I was fortunate to grow up knowing two of my four great-grandmothers. Nora and Grace were as different as a bed and a bedpan.
Nora was what we used to call a “big woman.” She wasn’t fat but was what my mom called “big boned.” She stood nearly 6 feet tall, was extremely strong and lived to be over 90. She never spent a day in the hospital and had all her faculties at the end. Although not highly educated, Nora knew about things that mattered, like how to grow a garden, tie a bowline and how to thump a watermelon. She taught me how to prune roses, what to feed orchids (bloodmeal) and how to sharpen shears.
Grandma Nora’s clan were oilfield folk: roustabouts, roughnecks, drillers and pumpers and she’d led what I’d call a hard life. She kept her cussing to a minimum and worked hard right up until the day she died because she had to as her husband died early from TB. For years she ran her walnut ranch (always a “ranch,” never a “farm”), taking no charity from anyone and she lived a frugal life. Her home and her yard were spotless, she was an early riser and after she shook your hand with her big, calloused paw it took awhile before you regained feeling in your extremity. She knew how to hobble a horse, drive a team and she considered asking for help a sign of weakness.
Grandma Grace was the exact opposite, being very delicate and frail, she spoke softly and from what I could tell, had never done any hard labor. She was what you’d call “a refined woman” and a bit snooty. She had both a housekeeper and a groundskeeper (that would be me). She didn’t live nearly as long as Nora and lived in a rest home before being committed to a mental institution to live out her days.
Grace’s father was a preacher and despite his meager salary Grace always thought of herself as “upper crust.” She never sewed or canned, and she wore gloves all the time. Grace did marry well. Her husband was both the mayor and fire chief of our volunteer department and was a town leader. Grace played the role of his first lady.
Grandma Grace was a terrible cook and apparently didn’t know the difference between canned cat food and canned stew because she was finally sent away when it was discovered she’d been eating the cat food instead of the stew.
On Thanksgiving and Christmas grandpa would make two separate trips to pick up my great-grandmothers to deliver them to our house where they spent the day in recliners not 4 feet apart. They never said a word to each other the entire time. Knowing it would heighten tensions, I always asked if I could bring either one of them a beer. Grandma Nora would always have one but Grace was horrified that I’d even ask. Alcohol had ever touched her pious lips.
My siblings and cousins thought grandma Nora was mean but I really liked her and always thought I was her favorite, and not just because I took care of her yard. Even before that I enjoyed going to her home because she had the neatest collection of porcelain dogs she bought at the five and dime store. She insisted I never touch them but I think she liked it when I would point to one and she would then tell me what breed it was and all its interesting traits. As I recall she didn’t care much for poodles and the collie was her favorite.
One day when I was about 6, my mom and Nora were engrossed in a canning project and for some reason I just had to pick up the Boxer and sure enough I dropped it and snapped a hind leg right off the delicate dog. I was terrified so I snuck around, found some cheap white glue and performed a hasty operation to reattach the appendage.
I thought I’d gotten away with it until one day she caught me eyeing her dogs and asked, “Which is your favorite?”
“The Boxer,” I rapidly replied, “because my cousins have a real one.”
“An interesting choice,” grandma Nora replied, staring me down. “They are amazingly fast healers but they don’t stay where you put them.”