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Grandmothers I have known and embellished

By John Gould / September 15, 2000



A while back I had occasion to eulogize Grammie Ganderdonk, and a reader indicates a supposition that by "Grammie" I meant "Nanny." I did not. The word "nanny," except for a lady goat, is foreign to careful Down-East usage, and while Grammie Ganderdonk was not my nanny, she was one of the 40 or 50 grandmothers I have had off and on to adorn my joyful career.

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In truth, I had two real grandmothers, both of whom I knew personally. My mother's mother was Catherine MacLeod, whose father came from the Isle of Skye as a Selkirk settler on Prince Edward Island. The other "Old Seed Stock" on the island were Acadian French, dispersed by the English from Nova Scotia. The two breeds lived a generation in respectable harmony with one talking French from the days of Montesquieu and the other getting along in Gaelic.

My mother never knew Gaelic, but she wore a thistle on Bobbie Burns's birthday. Her mother produced the four prettiest females on the island, and my mother was the prettiest. Grammie Catherine wasn't off the island in her lifetime, but I visited and have complete recollection of her.

My father's mother is equally clear in my memory. She was perhaps a bit more politely educated than Grammie Catherine, having had the advantage of high school. She taught school, eight grades in one room, in our Maine town of Poland. She thus had the Ricker children to teach, and she boarded with the Ricker family.

The Rickers had been a poor family, but had begun bottling Poland Spring water. Then they started the huge Poland Spring summer hotel. And when Grammie Hannah was elderly, the Ricker children would send the hotel's coach-and-six to get her. As their guest for dinner, it didn't cost her a cent. I never got a free meal there, but Hiram Ricker (she said he was a slow student) always greeted me by name.

Grandmother Hannah wrote a book called "Feeding Babies." She told mothers to use their heads about infant nutrition instead of listening to expensive ideas from experts, and as it was a vanity publication, she had an attic full of unsold books as long as she lived. Grammie Hannah had eight children of her own, and made scrumptious molasses cookies.

My other grammies were like Grammie Ganderdonk. She was a Ward from Wardtown, which is Maine custom. When you mention Mrs. Anybody, you must add that she was a Littlefield from Kingfield, or a Townsend from Passadumkeag, or a Jordan from down Machias way, and then everybody knows who you're talking about. (Grammie Hannah would correct me on that and say, "about whom you are talking.") She was a stickler, and if you don't have any babies to feed, her book may learn you some old good about that there syntax and stuff.

Otherwise, the grammies I've had have been other people. Grammie Ganderdonk lived with us after she was widowed. And as her only contribution was to help Mother, she managed us offspring with a firm hand and loving heart. She was good as gold and meant well. She did anything she saw without being told, and she saw everything.

She cooked, she made butter, she shoveled snow, she answered the telephone, she papered rooms, she darned my socks, she made May baskets in May, Jack-o'-lanterns in October, and popcorn balls at Christmas.

I made that up about her wearing size-16 men's shoes. She really wore larrigans, but I thought my readers in (say) Wyoming might not know what larrigans are. They're felt boots and rubbers. Heavy felt, shaped like an English Wellington and knee-high, with tough rubbers over the feet, the whole being devised to comfort woodchoppers in deep snow. The larrigan is noticeable and recognized at a great distance.

With the rubbers removed, Grammie Ganderdonk used the felt part as slippers, and glided about the house knocking everything over. She had become residential when my younger sister was born. We had room and an ax, and she could split wood, so the association was mutually attractive. She was called "Grammie" at once, partly because her first name was Fidelia.

Although i may have stretched things a mite in listing Grammie Ganderdonk's proclivities, she was all the same gifted in about any direction. She did sing bass in the choir, but she was not a harpist as I said. Her instrument was the musical saw.

In the summer, she peddled ice. She often filled in for the town librarian on Saturday afternoons, and would press flowers and autumn leaves in the books. She loved to fill in for card games and was sharp. One time she held 13 spades, bid "one no trump," and made it.

I recite these things to show how anybody lacking qualified grandparents can invent this one and that one and make out fine. Grammie Ganderdonk might have gone her way unremembered, an ordinary person being an ordinary grammie to ordinary people, but blessed with the difference our family brought to her character and personality, she became quite another person.

When she came into our house from shoveling snow to the barn, carrying two pails of new milk, kicked off her lumberman's rubbers, and put her larrigans on the sideboard, you had to notice, right away that she was different. That's what I've been trying to tell you. No nanny, she.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society