off anyone’s electricity regardless of whether they could pay or not when he owned the electric company during a good part of The Depression. The neighbors had lots of construction materials and skills. A few of the very rich ones bought hot house glass and any materials that others did not have access to. They built a house that dried herbs, stored herbs, winter food, and a hot house that grew plants and flowers year round. My grandparents were able to do a smaller reconstruction of that house when they had to move to Milwaukee because of my grandfather’s health.
A single significant memory; when news of Bloody Sunday reached my Great Aunt Celia, the matriarch of my father’s family, my grandmother brought her an Easter Lily from her hot house. A moment that still finds me overflowing with tears and love. While my grandmother on the whole disliked my father’s family for very good reasons, she and my Aunt were best of friends and the two women I could completely trust with anything, I mean anything at all.
My grandmother came to live with us after my parents divorced. I would love to tell you that it was wonderful. It drove that final wedge between my mother and me and left my grandmother having to prove daily that her daughter came before her granddaughter until the day she had enough. And grandma squarely told my mother if she forced her to make a choice it would not be her. My mother unable to discuss anything regarding her decisions, feelings, this very weird sibling rivalry she felt with me, to dismiss us both. I began eating with my grandmother in her room. It gave us unlimited private time and left us both grieving the loss of my mother in our lives. It was my grandmother who told me to move as far away as I could get and not to look back. She assured me, my mother would not come to visit and would treat me as a distant guest when I would come home to visit. I ultimately decided that was far better than futile attempts to get her to work this out. My sorrow was more for my grandmother than me. My mother had been the center of her life and she did not deserve this.
My grandpa died when I was ten. It was shattering for me and it was my grandma who sat with me in our grief for all the years after. She did not die until March 15, 1984. It is an inconsolable grief , the kind that you simply have to carry for life.