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Aspirational Grandmother

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

The COVID Granny Diaries

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

My grandmother created fairy tale memories for me, my siblings, and my cousins.

"Granny," as we called her, was a small, rather giggly woman, a paragon of femininity and fashion. I can still remember the seductive smell of her makeup drawer and her perfume (Shalimar), as well as the hilarious Sunday morning sight when she pulled on her girdle.

When it came to money, Granny was hard as nails and absurdly detail-oriented. Nevertheless, she was generous to her grandchildren: at Christmas, the main gifts came from her, as did most of our toys and clothes throughout the year.

Granny and I were really not much alike, yet I have always had elaborate visions of the grandmother I would one day become and these have been based almost entirely on her example. So, with seemingly endless time to spend with Nova during the shutdown, I imagined that this was my big chance to play out one of my fondest fantasies—I have long called her "the aspirational grandmother."

My inner grandmother is quirkier than Granny was. My ideal is one part Glinda the Good Witch, one part Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, two parts parts Helena Bonham Carter, and a judicious dash of Mary Poppins . My resources are more limited than my grandmother's were, but I still can give her a good run for the money.

My grandparents built their imposing colonial home in 1941. When I was a child, it was still something of a landmark in Austin, Texas.

The most salient requirement for the aspirational grandmother is putting on a good Christmas. My grandmother had a vast house with a high ceiling and a fabulous marble fireplace where she could stage children's dreams with a towering tree (and those vintage bubbling candles). We each had red velvet Christmas stockings that she beaded herself and because there were so many of us, they could hang across the huge fireplace, looking like they were ready for the Night Before Christmas.

Because her grandchildren were girls but for my brother, Granny always gave each of us the same beautiful doll for Christmas. She chose it in consultation with my mother and my aunt. My mother had a great talent for sewing, so she would also make my sister and me custom clothes for our dolls.

My nuclear family spent Christmas of 1960 in our own small ranch house in Houston, a rare event. Still, the dolls are there, as are the nightgowns. (I'm the girl on the right, my sister Susan on the left.)

Granny also gave us all matching flannel nightgowns each year, long with pretty floral patterns. These would be our best night clothes; they felt feminine and extravagant.

My own home is smaller by an order of magnitude. My fireplace is a weird brick affair installed by the last owner, who was an artist. But the structure itself is a Craftsman Style bungalow, built in 1917, something not often found in New England. My house gets super-crowded at Christmas because the house is so small, but everyone who visits me agrees it has a story-book quality that just shouts "perfect for grandmothering." I decorate for the holidays in a bricolage style that includes kitschy angel candles, Moroccan-looking glassware, and a tree that, though narrower to fit the space, does reach the ceiling and has reproduction bubbling candles. So my house, even on its tiny scale, packs a powerful "over the river and through the woods" punch.

I still feel like it's not Christmas without a doll, a preference that inevitably now leads to questions about what dolls are acceptable for a little girl in the 21st century. So far, I have gone for the American Girl Wellie Wishers, a new variation on the American Girl dolls my family gave Caitlin and Liza. I am rubbish at sewing, so I buy the multitudinous clothes.

One of the few things my grandmother and I had in common is that we are both horrible cooks. My grandmother kept all our favorite sugary treats in her massive fridge, but on every holiday, she made the same disgusting vegetable dishes: yellow squash and Kentucky Wonder green beans. The squash had cream and bread crumbs; we thought this casserole looked like snot and boogers (and tasted worse). She cooked the beans to death in a pot with pork, which made them nasty and slimy.

Thanksgiving two years ago, I planned to grill the dinner. I still can't figure out why, but everything cooked down to about one plate of food. Luckily, I had a family-sized package of Stouffer's Mac and Cheese in the freezer, so we did not starve, but the story quickly became a favorite in my sarcastic extended family's lore. Now my children don't let me cook holiday dinners anymore. "You can set the table, Mom. That's the part you like. And you are so good at it!"

At Granny's, we were made to sit at the table (in a crowd, at the children's table) so our consumption could be monitored. We were coerced into reaching "the clean plate club" and it was kinda traumatic because the food was so awful. (I don't make anyone finish anything because of childhood memories of choking down gross food.) One positive memory is that Granny would put a maraschino cherry at the bottom of our milk as an inducement to finish it. We would hold the glasses up to see the cherry, imagining it looked like red lips (so glamorous) and comparing each to the others. We always finished our milk.

The grandest memory I have, though, is Granny's dress-up closet. It was a double sliding-door closet in the vaguely haunted upstairs, packed with cast-off clothes, hats, and shoes. Most were fancy dresses my mother and aunt had worn to dances as teenagers. My mother had made herself a new dress for each engagement—they were fabulous! We would spend hours up there acting out plays we composed ourselves.

Both our Wellie Wisher dolls broke like this, for no apparent reason. Online, I learned that this is some kind of design flaw and so happens often. American Girl does not repair or replace it. I will never buy another doll from them. All those clothes gone to waste!

My story of quarantining with Nova is a hit-or-miss narrative of trying to act out my aspirations. There were disappointments about dolls, a trial with nightgowns that were "not cool," a constant struggle at meals, rejected sweets, and limitations on dress-up resources. I even made a dollhouse myself and put cherries in the milk. Nova was non-plussed by much of it and, in quarantine deshabille, I was hardly a fairy grandmother. But I also tried the "approved" play options of today—building blocks, seed planting, and (God forbid) baking cookies. These, too, had mixed results. I did manage a small dress-up closet; we had a good time acting out plays of Nova's direction. All this while trying (usually unsuccessfully) to keep up with work.

My aspirational grandmother experiences were sometimes funny, but also bittersweet. They often caused me to re-evaluate my memories of a 1950s Southern culture that presented extremely limited options for females along with the sugared visions of consumer life. But these experiences also gave me reasons to question today's precepts about what toys are for and what playtime should achieve. And to realize how hard it is to find something a child will play long enough to do your email.

So that you could understand all that, though, I first had to introduce you to diminutive, giggly, generous Granny, who did so much to create my ideal of what grandmothers should be. Watch this space.

Starting COVID Granny post: How It Happened

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