On the heels of a most wonderful Thanksgiving family reunion in Brown County, Indiana, I’ve been thinking a great deal about my childhood, my family, my sister, my cousins (pictured here), my grandparents. We’re a unique clan, the Andersons. Our individual personalities are as vast and different as the leaves in our beloved Brown County woods, but what we share is love.
Time with my family made me think a great deal about my Granny. And though many of you have read this story before, I’d like to share it again. In honor of Granny. In honor of family.
In honor of the power and magic of memories.
After sledding with the kids on a a bitter and blustery Indiana day, they begged for a fire to warm their toes. Chris loaded up the fireplace, and we all enjoyed the quiet serenity that only crackling blue flames can bring. Well, we enjoyed a few minutes of bliss until the “he’s touching me!” and “she’s looking at me!” arguments began.
But in those quiet moments, I thought about Granny.
My maternal great-grandmother was a six-time world champion bowler in her youth. When I knew her, Sally Twyford was simply “Granny” to Carrie and me. She lived in a cabin at the top of a killer hill on Brown County’s Clay Lick Road. She wore her white hair in long, tight braids and killed rattlesnakes with her shotgun. She taught my sister and me how to play blackjack and saved all her spare change in a giant Mason jar for us to divide when we came to visit. She let us pore for long, leisurely hours over her thick and inviting Sears Christmas catalog, circling items we knew we’d never own, dreaming about the toys that were always outside our budget.
We didn’t have many material things when we were children, but we had our weekend trips to Granny’s. Those were the highlights of our childhood.
Granny wasn’t a warm, loving, grandmotherly type with a kitchen that smelled of cookies and a warm lap to lounge in. She cursed and drank with the best of them. She was fearless and wouldn’t put up with sass from any of us — my mom included. She had a mean, old dog named Rusty who would bite us if we came too close. And we all knew that Granny loved Rusty more than any of the rest of us, even her sweet and agreeable dog, Molly. But when I was at Granny’s house, I felt safe. I felt like I belonged. I never questioned this gift, I just took it and held on tightly, fearful that it might someday be lost.
When we visited Brown County, we hiked through the woods during the day. We tied red bandannas around our heads to keep the ticks out of our hair. Granny would bring her walking stick, and I knew there wasn’t a rattlesnake that would dare show its scaly face in her presence. We spent afternoons skipping stones on Zack’s Lake, and in the evenings, we’d sit at Granny’s feet while she played her guitar and sang, “Please, Mr. Conductor.” She didn’t have a particularly good singing voice, but I loved to hear her sing, anyway. She often sang, “Two Little Babes,” which always made me cry… and made me a little nervous, too.
After an evening round or two of poker, Carrie and I would settle downstairs with our sleeping bags in front of the fire. It would pop and crackle and dance in the darkness, and although I was pretty sure there were monsters in the cold, damp basement laundry room, that fire always made me feel secure. Mom and Granny would stoke it throughout the night so it would continue to warm us, and Carrie and I awoke in the mornings with the smell of campfire in our pajamas and in our hair.
I was eight when Granny died. She was the first person I had ever known and loved who left the world I inhabited. Cancer ravaged her body quickly, and although her death came fast, it was laden with pain and suffering. I prayed for Granny with all my heart. I was afraid she wouldn’t get into heaven because she drank, cursed, gambled, and wasn’t particularly nice at times.
At her funeral, I couldn’t stop touching her. Her body was so cold, her face so still. One of my cousins and I were fascinated by the obvious fact that her nose hairs had been removed. We giggled about it in the funeral parlor, and I was sure that a mortal sin would lodge itself in my soul forever. What good Catholic girl laughed at her dead grandmother’s absent nose hairs?
When we lost Granny, I lost a part of my childhood. Our weekends seemed long and lonely without our road trip in the Chevette, sleeping bags and pillows carefully positioned in the hatchback area. When I attended CYO Camp Rancho Framasa down the street from Granny’s house, it felt lonely and strange. Foreign, almost.
I sing Granny’s songs to my children now, but I change the lyrics so they’re not quite as disturbing. The two little babes don’t die in the woods in my altered rendition. The train conductor’s young passenger’s mother isn’t on her deathbed, either. She’s simply waiting for her son to arrive for a highly-anticipated visit. My watered-down versions of Granny’s songs make my kids laugh and roll their eyes. They would have loved their Granny. They would have probably been a bit afraid of her, too. They would have giggled when she unknowingly passed gas (Carrie and I always did, much to Mom’s dismay…). They would have been scared to sleep in the basement, but they would have loved the fire.
It’s the one piece of Granny we can all share.