Last week I posted a piece about my mother and how my grandmother would whistle her chickens home long ago on a farm on the eastern shore of Maryland and how my mother, not quite so long ago, used the same whistle to call her children.
My grandmother was the only grandparent I would know. She lost her husband and the farm when my mother was still in high school.
Even though we always lived far apart I remember as a small child feelIng our inexplicable mutual affection when I would wish her happy birthday or Merry Christmas each year over the telephone.
Both my grandmother and my mother had a kindness that children almost Intuitively recognized as safe.
While the schools taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and how to compete in the modern world, my mother and grandmother’s universe was quite the opposite. It was more gentle. They focused on the wellbeing of those they loved. Their world was often damage control.
I was lucky to have known them.
In fourth grade the family moved back to Boston from Washington, and I started my 4th new school in four years. That summer I had developed a temperature of 104 and was taken from Randolph New Hampshire down to Mass General hospital to see Dr. Gross, a specialist in children’s lung problems.
The lower lobe of my left lung was removed which delayed my entrance into a new fourth grade class in which I would already be far behind because of the learning issues that had followed me from Washington.
The following summer I had to meet with tutors every day in order to be bumped up to the fifth grade, I had finally given up on school and slowly started to recess into myself and my gathering emotional despair.
In August, I got a break from the tutoring before fifth grade started.
The next thing I knew, I was scheduled to visit my grandmother in Chestertown, MD for the first time.
My grandmother was in her early 70s and lived alone in one of two small apartments on the 4th floor in an old building next to the bridge over the Chester River, which brought slow moving cars and rattling trucks in and out of Chestertown.
That first evening together, we ate a simple dinner on the card table. Then we went down the fire escape to the backyard with a jar with ice pick holes for air in its tin screw top to catch lightening bugs. Later, when the lights were out, they would be let loose in my room.
Like her daughter, Granny — which is what she wished to be called — had the softest paper-thin skin as she aged but maintained rough dishpan hands, which were perfect for back rubs.
I remember that first night being tucked into bed in an envelope of fitted sheets all alone in the darkness with the lightning bugs.
Somehow my tension disappeared into a quiet world that was my grandmother’s domain.
The next morning she vested me with adult authority. After an early breakfast of griddle cakes with maple syrup, grits, and kettle tea (kid’s tea — milk and sugar but no teabag), it was unspoken but somehow understood that I would be carrying my side of the responsibility by doing the dishes.
At breakfast she planned our day. We would be walking into town to do her errands and I would buy a simple fishing pole, some hooks, a tin pail to hold a small pocket knife, extra lines, some worms, and a red bobber that would flip over and pop up if I got a bite from one of the catfish that the old men routinely pulled out of the Chester River from off the bridge.
Granny had this uncanny ability to create an adventure and treat it like the business of life. She told me not to bother the old men who were fishing but be nice to them if they talked to me.
The men left me alone but they had stopped laughing together and focused on their fishing quietly as they occasionally would look over at me.
As I caught nothing, they caught several big catfish and I was envious. Slowly one of the men came over and asked if I would like some advice. I politely said yes and he pulled in my line, replaced my worm with bait from his pail, put on a sinker, and let the line drop into the brown water until it hit the bottom. Then he reeled it up so that the bobber would react to bites from where the catfish lived.
At the end of the day when everyone left the bridge, I left with them.
Midway through dinner, I proudly announced that I had made a friend. Without looking up, Granny asked, “was I polite?“ I assured her I was, which added to my sense of accomplishment, but I told her I did not catch any fish.
She said that she had done all the shopping that was necessary for our week, so I should be sure if I caught a fish to make sure that I gave it to my new friends. After dinner, and after I had done the dishes, because the sun had not yet gone down, we played slap jack on the folding table and I got pretty good at slapping jacks.
As the sun went down we repeated our collecting of lighting bugs for the room, and the next morning I repeated the day before, but this time with a little more self-confidence. My grandmother told me to leave my windows open so the lightning bugs could rejoin their friends before the next upcoming night.
The men were already on the bridge when I walked up to join them with my pail and fishing rod, and they welcomed me. They clearly had been talking about me after I left them the day before.
I was proud that I had been polite and that they seemed to like me. Within an hour of meeting them, I caught a fish and it was pretty big. They showed me how to remove the hook from the big catfish’s gaping mouth and I dropped it into one of the burlap bags.
The friendships increased into gentle humor, which was respectful on all sides but fun. That night we repeated the night before except my grandmother was laughing when I returned home, because she said that her downstairs neighbor had stopped her on the stairs to let her know that I had slapped a jack so hard the pendulum had come off of the grandfather clock in the apartment below.
I went back to school that fall and continued to fail, but I was less hesitant to call my grandmother just to talk but never to complain. We never talked about anything important but somehow we did.
Later that year, my mother left Boston hurriedly one morning to go down to Chestertown and I grew worried but couldn’t speak.
When I got home from school, my father was waiting.
I told him I was worried about my mother. I wanted to call my grandmother but he took me into the living room and held both my hands in his and said, “you can’t call her now. She has died.“
That was well over 60 years ago. We would both be about the same age now.
Even now, there are still times when I feel that I want to call her but somehow I can’t seem to find the number.