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Grandma Big

By Melissa McQuarrie

grandma-small-21I first met my Grandma Small when I was seven, as my family and I disembarked from the ship that carried us across the Pacific from San Francisco to Sydney. All through our three-week voyage my mother had talked about our Grandma Small (“Small” is my mother’s maiden name), so I was unprepared for the buxom, broad-hipped woman standing on the dock, squinting into the sun as gulls swooped over the harbor. My four-year-old brother voiced what I was thinking as he exclaimed, loud enough for my grandmother to hear, “She’s not Grandma Small; she’s Grandma Big!” My grandmother scowled.

We lived with my grandparents for six months in their little white house in Warimoo, a town nestled in the Blue Mountains, overlooking forests of blue-green gum trees. I tiptoed around the house and tried to stay out of my grandmother’s way. When my brother and I squabbled or talked out of turn, she threatened to box our ears. If she caught us sneaking a bread or cake crumb in the kitchen, she’d rap our knuckles with a wooden spoon. At the dinner table Grandma eyed us sharply if we slurped or chewed with our mouths open. Later she’d watch me as I dried the dishes. “Watch it, Miss! Mind you don’t drop that bowl! You’re clumsy like your mum!” she’d say. Because I strained to understand my grandmother’s broad Australian accent, I said, “What?” a lot. To which my grandmother stiffly replied, “In this country we have manners. We don’t say, ‘What?’ We say, ‘Beg your pardon?'”

My grandmother didn’t soften as I grew older. Once while she was on holiday with us, she walked by one night while I was prostrate on the ground, saying my prayers next to my sleeping bag, and swatted me so hard on the bottom that I tipped over. “Get your bum out of the air!” she said. After my family and I moved back to the States when I was sixteen, I heard from my grandmother infrequently; she visited us a couple of times and sent me a total of two letters while I was on my mission, each one only a page long. My last memory of my grandmother is sharing a hotel room with her the night before my wedding; we were two awkward strangers thrust together. Late that night, too nervous to sleep, I sat in the bathroom, painting my toenails while listening to my grandmother’s loud snores. She woke up, marched into the bathroom, said, “What do you think you’re doing, Miss? Get back to bed!” and, like a guilty child, I scurried back to bed.

I’ve always envied those who have doting, affectionate grandmothers, grandmothers who bake cookies and host sleepovers and attend school programs and send carefully chosen birthday gifts. I do have several gentle memories of my grandmother—like the time she let me sit up in bed with my grandfather when I had the mumps, and she brought me tomato soup on a tray—but they are few and far between. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve learned bits and pieces about my grandmother that soften her hard edges.

My mother tells me that my grandmother sneaked out of her bedroom window at night to ride on the back of my grandfather’s motorcycle (a fact I cannot wrap my head around), ending up pregnant and having to get married. She buried her first child and only son when he was two, then had seven daughters, all of them crammed into a two-roomed house. Once, while my grandfather was away in Sydney, my grandmother fought the bush fires by herself, one baby in a stroller and another on her hip, saving their little house with a hose and a potato sack. She stayed married to my grandfather through his several affairs and nursed him through kidney cancer until his death, when she became a widow at fifty-five—and though she lived another thirty-two years, she never remarried, claiming one husband was enough. After raising her seven girls, my grandmother took in two foster children and raised them as well. A convert to the Church with a rebellious streak, she always laced her trifles with sherry and once cut off the bottoms of her temple garments, proclaiming them “too damned long.” She was a talented seamstress and loved to draw. And she had a green thumb: her garden was full of pink, yellow, and cream-colored roses, lilacs and wisteria, crimson bottlebrush and lemon wattle.

These and other details form the mosaic that is my grandmother, a multi-faceted woman whose presence still shades my life, though it’s been five years since she died and twenty years since I last saw her. My mother tried hard to escape my grandmother’s stern example, but she still struggled to be nurturing. And when I’m impatient and harsh with my children, when I henpeck my husband, I sometimes hear Grandma’s voice coming out of my mouth. But I am trying to see her not just as a severe, remote grandmother, but as a complex and remarkable matriarch, whose strength and feistiness and forbearance during hardships I admire. This woman was much more than my grandmother, much more than my mother’s mother–she was Grandma Big, indeed.

What memories do you have of your grandmother? What do you admire about your grandmother and what qualities of hers would you like to emulate? How has your grandmother’s influence shaped you?

About Melissa McQuarrie

(Advisory Board) grew up in Australia and California and now lives in Provo, Utah with her husband, four children, and their dog, Daisy. She served a mission in Peru and has a BA and MA in English from BYU. She loves reading, writing, and quiet afternoons. She does not love grocery shopping. Now that two of her children attend BYU and her youngest children are in high school and junior high, she is trying to adjust to this "emptying nest" stage and still wondering how it snuck up on her so fast.

20 thoughts on “Grandma Big”

  1. Thinking of my Gran makes me cry as I miss her so much. She has been dead 11 long years now.

    My Gran was the kindest person in my life and the only one who ever showed me any love. She truly had a Christlike heart which was obvious to everyone who knew her. Where she lived everyone called her Gran. She would help any one, listen for hours to all of her nieces and nephews on the phone, support and encourage, babysit. When I moved to London she would visit each month on the train, looking back I realise how that can't have been easy for her but it was the highlight of my month. I remember her wonderful cooking and in paticular her baking, there was always a tin full of baking. She never judged me. When I joined the church she was the only member of my family there and I cried in her arms afterwards.

    I would like to emulate her peace, patience, love and acceptance. Not even close to any of that. She never once raised her voice or critised me, if I broke something she said that it didn't matter as long I was not hurt. My Gran was my greatest blessing while I was growing up and I cannot ever imagine being like her. Looking back I do not think I thanked her enough for what she did for me. I do have her baking skills for which my family and friends are very grateful.

    I could write for hours about her and it would only give the smallest glimpse of her. As I write it reminds me to try harder with my own family and to leave them a legacy of love too and not just a nagging mother.

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  2. I have always felt slighted that my dad's mom died before I was born. I feel like we would have been great friends, and she would have been that grandparent you describe– the involved, loving one.
    My mom's mom is still alive, but I have never really felt a connection with her. She has serious alzheimers now, but even before then, I always felt she was just so old. She was never very kind to my mother, and she just seems to be a bitter old woman to me. I'm sure if I got to know her better, it would soften her hard edges, but I don't see that happening.
    I'm glad my mom has already made a huge effort to be close with her grandchildren. I really think she will have that close connection with them that I have missed with a grandmother in my own life.

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  3. that was really sweet! She might not have been the grandma to hug and coddle, but she sounds like an incredibly strong woman, and a fabulous example of endurance.
    Grandmothers are the best!

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  4. Thank you for sharing.

    Your Grandma reminds me of my step-grandma. She married into our family when I was just a year old and my grandmother had only been dead 6 months. As you can imagine she stepped into a family not all-together-ready to receive her. From an early age it was pointed out to me that she played favorites and was stern, so that's what I looked for in her over the years. But once I became a mother, I sought a different side to her. That change in my perspective, and the trials that the succeeding years have thrown at her, have softened her rough edges. Now I am grateful, like you, to know more the full picture of the woman my grandmother is. Not that I really know all of the story by any stretch of the imagination, but hopefully one day she'll feel comfortable sharing it with me.

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  5. Thank you so much for this post. And I have loved the comments so far.

    I adored my paternal grandmother. I miss her deeply. She was a funny women, not the type of fuzzy grandmother you typically think of. She was grouchy and irritable, but her heart was solid gold. I wish that we could talk right now. I treasure all the letters I have from her.

    My feelings and relationship with my maternal grandmother are complex. Because of the nature of our current non-relationship, I try to remember the good things about her and not dwell too much on the problems.

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  6. Thank you for your comments, ladies. Kay, it sounds like your grandmother was pure gold. How you must miss her! The rest of you have reminded me that our relationships with our grandmothers can be complicated, not always ideal, but I think all of us would like to know our grandmothers better. I like what Johnna said, that my grandmother was a "real woman." She certainly was. I've only grown to appreciate her and understand her in some small way as I've grown older myself.

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  7. "But I am trying to see her not just as a severe, remote grandmother, but as a complex and remarkable matriarch, whose strength and feistiness and forbearance during hardships I admire."

    This wise sentence reminded me of my visit last summer to my ancestral villages. As I stood in the dark and cramped two room house where my ancestors lived for 150 years with their huge families, I could not even imagine what their lives were like. What did they do during the harsh winter on this remote mountain farm? There were no schools and no doctors. They buried dozens of babies and young children. I'm thankful my great-grandparents had the courage to get on the ship in Hamburg and move to the United States. Things were still tough for that first generation born in the United States. All three of my grandmother's daughters were born during the depression. When my grandmother died two years ago, at the age of ninety-six, her grandchildren shared poignant e-mail memories of our grandmother in a virtual memorial. All of her grandchildren were eloquent writers. Most of us have college degrees and live like royalty compared to our ancestors in the old country. I remember calling my grandparents from BYU when I was in my 20's and saying:"I love you grandma. I love you grandpa." They didn't grow up in homes where love was verbally shared, but they were quick learners. They always replied, "I love you Kathryn." I miss them both…

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  8. I am very lucky to have two amazing grandmothers. My maternal grandmother is a strong woman. She started working during world war 2 and decided she liked it and was a working women long before that was accepted in her small mormon town. She saw the good in a poor GI private she met on a blind date, and married him after a quick courtship days before he shipped overseas. She stayed strong when while pregnant she received word he was a prisoner of war. When he finally returned she taught him the gospel, and raised four children. She lovingly cared for him through years of poor health, with a never ending patience. She lost her sweetheart 5 months ago and tomorrow she has to bury her only son, who died in a tragic accident. She remains strong and optimistic and is a great example of how to endure all things. I do believe blessing are passed down through generations and I am the recipient of many of her good works and righteous choices.

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  9. My grandmas died when I was 9 months old and 4 years old. So I really have no memories of them. But their lives have influenced mine in numerous ways and I've felt on more than one occasion that they are still a part of my life today.

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  10. This was glorious! It's funny what memories the child in us can hold, and how long the adult side of us can spend feeling guilty for them. Your grandmother seems like quite a woman (I LOVE that she laced her trifles with sherry!): someone who put on a fierce face to fight the brush fires of life.

    I am lucky to have both my grandmothers still with me. My Dad's mother, Dorothy (where I get my middle name), is a mannerly writer, artist and musician with a quick wit and optimistic spin on life. She was raised Mormon in Idaho, but spent a wild college summer in San Fransisco where she met and married a moody non-member. She quietly lived outside of the church so as not to "make waves" in their marriage.

    She now has the beginnings of Alzheimers and doesn't remember drinking glasses of wine or living without the church. She tends to ask the same question three or four times (though she can still tell you about all the different kinds of shoes her third grade teacher, Miss Dempsey, wore.). I have to admit to using her as a sounding board for my problems, because she gives spectacular advice and later forgets our conversations.

    My maternal, Bulgarian Grandmother, Nevenka, lived with my husband and I for our first year of marriage. I was told not to sit on sidewalks ("You'll freeze your ovaries!"), not to do laundry for 2 weeks before and after Easter out of respect (though we didn't SMELL respectful), and to comb my hair and wash my face so that I didn't look like a gypsy. It was common for her and my husband to argue about using the sorrel, grape leaves or linden tree blossoms that she had casually gathered on her walks in the river bottoms to prepare and feed to me–his pregnant wife. It was also not unusual for us to find moldy scones we had stuffed in drawers or behind plants, because she insisted on stuffing us with food until we burst.

    I see both of my grandmothers in myself when I cook with philough dough, sing traditional Bulgarian songs, write, or try not to "make waves". I feel lucky, blessed and a bit magical to resemble them in any way.

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  11. I was born too late. Both my grandfathers had died and one of them would have been the one I wanted to know. My grandmothers were alive but had achieved an age of being in their *gaasp*…sixties …that was so old then. So I never knew them much. The older cousins tell me great stories about them. Funny how life picks and chooses our relationships.

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  12. I love the stories you are all sharing! Such interesting lives. Merry Michelle, I can envision several beautiful essays you could write about your grandmothers. Likewise Izzy and Kathryn P. This reinforces to me the importance of record keeping and journal writing–we need to preserve our ancestors' stories–and our stories, as well. Someday our grandchildren will want to know about us.
    And I second you, Michelle L. Because I didn't have warm, fuzzy grandmothers, I am determined to be one myself.

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  13. My paternal grandmother died when I was 11, and we didn't live near her, so I don't feel that I ever really knew her. I know that her family, prominent citizens of their small town, were none too pleased when she "married down" after falling in love with my grandpa, who promptly spirited her away to a mining camp where he worked in a gold mine. I have one faded snapshot, from the 1930's, of her and my grandpa embracing for a very romantic kiss. I would love to hear her tales of her courtship and marriage!

    The other thing I've been told about her is that she kind of bucked 1940's and 50's housekeeping conventions by staying up late at night to clean and putter around, then arising early, getting her family ready for the day, and going back to bed. Maybe that's where my night-owl tendencies come from?

    I always struggled to understand my other grandma, even though she was the one that I knew. She died while I was on my mission. She was very proper and always wore elbow-length gloves when she went out. She wore a wiglet on top of her head, which, in her later years, didn't quite match her real hair underneath. She washed her clothes in a wringer washing machine until she was in her 80's, despite the family's repeated attempts to buy her a modern washer. In fact, when we would visit, my mom would have to sneak our laundry out to my other grandparents to wash it because grandma would get very offended that Mom didn't want to do laundry her way.

    She spent years of her life living on a remote farm, which she hated, but she rarely complained. I can't even imagine that amount of work she had to do. She had to cook on a wood stove, even though people in town had modern ones. My grandfather was excommunited and rebaptized early in their marriage. She never ever spoke of it. She was widowed in her fifties and remained alone for more than 30 years.

    Grandma held grudges and she worried incessently. She had anxiety to the point where my parents never did tell her that my dad had had open heart surgery. I think how hard it must of been for my mother to not be able to rely on the support of her own mother at that difficult time, and to have to keep such a huge trial a secret. Grandma thought various family members didn't like her and wanted to one-up her, which was not true. She held grudges against several of my aunts for wrongdoings which never even happened.

    As a teenager, I played the piano. Every time I went to my grandma's, she wanted me to play for her. She wanted me to sit and spend an hour at a time making tapes of my playing for her to listen to. I hated that.

    As a college student, I visited her out of obligation. She was hard-of-hearing and difficult to have conversations with.

    Now she's been dead for 15 years, and even though I think I would still struggle with her if she were alive, I also know that in a way we are kindred spirits. I inherited her anxiety, though seeing what it did to her has made me determined for that not to happen to me. There have been times in my life, going through difficult things, where I've had the distinct impression that she was nearby and that she, of all the people in my family, is the most like me and the one who has really understood some of what I've felt inside.

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  14. Eljee, what a poignant post! I have no doubt that your grandmother is aware of your struggles and is empathizing with you. Makes me wonder if my grandmother sometimes hovers nearby.

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  15. Everyone tells me I look just like my paternal grandmother. That has always been a compliment to me. Although we weren't around her very much every in my life, I have several of her traits and her interests. For example, I randomly picked up cross stitching as favorite hobby, only later realizing that my grandmother's house is full of cross stitch projects she made herself. My grandmother is very reserved and quiet, and is often way too hard on herself (just like me!). She had a very hard life in her younger years – she watched as her father struggled to feed his daughters through the great depression while also struggling with a lung disease that later took his life. Her first husband was drafted into the army just after they were married and died in the war. She has lived on a farm all of her life, working hard at raising four strong willed boys. I admire her because I know she isn't perfect, but still goes on despite her hardships. Since I see myself as being like her, it is easier for me to like myself when I think of her because she has many of the same weaknesses that I do and, after all, we all still love her, so maybe I'm not so bad myself. She's not the cozy, friendly grandma that you talk about, but she always let me know that even though she doesn't know me very well, she still loves me because I'm her granddaughter.

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  16. I had one warm, fuzzy grandma and one remarkable, eccentric one. Both were great influences in my life, and each was amazing in her own way.

    I dearly miss the two of them.

    =)

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  17. What a wonderful, wonderful post. I greatly appreciate the honesty with which you speak of your grandmother. Too often I feel I can't add to conversations where people speak so fondly of loved ones – mine have been more like your grandmother, the lot of them.

    The only grandmother I ever knew was my paternal grandmother. A woman who raised 7 boys (oddly enough) and no girls. Having always wanted a girl, you'd think that with her first granddaughter (me) she would have been the sweetest gran you ever knew. Not so. Any man in the world could tell her that the sky was green and she would bow down to this proclamation with humility. A woman could tell her that her hair looked lovely and you'd think she just told her she stinks! I never understood this about her until I asked her about her childhood. Ah yes, her childhood. She had the sweetest and gentlest father any girl could ever want: an Englishman who played piano, attended ballet, and kissed hurts. And she had a mother who would drag her daughter to the kitchen sink and splash her face with water anytime she cried (this produced a lifelong phobia of water for my grandmother). She had a husband (God bless him, I love my grandpa) who never failed to tell company that the only reason my grandmother taught elementary school was that that was her intellectual level.

    And so I began to understand and have compassion for my dear gran. I would visit and swallow every word, ignore every snidely comment, sideways glance, and the like. Because she deserved to be treated with kindness from a woman. After all, that is what I would want someone to do for me if I too lived the pain she had.

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