The grandma sector

With regularity, a new phrase creeps into the public consciousness and is used with such profusion that we wonder how we ever got along without it. You know. ''Meaningful!'' ''That's life!''

Lately we hear of the Private Sector as if that's a new class of human beings which hadn't existed, not really, until our President discovered them. It's almost as if we've forgotten that once upon a time, not too many years ago, the city of Washington, D.C., was no more than a suburb of Wall Street, N.Y., then Roosevelt happened. Society metamorphosed. But one thing stayed the same - there remained the ''haves'' and the ''have-nots.''

Living on the government became an accepted way of life. Washington grew top-heavy. What came in didn't cover what went out. It was time to search for a new phrase to cheer us temporarily.

Private Sector. A good idea. And along with it - ''made'' jobs. And along with that came publicity as if there was a blemish about that kind of work.

Thinking about it now, I realize my grandmother was the Private Sector of our town. She was in a position to be so because her husband had owned the large department store. And for 30 years she was the head of the women's society in church, so if anybody had a finger on the pulse of the town it was Grandy.

In a small farming community there were a number of widows eking out existence in the kitchens of their homesteads, impoverished, with no place to turn for help. The Red Cross sent out bolts of gray outing flannel for diapers. That's all, unless a disaster qualified you.

Next to the ''Insane Asylum'' the county had a ''Poor Farm.'' Who would leave their home to live there? Nobody!

''We have a little more,'' Grandy'd say. ''We must help others,'' as if it were our duty. But a duty to be carried out secretly, for people then had a fierce pride about charity.

I remember a bitterly cold February evening when a howling north wind slapped me in the face all the way from school and I was yearning to pull a chair to the oven door of our kitchen range to warm my feet while savoring Mama's fresh bread.

When I cut across Grandy's lawn to reach our own backyard on the next street I heard a sharp tapping at the front window of her large yellow house. Ducking my head, I pretended my cap pulled snug over my forehead kept me from hearing, but my grandmother's knuckles became brisk with insistence. When I looked up her long forefinger curled me into her house.

My heart plummeted. As I feared, she had an errand all set up for me. A row of shoe boxes on the kitchen table were packed, each with a loaf of her whole-wheat bread, a jar of strawberry jam, a slab of bacon, something wrapped in a newspaper, and on top of each box the luxury of one large orange.

''Take these to the widows, girlie.''

''Why? It isn't Christmas, or anything.''

''February is an endless month for the poor souls. Don't snoop - but see if you can make out if they have heat.'' She had a particularly tender smile. ''When you finish I'll have an orange for you, too.''

I plunged into the blizzard. I slid my scarf around my neck so I'd have a dry spot to breathe through.

As agent of the Private Sector, was I filled with sweetness and light? I was not! But I carried out my mission, because I knew my grandmother. So, feeling sorry for myself as my eyes brimmed with below-freezing tears, I trudged along Main Street, the promise of one orange comforting me.

''Made'' jobs? You bet! Grandy apparently didn't know there was a stigma to that kind of work. She had Mrs. A, who was her cook. She had Mrs. B, who cleaned the big yellow house. When my grandmother became a widow, I suppose she too might have been content to live in her kitchen, except that she had income so she lived all over her house, used every room of it, and naturally that meant she had to hire Mrs. B to clean it for her.

You say, why did one lone little lady who'd built a reputation for her skills in the kitchen have to have a cook?

That's simple. She had to have a cook to strew around flour and sugar and lard and such in her big kitchen so that she would have to hire help to clean up the mess. She had Mrs. A to make this mess so she could, in all conscience, hire Mrs. B who, in turn, helped her out by eating the delicacies Mrs. A baked, further obliging by toting home a package of goodies to her family.

A chain of ''made'' work which worked.

Their weekly game was a ritual. It had nothing to do with charity. ''Just a little something,'' Grandy would insist as she pressed a couple of dollars into the hands of Mrs. A or Mrs. B, who would protest, ''Oh, you give me too much.''

''No, no. Take it, take it.''

Just this past Sunday morning, dressed for church, I chanced to think of the Private Sector while I packed a bag of groceries from my kitchen shelves to add to the big box in the church basement, which would be carried downtown for the free meals provided for the needy. Yams. Macaroni. Apple pie filling. Stewed tomatoes. And as my cans filled the bag I began to feel quite sanctimonious.

Not for long. A memory of Grandy overwhelmed me. ''You don't happen to like the particular food you're giving, do you?''

I was housecleaning - not giving, the gallant lady brought to my attention. So I took another bag and reached for my choicest cans, starting with some excellent salmon I'd been saving for a treat.

Amazing, how all these years later she could still remind me, ''When you have a little more to give - give!''

Yes, Grandy, there's a present phrase that covers this, too. Be a gracious giver: ''That's what it's all about!''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The grandma sector
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today