I can close my eyes, right now, and see her – a petite woman, no more than five feet – (and that is giving her a couple inches) – wearing a long handmade mini-print belted dress followed by those crazy-heavy black front tie granny shoes, her round rimmed glasses tipped on her nose, a Kleenex stuffed slightly up her sleeve, and a wrinkled white apron tied promptly around her waist at all times. In her side pocket, she carried hard candy, the key to her house, and at all times a worn silver rosary. She spoke English, most of the time, but would fall to German when necessary. She wasn’t quick to smile, but definitely was hard to anger. Her grey hair was always cropped neatly, and the only piece of jewelry she sported was a simple gold wedding band. She was a woman of great faith, hard work, humble means, and sensible actions.
Like all grandmothers, she had habits and quirks that fascinated me. She owned a parakeet named Perky; and, if she travelled, Perky travelled with her. She hid money – cash – throughout her modest home . . . ten-dollar bills in the hems of the curtains, a handful of coins in her button jar, enough money for a house payment behind the round picture of the Blessed Mary, frozen money in the not-so-hidden ice-cube trays in the back of the freezer, a jar of dollars in the tree stump. Plus, she only and always wore dresses. Pants were just a no-no. And every night she drank a short glass of whiskey, followed by praying the rosary, in Latin.
She loved me and I knew it, but not because she told me.
I stayed summers with her and she made me a pie a day . . . any kind, all I had to do was ask – chocolate, peanut butter, rhubarb, marshmallow, peach, raisin, ice cream, potato – everyday a new pie. She taught me how to make bread. I always failed, but she always ate it. We played euchre together each and every evening, keeping a running tab on who was winning and who was losing – for years. She cried with me when I was sad, and laughed with me when I was happy. Coddling wasn’t exactly in her vocabulary, but raking a yard, hanging laundry, or burning the trash pile with her didn’t seem like work. It was purposeful fun . . . time well spent.
Her name was Pauline, but her family called her Polly. She, herself, had countless sisters and several brothers, all living in a little town in Illinois. Her own three children, two girls and one boy, were spread across the United States with my family being the closest in proximity to her at all times. To me, she was the grandmother of all grandmothers – the perfect multi-generational companion for me and my brothers and sister.
She has been gone from this earth for many years now, and I used to wonder why I thought about her as often as I do. It took me awhile, but it finally came to me. In fact, I realize now that it really isn’t that hard to understand. It really isn’t. Simply put, Polly was a giant, living in the days of the giants. And even though I wasn’t a quick learner, she was great at modeling. Eventually she knew that I knew what she wanted me to know. It just took awhile.
From her, I know that it isn’t money that makes people happy. She didn’t have much if any, and was happy just to be fishing on a Friday night with me and half of her family at the local riverside – sometimes catching nothing, but always having fun.
From her, I know that faith can bring comfort. I wouldn’t describe her as a god-fearing woman, but I would say that she was deeply religious. She pondered through all of her challenges with prayer, (usually in another language), and somehow she seemed to navigate of all her troubles.
From her, I know that quiet is just as good as noisy. One thousand words was a life time of conversation for her. I can still hear her say, “Too much talk, too little work.” She, herself, didn’t have to communicate via speech, a talent that still impresses me. I knew what she wanted to tell me without her ever having to speak a word.
From her, I know the definition of giving. I watched a woman whose belongings could literally fit into two suitcases, give anything she owned to anyone who asked. That’s why her belongings fit into two suitcases.
From her, I know how to manage money. It is simply a matter of saving it – in cans, jars, boxes, purses, curtains, trays, trees, sleeves, and banks. She never bought something she didn’t need, and never really seemed to need anything. But if she did, she dug up the can and paid for it in cash. Her joy came not from buying whatever she needed, but from the journey that it took her to get to the point of purchase.
From her, I know how to be thrifty. Can it if you can. Freeze the rest. Holes can be darned. Dresses and shoes can be remade and salvaged with a little thread, leather and ingenuity. Water comes out of a tap, walking is cheaper than driving, and one hundred found pennies can buy a dollar’s worth of anything. There was never a glass jar that saw the bottom of the trash can in her house. Who needs Tupperware when a used Vlasic pickle jar was available?
And from her, I know about joy. She characterized her life, as hard as it might have been – as a young teen from a dirt-poor immigrant farm family, living through World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II – as joyful. All stories that I heard ended with some type of quote that was meant to direct me to always see the best in the world because she did.
Well, Polly, all I can say is lessons learned.