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Grandma’s Feather Bed

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It could hold eight kids and four hound dogs
And a piggy we stole from the shed
We didn’t get much sleep but we had a lot of fun
On Grandma’s feather bed”

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Each week as I get myself into the mood for writing my blog posts, I sit and listen to a couple of music selections to summon the muse’s juice, the creative flow…

I’ll listen to some beautiful guitar music like Tommy Emmanuelle‘s Angelina, or Lady Antebellum‘s harmonic, banjo-laced Bartender, or John Denver‘s joyously enthusiastic Grandma’s Feather Bed.

This last song brought me around to thinking about grandparents, something  – sadly – I know little of.

Throughout my life when I’ve visited my grandparents, it’s been in a place of serene beauty and sleepy calmness.

You and I call it a cemetery.

Because of this, my life has lacked some of the colour that paints beauty on the canvas of our souls. I never snickered with my grandmother, or held a nail to assist my granddad build a birdhouse.

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While the concentric genealogy rings that radiate out from my grandparents are amazingly large and convoluted – there are descendants scattered in all directions like dandelion fluff in the wind – my own connection to them surprisingly feels real and flesh-like and personal like a private diary entry.

Weathered photos I view now bring the stillness and silence to life. These were real people… these were “my” real people.

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My Mom (bottom, centre) between her parents (my grandparents Maggie and Will) and “watermelon brothers” Lloyd and Clarence

Aside from one or two short early childhood visits I had from my paternal grandmother, Harriett, I never looked up at the face, heard the voice, or understood the demeanour of any of my grandparents.

I never played on Grandma’s feather bed.

All of my grandparents, except Harriett, were long passed by the time I arrived on the scene, so I never knew what I missed.

I never sat at the knee of my Granddad while he shared stories, or tales of wisdom gathered from a lifetime of joys and loves.  Never did I listen to the yarns of his hardships and struggles, those hard-earned everyday lessons that carry us over the stormy seas.

The only sense of grandparenthood I “enjoyed” was the embarrassment I felt when school chums errantly thought my parents – when they attended school functions –  WERE my grandparents. Yes, my mother was 45 and my Dad 50 when I was born, a more natural grandparent age. I was mortified. A child’s primeval thoughts.

I know my predecessors lived interesting but challenging lives. My grandparents lived through two World Wars and the Dirty Thirties, the Great Depression.

They survived a good portion of their lives in an era with little or no antibiotic therapy for infectious disease, no medications to manage pain effectively, no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no cars or airplanes, widespread child labour, high maternal and infant mortality, no voting or financial rights for women.

And as they aged, no doubt they lamented the passing of “the good ole days”.

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I never heard their stories in their own voices,  and unfortunately, stories about them weren’t shared much by my own parents, at least in my early recollection.

In the foreword to a family history book I edited and produced for a reunion in 2000, I wrote:

I regret that I was so young when my parents passed on, and that I wasn’t able to ask them all the questions that I’m now overflowing with. I want to know so desperately about the lives they led and the people they knew. I want to know about their parents and grandparents, and who they were as well.

I am frustrated that I, as children do, tuned out when they spoke of the days of their past, their memories and stories. They lived in another world and another time, and much of what they said and did is now gone from us all.

Today, I live with my own memories and I frequently “walk” through them, escaping to yesterday. The feel of the hardwood floors, the warmth of an open fireplace, the smell of cookies baking. These memories give me comfort because they are all I have of those days and my parents and my family at that time in our past. All of us live and “walk” through our memories of other times and places and receive comfort at times…

… I cannot turn the clock back, sit in a chair and make my grandmother or my mother be here with me and tell me the stories and memories that were important to them, now that I’m mature enough to sit and listen.

And yet, I still draw breath and I can draw together the pieces that I can find, add to that what I can recall as well as the insight and views of others who can remember, and give to those generations to come a feeling of their own past and a connection to it.”

Now, I don’t want to turn this post into a lecture at you, so let’s call it… an encouragement… yes, a signal or call to action. Sound the bugle!

If you have a parent or grandparent in your orbit with an active heartbeat, and still has a firm connection to their mental capacity… well… today is a good day to sit and have them share the moments of their past days with you. It can start with a simple question such as, “Who was your best friend as a kid Grampa/Dad?

Now, if they go rogue and unexpectedly veer off into uninhibited talk about their early sexual escapades (everyone has lurid scraps in their past!), try gently shifting the topic into an area such as gardening or canning peaches.

Or, if you’re really brave and have a strong stomach, well, dive right in, listen carefully and see if your own sexual deviances originate in an errant gene you picked up like a virulent bug.

You will learn about them and you will learn about you.

The passing of time brings change. It’s very foreign to me, but at the time of my Mom’s Mom’s passing, her casketed body was kept in the front room of the house for visitation of friends, neighbours, and family, and the funeral service was conducted there in the farmhouse in Hillsburg, Ontario.

Sure, different eras, but unchanged is the perennial belief in possibility… our grandparents were birthed and experienced their own childhoods clothed in a mantle of wonder and fascination, believing in the possible yet to come in their lives.

They too, like us, looked with excitement, and a little fear, toward future advancements and a world they knew was coming but couldn’t even imagine.

Hopefully they learned some lessons about the rhythm of life and living while snuggled safely under the blankets of their own Grandma’s feather bed.

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I’m A Time Traveller …

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time-travel

You can shoot yourself REGRETTING the things you could have done differently.

Learn and move forward. Just hush the evil inner voices, kiss that fool’s regret goodnight, and go back to sleep.

The only regrets I have are for those things that I have no control over.

For example, I ofttimes regret that I wasn’t ever able to meet, much less know, my grandparents.

Do you ever find your head filled with imagined visions and voices of the people who came before you? If not for them and countless other forebears, you would have never sucked in this absurdly brief breath of time on earth.

It’s a wildly unlikely, miraculous 49 billion to 1 winning lotto ticket that you and I are here.

Occasionally in my daydreams, I transport myself back in time and place. Like a fly on the wall, I find myself in the cozy wood cookstove-heated kitchen of my Mom’s rural childhood farmhouse in the little Ontario town of Hillsburgh.

I see heavy snow drifting onto the outer windowsill above the kitchen sink, split-rail wood fences lining the field in the distance. I listen to the sounds of darned socks excitedly scuffing across wood floors. I feel myself sitting at the oak table fashioned by the hands of my great-grandfather James in the big old barn out back. I inhale some slices of steaming hot bread brought by my Grandma Maggie to the dining room fresh from the oven, slathered with butter. Butter that was hand-churned the day before by my Aunt Mabel in the parlour overlooking the front verandah where the family sits on sultry summer evenings.

Sharing breakfast with my grandmother Maggie, Grandpa Will, my aunts and uncles, and my tomboy Mom-to-be Lila, is magical in this imagined memory.

My grandparents Margaret (Maggie) and William (Will) on their wedding day

My grandparents Margaret (Maggie) and William (Will) on their wedding day June 8, 1898.

For me, it is all imagined because my grandparents were long gone when I arrived on the scene. My grandpa William died unexpectedly after a week long illness in the winter of 1935. In a letter written to my mother 12 days after his death, my grandmother Maggie writes,

Still we can’t help but notice the vacant chair. It seems so quiet.”

Only 8 years later, Maggie was found by my cousin Margie returning from school, resting pale and peaceful on the living room couch, taken by a heart attack.

At that time, I was wandering the streets of Hamilton as a lovelorn sperm and an egg, patiently waiting for a serendipitous meeting years later.

Today, the memories I hold of my grandparents are found only in photographs and in the written letters and stories left behind by my parents and older cousins.

I have questions.

Was my Grandma Maggie able to bake Wellington County’s best apple pie with tart Northern Spy apples growing by the back gate? Did she have a soprano lilt to her voice? Was my Grandpa Will a funny man, a witty story teller, or did he sometimes show a darker side, was he perhaps even a bit curmudgeonly? I don’t think so. His obituary states he:

was held in high esteem by all those with whom he came in contact. His kindly disposition gave him a wide circle of friends and neighbours…”

 

Yes, I’m full of questions that will never be answered, it’s just too late. And this is where I’m going to push you from behind. Before the sun sets on your chance, I want you to capture your dear family memories for your children and children’s children. No regrets, right?

Fourteen years ago, I gathered my clan’s stories into a book for a family reunion.

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My parents 1940 Wedding Photo next to my family stories book …

I collected written memories and stories from my brothers, sisters, and still-living aunts and cousins. Some are humorous, some are bittersweet, some are just fact-based. But they are about real people. Real people that loved others, felt anger, experienced disappointment, people that laughed and cried and worked and played.

Piecing these memories together along with scanned letters, marriage and death certificates, newspaper clippings and photographs, I gave birth to a hardcover book of more than 100 pages.

Inside the front and back covers I lined the pages with what family tree information I had or could find. There’s my Dad’s Green family lineage inside the front cover, my Mom’s Miller family heritage inside the back cover.

The treasure trove of small, personal anecdotes, fond and sorrowful recollections contained between the covers is even more priceless than a Mastercard commercial.

Granted, it took some time to put together. Yet it was worth every minute, especially considering that three key voices – my 96 year-old Aunt Lilian, my sister Marion, and sister-in-law Lois – are now lost forever, their words and memories immortalized.

Their thoughts can be read and shared for generations to come. These are people who will continue to exist because they contributed a few, modest reminiscences of their lives. Look and listen. A misty haze of the ephemeral human soul resides in their words between the covers.

Lacking their tales, their narratives, in a few short years they would remain only as tombstone dates and a photo or two; not real, blood-pumping, personality-rich individuals that meant so much to me and their loved ones and friends.

Genealogy without stories and personality is a pulseless corpse of time passed.

Will your children remember the young lady that was their grandmother when she was out dancing with her girlfriends past curfew and her father drove the streets all night looking for her? Will they know about Uncle John’s miserable night spent in jail after a barfight where he defended your Aunt Judy’s honour?

It’s weirdly fascinating to think that whiffs of my immortal DNA dust will roam the memory halls of the bloodstreams and heads of future generations. We’ll all be someone’s long passed brother, sister, great-aunt or -uncle, grandma or grandpa one day.

Now …

Right now is the time and chance to make your family song immortal, and maybe, just maybe, tell your side of that hilariously misunderstood story before that fateful bus runs, hurtling breathlessly out of control down Main Street like a flash of lightning, sending you into the hallowed halls of history.

No regrets, eh?

Hit by a bus