In the wake of the news that Barack Obama cast aspersions on his own white grandmother in his recent speech on race and then, days after, dug himself in deeper, labeling his grandmother “a typical white person.” as opposed to his beloved pastor, the America-hating, Jeremiah Wright. It seems that Barack, in his statements, tells us more about what is important to him. The support of America hating black pastors is Barack Obama’s golden chalice. Grandma is just left hanging out there, labeled a typical white racist. I suspect that she deserves much better from her grandson.
Mark Steyn wrote: ‘When the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan dumped some of his closest Cabinet colleagues to extricate himself from a political crisis, the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe responded: “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his friends for his life.” In Philadelphia, Sen. Obama topped that: Greater love hath no man than to lay down his grandma for his life.’
I’ve been a grandmother for four years and now have two fine, handsome grandsons. I’ve been thinking about what I can do to contribute to the lives of my little boys. What can I do and say that will have a good influence on their lives. This has got me thinking of my own distinctly different grandmothers and the wonderful influence they had on my life.
My paternal grandmother, Frances was an extrovert, a cheerful lady whose exuberant personality drew people to her. Everyone wanted to be her friend, and grandchild. I started to work for her when I was thirteen years old at Fletcher’s Cleaners, their drycleaners. My grandmother taught me how to make change, a skill that is not seen much in contemporary life today. I would sit at her side as she worked at her sewing machine, listening raptly to her stories of life as a young married woman of sixteen years.
She told me that she once bought a hat that was worth a weeks’ pay and how shocked she was when she realized that she needed to learn about the economy of life. (my grandmother was really into hats. My sister, and three female cousins never lacked for fun things to do at her house. We tried on her hats, her jewelry and clothes.)
My grandmother told me that she took up fishing and baseball in order to “save her marriage”. I used to love to sit at her side at a baseball or fastpitch softball game and listen to her funny cheers. She used to say, “Hit that ball beyond the pale.” I always wondered about the meaning of that phrase.
She was a fierce fan of all her sons and grandsons in their sports endeavors. She was there at all her grandchildren’s performances.
My maternal grandmother, Hazel was the total opposite of Frances. Quiet, dreamy and more intellectual. She earned a scholarship to college at the age of sixteen to study chemistry. She was a reader and was very involved in the Republican Party. But I didn’t really get to know her until I was older.
Since my mother was an only child we didn’t have to share her with any cousins. But until my grandfather’s death at the early age of sixty years we didn’t get to spend enough time with her. My mother didn’t drive a car when we were young. If we wanted to go downtown to The Rightway Cleaners to see our grandparents we took the bus. Back then that was the way to go. I remember noticing that black people had to sit in the back of the bus. I wondered about that.
Until my grandfather’s death I hadn’t paid that much attention to Hazel. Guy Smith Webster was a handsome, kind man. He looked a little bit like the late actor, Gary Cooper. I followed him around like a puppy dog. He brought us fancy petit fours for Valentines Day. Back then, it seems like it was always snowing on Valentines Day.
I sat near my grandfather as he listened to his beloved Saint Louis Cardinals’ games on his old Art Deco radio. I liked watermelon because my grandfather liked it. He neglected his health and smoked cigarettes but he never neglected his family. I remember going with him in his 1954 two toned Pontiac to see his mother, (we called her Nanny) in her nursing home. I remember going with him once to the Second Presbyterian Church. When my mother was really sick it was my grandfather who came over our house to check on her.
I don’t remember that much about my grandmother back then except that she was very gentle and had a twinkly smile. She wore thimbles on her fingers even when she wasn’t sewing.
On the Sunday morning that my grandfather died, December 10th, 1961, my grandmother had an epileptic seizure and my grandfather, in his attempt to help her, collapsed with a massive coronary. I remember my parents taking us over to our paternal grandparents’ house and leaving us there for the day.
I learned later that my mother was with my grandfather in the ambulance when he died. Sad days followed. Our grandmother stayed with us at our house for two weeks. I remember awakening to see her having another spell in her bed. Meal times were very difficult for her. My little sister, Lucy didn’t like food very much and made every effort not to eat. She either spilled her milk or smarted off and when my Dad got onto her it upset my grandmother. None of her grandchildren could do any wrong according to her.
She moved back into her house. My mother inherited my grandfathers’ car and learned to drive. My grandmother kept the drycleaners open with the help of Charlie, the black man who worked for my grandfather. I’ve written about Charlie before. He had a marble shoeshine stand in the Rightway Cleaners and always shined our cowboy boots. He entertained us by showing us his big roll of cash in his wallet. He was a kind man. Charlie was from a well educated family. He had a brother who was an attorney in Boston, Massachusetts.
After a while, my grandmother’s struggle with epilepsy became too difficult and she closed The Rightway Cleaners. I remember visiting her house and back in her unattached garage were many sewing machines. Some were antique, others were newer. She was an expert at fixing sewing machines and had learned that skill from her own father, William Chase Whitmarsh who had a Singer Sewing Machine Shop in our town. (although my cousin, Paul Whitmarsh told me that he was a Pfaff man)
Between both my grandmothers my sister and I dressed like models in Seventeen Magazine.
Back in my teen years I bought every issue of Seventeen Magazine. The above design was featured in Seventeen. My grandmother, Hazel made her own patterns for the dresses and we bought the fabric at the Boston Store. The design by Yves St. Laurent was inspired by the artist Piet Mondrian. The colors were navy blue, yellow and red. It was called the Mod look and my dress was all the rage at school, thanks to my grandmother. These were the outfits we wore to perform in that year.
One reason why I love the tv series, Project Runway is because it reminds me of my grandmothers. Frances loved to come up with little corderoy elf hats sewed with bells and stars. She sold them in her cleaners. With her amazing hands, Hazel could transform three yards of gingham into Haute Couture.
Both of my grandmothers, in their own ways, enriched my life. Many times in my life I’ve remembered their voices, and their words. These words helped me in the raising of my own children.
There wasn’t anything “typical” about them.