Write On!

Grandma’s House

In Responses on December 8, 2011 at 6:55 pm

by Jen Gregory

I’ve done the unthinkable. I’ve invited everyone and their mothers to Christmas. I mean that literally, my husband’s ex-wife is coming to Christmas lunch with his daughter. I’m cooking and cleaning everything and my husband is fetching all the things I forgot at the store. On his last, and fourth trip in the last thirty hours, he told me not to get too frantic. I told him I wasn’t. Frantic is when you are nervous, scatterbrained and going in ninety different directions, all the wrong way.

Okay, so I’m frantic. Really though, who wouldn’t be? In six hours my front door will start opening and it will be like the ghost of Christmas past, present and future is marching right in. My mama, my kids, his kids, the ex-wife, all the grandkids, a couple of stragglers and one set of in-laws. That’s right, there’s about thirty four people coming to my house. You bet your bottom I’m frantic!

Cooking for that many doesn’t scare me. I’ve got the dressing in, a ham is already baked, thanks to my youngest son who is staying with us for the holidays, and all the sides are being brought by the guest. I made just about everyone’s favorite desserts and the last thing I’m working on, the thing I’m waking up early for is the rolls. Grandma’s rolls.

For the last fifty four years she’s made them. For the last fifty four years I’ve eaten them. That’s all of my life, every Christmas since I was born. Now it’s my turn to make them, but really I’m not worried about making the rolls, I’m frantic because with her passing I’m in charge of the memory making. With her passing this year sixty years of tradition died too. The first day after she died my first thought was, at least I know how to make her rolls. I forgot though that I can’t make her. It was never about the rolls but they do ease the gap and my word they taste so good!

Anyways, I realized Christmas, the holidays, it’s all been about Grandma all these years, how she made us feel. She made us feel welcomed. It’s a dying art if you ask me. I fall into the trap too, my table isn’t big enough, my house isn’t clean enough and I sure don’t have enough dishes for that large a crowd. She had the very same obstacles just a different heart about it than most of the rest of us. So I’m flying by the seat of my frantic little pants this year in her honor.

I called my daughter and my two sons, I called his four kids. By some miracle everyone could come and then I got generous. Why not the ex-wife? Why not his in-laws? Friends? Sure! My mama, my brother, you name it and I invited them. Reminds me of that movie, except instead of building it I’d say, “If you cook it they will come.” All thirty four of them!

I’m wishing the corian in my kitchen were granite. I have to set out a bunch of trivets for the hot food and I’m lacking so I’ve got some Christmas towels folded and all ready for the dishes on the little island above the sink.

The rolls are coming together. I’ve done the mixing and the kneading, I’m covered in flour and next year while I’m honoring Adeline Massey I’m gonna honor her good sense and wear an apron. How did that little necessity become so forsaken? I don’t even own one!

So my goal, my whole purpose started when I began to bemoan Christmas and all that would be lacking without Grandma this year. My husband said, “Baby, look at it like it’s your turn. Make Christmas what you want it to be.”

Then I became a blubbering mess and said the truest thing I’ve spoken in all my life. “I want her. I want her Christmas, just like that, on her hard wood floors, her orange wood paneling and that screen door creaking. I want the creak too John!” He held me and consoled me and I spent the next two weeks pondering. What do I want? The rolls came to mind, and then her, grandpa and fifty four years of memories.

But most of all the screen door because she was always at it yelling “Well hello there! Merry Christmas!” like she was surprised we had come. With flour all over her hands she’d place them on her hips, right on top of the checkered ruffles of her apron, lean down to me and say, “Sure glad you could make it!” like I had had some say so about getting there. She had this big, deep loud country voice, like an afternoon thunderstorm rushing in, made you want to get inside quicker. Her long fingers would stretch out against the wire screen of that squeaky door and hold it open for you. Yeast, pipe tobacco and happy chatter would roll out of it like wood smoke, soft and gentle. She’d welcome us into the warm lungs of her home and be off to the kitchen to finish the cooking and gab with the women.

My mother would dress me and my brother to the nines. She said we needed to look nice for Christmas but I think it got under my aunt’s skin how nice we looked. I think my mother liked that a little too. Aunt Donna’s boys roamed unfettered in dirty khakis and snotty sleeves, pockets full of outdoor treasures. Uncle Jim would be yelling at them, encouraging them to be even rowdier. “Boy you got to grab that snake by the head or he’s gonna get you!” Uncle Jim was a kid himself. When his boys where ten he wasn’t even thirty yet.

As a little girl I thought of them all as the “grown ups” as a grown woman I know they were still kids themselves.

She had bright orange hair thanks to a bottle and it was perfectly coifed. Grandma could be heard all over the house laughing and cutting up, her kitchen a busy hive, the heat seeping out of the stove and off the food into the rest of the house.

I always stayed in the den and went straight to my granpa’s knee. He sat deep in his leather recliner next to the four foot silver tree, furthest from the little pot belly stove. He kept one arm around me and one hand raised to his pipe that never left his lips except to eat. He and the rest of the men sat around talking about this or that.

I liked to be in the room with the men on this day because my daddy was relaxed and silly and it was nice to see him that way. I adored my daddy. He would cut one joke after the other and every now and then one of the men, sometimes daddy, would say, “Now Janie, what you hear in this room you don’t talk to your mamma or your teacher’s about none okay?” I’d giggle and say okay.

I was only five but I knew half the words they said would get my cheek slapped if mamma heard. I wasn’t in there to hear the bad words or the dirty jokes, I liked the way all the men’s faces eased. No grunting over heavy lifting, no fussing over bills, no weary sighs from work, just skinny young men with no wives over their shoulders talking about life. All the creases in their faces soft and inverted, they were, in that room, on those Christmas days, the men their women had married.

I’d stay until I started feeling sleepy. Grandaddy’s cuordoroy jumper would rub and slip against my satin dress as he rocked his leg side to side. I’m not sure he ever spoke a word to me but I didn’t care, I liked lying there, listening, feeling the swish of fabric on my legs and the warmth of that stove mixing with the tobacco smoke lingering over my head. I was charmed into a trance.

Eventually the room would feel stuffy and slow and my eyes would droop and like any respectable child I got up and wondered around. I’d meander in and out of the three bedrooms. Open and shut the heavy wooden doors to the closets just to hear the click of the solid metal door knobs lodge in place.

My brother always found his way to the kitchen and got his hand swatted but you’d hear grandma telling mamma, “June, he’s hungry, let him have a little taste!”

I don’t remember ever being told I couldn’t go in this spot or that. Nothing was off limits. Grandma kept her closets as clean as the stuff not hidden behind doors. Now there’s a life lesson. How many of us can live our whole lives not afraid for anyone, much less a curious child, to dig around behind the shut doors?

She had a box of old purses I’d dig my way through and a couple of old dolls and cigar tins. That was my toy box. I’d play a little and wander with a doll and a handbag into my favorite room. It had a quilting frame hanging high above a poster bed.

I’d get up on the bed with my things, kneeling on the feather bed in my little white tights and pretend it was a canopy. I’d lay my doll down for its nap and stare at the splotches of patterned material here and there pinned up against the white muslin. I never could tell what she was going for, make sense of the start and the finish. There was always a finished quilt draped and ready in the room too, a before and after.

I’d run my hands through the little squares all piled up in a shallow cardboard box, sliding my palms against them like cool cotton liquid was running over my fingers.

In that room grandma always came and found me. She’d come up and sit on the bed and pat the doll. She’d say with her jewel toned voice, “I reckon I need to get a little more work done on it.” I’m sure I spoke, that people disagreed and that the food wasn’t as delicious as I remember but when your greeted and welcomed with true and honest delight you don’t care.

That’s my perfect Christmas. Adeline Massey, her voice, her smile, her busy hands and space to roam and think, play and explore.

The rolls are in the oven, my house smells like butter and yeast had a baby. I thought about getting some pipe tobacco, John said no to that, but I did turn up the heat and stoke the fire. Otherwise he’s played the perfect gentleman and entertained my every whim this Christmas, sweet man.

He walks up behind me and says, “Two cars just pulled up.” John hugs me and we stare out the kitchen window, his moustache tickling my cheek. “You want me to go greet them?”

Her door can’t swing open for me anymore, I know that, but mine can swing open for them.

“No, dear, I got this. I’m going to open the door.” And I do, I open the door.

Lord knows, I wish it would creak but it chimes. I figure that counts. I swing open the heavy wood and wave out to the in-laws, our son and his family. I’m no Adeline Massey but I’m happy they are here. My hand is swinging in the air in a big floppy wave.

My eyes are tearing up and I’m saying “Hey ya’ll!” as my little granddaughter skips up to me in little white tights. I kneel down to her and say, “Addy, I’m sure glad you could make it, Merry Christmas!” Next year I’ll have the apron too.

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  1. Oh. My. Stars. I love this, Jen! I was there in that house! And this spoke to my feelings of what to do with a holiday when big important pieces are missing. This was delicious, like those rolls must be! Now I’m ready to make some of my mama’s yeast rolls!

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