Lessons From My Grandmother
Two things brought me true joy as a child: dressing up like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and spending the day at my Grandmother's (coincidentally, also named Dorothy). I lived in a ranch style house, so I was mystified by her house's basement and entire second floor. It was so much space for one person! All three floors were piled high with beautiful furniture, clothes, and antiques, which I considered to be fancy toys at the age of five. Even with so many visually stimulating things around, I was most drawn to the tall, sprawling shelves and stacks of books tucked into every corner of every room. I loved the heavy, hardcover editions of classics that kept watch over the sitting room upstairs, but reading them all the way through seemed an impossible feat at the time.
They were just for show. Instead, I gravitated to a tiny, two-shelf bookcase in the back of the room that was loaded with children's books. An open invitation! I sat against the wall, beneath a window that was always open, flipping through fairy tales, adventures, and nursery rhymes, but mostly fixated on a book of simply illustrated children's poems. I read them again and again, stopping only when I heard my Grandmother call from downstairs. Every time my sisters and I visited, we baked brownies or made little gingerbread men with plastic cookie cutters.
The baking habit did not stick (I must have forgotten to oil the pan!), but books? They certainly did. My Grandmother could be very cold, but tenderness crept in when she talked to me about reading. Once she showed me a box of books and notes in her basement that were all about Greek mythology. I became enthralled with Zeus and lightning. The gods made for fantastic stories, and she explained each one to me with patience and something like love. She let me explore the guest bedroom that was upstairs and across from the sitting room, where I found a tiny, gorgeous copy of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac that I held and cherished, flipping through its silky, gold pages without understanding what was inside.
Some days, when my sisters were off elsewhere, I went to my Grandmother's house alone. Knowing me better than I could have known myself at that age, she would take me to the library on these occasions. Librarians were happy to read books out loud, and I sat there hanging on every word. Stories! I crawled into a reading nook with a stack of treasures. I especially enjoyed Frog and Toad, Babar, and Ramona Quimby. While I got lost in their realities, my Grandmother sat at a long table nearby with thick, encyclopedia-like books, her reading glasses resting on the bridge of her nose. Afternoons at the library always ended too soon.
As I got older, my bond with my Grandmother, along with my desire to dress in a blue and white plaid dress, weakened. I did not see her as often during my somewhat unappreciative teenage years. Despite this, her influence stuck with me. I have spent every moment since age five with a book in hand, feeling incomplete if I'm not actively reading something. Her encouragement led me to other endeavors as well: theatre, writing, scarf wearing. After my Father (her son) passed away, I reverted back to my five-year-old self. I wrote a play that paralleled Dorothy's journey to Oz, and I found myself reaching out to my Grandmother again. I asked her to tell me about the ballet she had recently attended, or about the newest book she was reading. I finally told her I loved her, and in a birthday card she wrote the words, "I love you" directly to me for the first time. Two years after her son's death, she passed, too. My Uncle was left to sift through her possessions. Stepping into her house, one of my favorite places in the world, and knowing she was not going to be there was tough. It was really tough.
However, when my Uncle greeted me by saying, "Well, Christine, have at the books. That's always been your territory," I felt better. There were boxes and boxes of books. I took the heavy, hardcover editions of the classics. I also took the book of children's poems, even though the spine had broken and it was in pieces. I like to think she was proud that one of her grandchildren caught the literature bug, even if she never said so. She passed that gene on to me.
Thank you for the books, Grandma.
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