My grandmother turned 93 years old on Friday. 93 years old. Can you imagine? The wonderful and terrible things she’s seen…
She was born in 1920 in Delaware. Her mother died giving birth to her, and she was raised by her aunt and uncle (who she thought were her real parents until apparently she overheard that they weren’t but kept it a secret for a long time, poor darling). I’m named after her uncle, Charles Brown, who she called Cappy because “he was the captain of their ship” meaning their house, as he was not a sea captain but in fact a fruit farmer. She’s told me stories about the Depression, when times were especially tough since he didn’t have a set salary. Once, he brought a cart of apples into town to sell, and she watched as he brought the whole cart, still full, back that evening. No sale.
We can’t imagine what people went through back then. They saw the worst of times, and they bucked up and worked harder. My grandma got a job at Woolworths on Saturdays for 20 cents an hour in Dover. “Wasn’t that generous?” she laughed to me today, in her beautiful, high movie star voice. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about her — she was raised in Delaware in a time when everyone spoke like it was Hollywood. At least, that’s what I think. She has that beautiful, eloquent East Coast way of speaking, but it’s something I’ve never heard in anyone else; her accent is unique, even apart from my grandfather’s. He was from New York, son of Germans, and I’ve never heard anyone talk like he did either.
Pops and Brownie, we call them. Pops passed about 4 years ago, into his 90s, and Brownie carries on in her blue Keds, jeans and light long sleeve shirts, her lovely slender fingers worn with age but still as soft as they were when I was a toddler. Edna Brown, you darling woman. My sister has her nose, her fingers. I have her height, I suppose — she was 5’9″ at her peak, though I don’t know how much age has affected that. She played basketball in high school when very few girls ever did, went to nursing school and had a career when that was probably pretty rare, and voted for the first female Episcopal priest. My grandmother paved the way for so many women, in her small way.
She met my grandfather — I forget where or how — when she was in nursing school (I think…the stories run together sometimes, and I heard them when I was so little) and they went to a movie together. Apparently, Pops had fallen and bumped his knee quite badly a while before, and in the dark movie theatre, he told her to feel it. Her hand on his knee, inspecting his wound, she realized her friends were walking by and thinking she was being rather bold in the movie theatre, touching the knee of this handsome young man on their first date. She’d laugh whenever she told that story, and it might be my favorite one ever. How my grandparents got together…seconded only by how my parents met (in an elevator, where my father, gregarious and friendly as ever, thought my mom was cute and asked her which floor she worked on. He returned later to ask her on a date. They went sailing and then to a movie with a group of friends, and in typical idiot-boy fashion, my dad sat on the other end of the group, all the way across the row from my mom).
She taught me to play Rummy. She and I sewed a yellow fleece poncho together — I still have it, though it makes me look a bit like a duckling, especially when I put the hood on. She taught me to knit, and we’d eat Cheetos and drink ice water on the back porch in the summertime. Chee-toes, she calls them. We went to the flower nursery together; she’d look at potted plants, and I’d stare into the pond at the koi fish and name the pretty ones (original names like Goldie and Chocolate). We’d watch Paula Deen together and cringe over the pounds of butter she’d add to her food. Giada De Laurentiis (granddaughter of Dino De Laurentiis, movie producer and my father’s old boss) and her huge, scary smile usually made us click to the next channel almost immediately. We made red velvet cake together in 7th grade, and I’ve never been able to make one that good since.
All my favorite presents are from her. They’re little, random ones: a recipe keeping book that I cried in happiness over; a book of Emily Dickinson poems that I devoured in a few days. I nannied this past week and the little boy asked me what the best present I ever got was…I could barely explain. He wouldn’t understand. No one would understand. My grandmother understood. Cooking and reading…Brownie definitely understood.
I forget how deeply I love my grandma sometimes, because I don’t see her often anymore. But then I remember all these amazing times we had. I have my name because of her adoptive father. I have my height because of her (and my father and grandfather). I definitely got my fingers from someone else, cuz these babies are not slender. My nose is my mother’s. I am a combination of everyone who came before me, but I am ambitious and I am strong, just like Brownie was. I wish I had twenty more years with her, but I wouldn’t trade these last twenty for fifty more.
Happy Birthday, Brownie. You’re sweet and lovely and you make me smile, and I’ll always be your “precious child” even if I am a bit of a ding dong sometimes.
This will be mailed out to her, as computer literacy did not grace my grandmother as it did me — ha just kidding, I can’t do anything but type on this thing anyway. I might accidentally be as old a soul as she. I did get my love of Emily Dickinson from her, after all.