I 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?