I’m not the person I was fifty years ago and I’m not the person I was a year ago. I keep changing and though my former selves seem to fade away, they reside within me like Russian nesting dolls tinted with the colorful brushstrokes of others.
The gentle brushstrokes left by my grandparents continue to grow brighter as I age. My Woody grandparents lived in a big city. My Weber grandparents lived on a farm. Distinctly different, each of them left a positive imprint on me.
Sometimes while working on a creative project, a specific memory of my Granddad Woody comes to mind. Seven years old, I sit on a vinyl covered chair next to him at his kitchen table. The day is overcast, too wet and muddy to go out to play so he surprises me with a new coloring book and box of crayons which he sets in front of me on the table.
I get up on my knees for a better view and leaf through the book until I decide to color a drawing of a basket of apples.
Using red crayon, I scribble inside the outline of a large apple. Granddad taps me on the shoulder and says, “I want to show you something.”
He borrows my red crayon and begins to color one of the other apples. He explains that he’s doing something called 'shading' and demonstrates how he’s able to make a color pale or dark by pushing harder or more softly on the crayon. As he does this, one side of the apple stays light red while the other gradually shades into a stronger, richer color. His apple looks much rounder and real than mine so I decide I want to try.
Granddad smiles, hands back the red crayon and I attempt to shade an apple. My crayon slips and leaves smudge marks outside the lines. “Oh no! I made a mistake!” I say.
My grandfather puts his arm around me. “Honey, it's okay. Those marks are what make your picture your own. If you didn’t leave your special mark, it would be boring. It would look like it was done by a machine.”
As with Grandad Woody, I also relive childhood moments with my Grandma Woody, especially at Christmas baking time. A quiet person with a good sense of humor and a soft, mellow laugh, she demonstrates her love through action, not words.
I see her wearing a blue-gingham apron showing me how to sprinkle multicolored sugars on her spritz cookies. Since I'm an eight year old in a hurry for the dough to bake into 'melt-in-my-mouth' cookies, I spill small amounts of sugar on the floor. Grandma doesn’t seem to mind.
Other times, when I'm sewing, I remember Grandma winding a soft yellow measuring tape around my waist to fit me for a new dress. She’s chosen green cotton cloth since she knows that’s my favorite color. Once she's ready to sew, she slides the fabric under the needle on her black Singer sewing machine and places her foot on the pedal below while I watch her and listen to the steady, rhythmic click-click-click as she stitches.
I often think of my other grandfather, Grandpa Weber, when I’m picking raspberries in my garden. Six years old, I stand by a thorny thicket at the edge of his freshly tilled farm field. Tanned with weathered skin, pale blue eyes radiating kindness, Grandpa shows me how to pick the raspberries without getting poked by thorns. He tells me, “The berries should pull off easily. If not, that means they’re not ripe enough.”
Following his directions, I pick berries that are so juicy they crumble easily, staining my hands and making them sticky. I lick my fingers and wipe them on my pedal-pushers. Since my attention span for any activity is limited, I stop and ask Grandpa to tell me what the land was like when he was a boy.
First, he asks me to stand silent for a moment so that I can hear the chirping of birds. When he sees that I’ve been a good listener, he goes on to tell me how the forest was here before the farm field and how he hunted and fished along the nearby stream. He tells me how important nature is to all of us.
Finally, there are times when washing my hair, I see myself as a five year old girl, feet planted on a firm wooden chair in front of Grandma Weber’s kitchen sink. She stands beside me, pleasantly plump, wearing her usual outfit, a house dress and apron.
I lean over the sink and put my head under the soothing water from the faucet. Grandma asks me if the water is just the right temperature. I nod with my upside-down head, and soon after, cool drops of shampoo dribble onto my hair. My head bounces as Grandma uses her fingers to softly massage my scalp and create a soapy lather. She tells me to keep my eyes closed so that the soap doesn’t get in them. I like the smell of this shampoo. It reminds me of the white tree blossoms in her yard.
Grandma rinses my hair until it squeaks, then wraps my head in a soft, fuzzy towel before we move to a cushioned sofa in her living room where I melt into her lap. My curls are still damp as she carefully brushes through them, but the brushing never hurts when Grandma does it. Once she’s finished, she looks at me and tells me I have lovely hair.
Instead of saying thank you, I point to my arms and tell her that I hate my freckles. Grandma replies, “Oh, honey, I love your freckles. I didn’t have them when I was little and I always envied the girls that did. Freckles are beauty spots. Why, you are so lucky to have them.”
After reliving the memory of Grandma Weber washing my hair, I drift into my last memory of her.
I’m forty-six and she’s my only remaining grandparent. Grandma has turned one hundred and one. My parents and I are visiting her at her home where she’s still living on her own.
Wearing a dress that matches the soft pink of her well-defined cheeks, she seemes a bit shorter, a little more stooped, yet her smile is as bright as ever.
We sip Grandma’s ice tea and chat for a while before I begin to ask her about her life in the olden days. On this occasion, my father is video-taping while I interview her. Though I already know most of her answers, I never tire of listening to what she has to say.
Since Grandma doesn’t hear very well, I project my voice and begin with a question I know she loves to answer. “When did you fall in love with Grandpa?”
Eyes twinkling, she grins, folds her arms across her lap and says, “When I was three years old.”
I ask another favorite question. “What was it like when you were a little girl?” Grandma stares out the window with a serious look and answers, “I didn’t have a lot of material things like children do now. At Christmas, I didn’t get lots of presents. I was grateful to receive a pair of stockings, a banana or maybe an orange. One time, I wanted a doll more than anything and that year, as luck would have it, our church gave a small doll to every little girl. I was thrilled.”
Grandma is quiet for a moment, then adds, “I didn’t feel I was lacking. I had the important things. I had what can’t be bought: love and understanding. “
Her stories continue as she talks about happy family gatherings, banjo music, fried catfish and homemade jam and pie. She describes what it was like to live through the Spanish flu pandemic, the Great Depression, World War I and World War II. I listen intently, trying to soak up every word.
I then ask her something I’ve asked her many times before. “Grandma, do you have any advice for me?”
Once again, she is silent and looks off into space like she always does when mulling something over.
“Well,” she says, “I know you are never too old to learn. I know I sure keep learning. There’s a poem I memorized years ago and have never forgotten. I want you to learn it. It goes like this: There is a rule in life, as true as true can be; the joy I give away, returns tenfold to me.”
Grandma glows when I promise to remember the poem.
She then says, “Barbara, enough about me. Is there anything special that you would like to do while you’re here?”
With all the talk about memories of days gone by, I can’t help but think of my own ‘olden days’. A request rises up from the young girl inside me. I ask Grandma if she would mind washing my hair.
Grandma smiles and pushes herself slowly into standing position. Taking a few awkward steps while shaking off her stiffness, Grandma exits the living room and meets me at the kitchen sink with a soft, fuzzy towel, a hairbrush and some shampoo. Since Grandma’s hands are not as strong and steady as they once were, I adjust the water, open the shampoo and squeeze the sweet smelling liquid into her hands. Once again, her warmth washes over me and I feel young and beautiful all over again.
Two months after our visit, Grandma was gone. A peaceful death, she merely wore out and slipped away. Memories of kind words and actions from her and my other grandparents remain and guide me still.
The blessings I received were most likely bestowed upon them. Their influence resides within me and trickles onto others. I don’t know who I will become tomorrow, but I hope, like those who have gone before me, I continue to give my joy away and leave gentle brushstrokes of my own.
Whose kind words and actions touched you and remain with you?
What do you wish to leave behind for others?