My Pretend Grandmother
There should be a title for people like Mrs. Smith--neighbor doesn’t cover it, friend doesn’t even come close, maybe a “kind of” or pretend grandparent? She was not related to me, but she was a grandmother to me in every way that mattered. Even though I had two perfectly good grandmothers, neither lived close. Mrs. Smith was right across the street, a wonderful surrogate, pretend, “kind of” grandmother!
I wish I had a picture of Mrs. Smith but it was the 1960s, film was expensive and therefore, pictures were scare. Maybe you can catch a glimpse of her through my memories: she was a short, round woman, soft in the places a stereotypical grandmother should be. She wore her long, gray hair twisted into a braid that hung most of the way down her back, and if it ever was free of the braid, I was never privy to the sight. Always dressed in slacks and a loose shirt, obviously unencumbered by anything as conformist as a bra. She had an occasional drink, and her raspy voice breaking out in loud laughter was tattletale to her nicotine habit. Her scent stays with me, a contradicting but compelling smell of used ashtray and vanilla-laden sugar cookies. It’s a smell I came to equate with comfort and kindness.
She was always there, across the street and waiting for a visit from me--or at least, that’s how it felt to me. I was a shy, quiet child lost in the chaos of three siblings. I craved silence and solitude; going to her house was my escape, my special place. Mrs. Smith would always welcome me, sometimes even offering me an icy cold coke in a green-tinted glass bottle – an incredibly rare treat! She had long, narrow liquor bottle boxes filled with small toys, and I was allowed to get one down at a time. She didn’t force interaction on me, sensing I relished the calm of listening to sounds of her baking in the next room as I played my imaginary games.
In the month leading up to Christmas, her home became a Christmas cookie baking wonderland, a magical place to which I was allowed to make short visits to check on the baking and decorating process. I knew to look but not touch. Her home was small, but every space was filled with card tables loaded with cookies. These weren’t just simple sugar cookies, these were elaborately decorated works of art. Every cookie was painstakingly decorated in detail with multicolored frosting and occasional sprinkles. It was my first introduction to those tiny little silver sprinkle balls, and I was fascinated. Like a dog under the kitchen table, I hoped if I hung out long enough and was a good, quiet dog, ugh, I mean kid, I would get a scrap of a defective cookie. Pant, pant, who’s a good girl? Mrs. Smith could actually pass for a Mrs. Claus now that I think about it, just take away the liquor and the smoking and change her wardrobe a bit. When the thousands of cookies were finished, they were packed in fancy cardboard gift boxes and given to about a hundred lucky recipients. Mrs. Smith is the reason it’s just not Christmas season without at least one good cookie decorating session, but I’ve never come close to duplicating her creations.
As the third girl in the family, my wardrobe consisted primarily of whatever I could scrape together from the pile of my sisters’ leftovers. I had absolutely no sense of fashion, I only knew I had to put on something to go to school. One of my strong memories of my pretend grandmother was her response to one of my school outfits: "Honey, do you know plaids and stripes don’t really go together?” I took it hard; this was coming from a woman who couldn’t be bothered to wear a bra. I knew it was serious. Although that 8-year-old me wearing plaid shorts and striped shirt was embarrassed, I was also grateful for the guidance. I still have no fashion sense, but many times as I’ve attempted to put an outfit together, I’ve heard Mrs. Smith’s cautionary words of advice play through my mind.
She wasn’t my real grandmother, but in so many ways she played the role. I had four grandparents and I loved them, but they weren’t part of my daily life, as they lived too far away. Mrs. Smith was there with cold cokes, Christmas cookies, toys and fashion advice. She took care of me when my mom went to the hospital to give birth to my little brother, cushioning the blow that I had a brother instead of the preferred sister, by taking me to my first ever trip to McDonalds. I can’t imagine my childhood without her presence. She accepted me and although she never said it, I know she was fond of me.
If you don’t have biological grandchildren, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a tie with children that is beneficial to everyone involved. There is no genetic connection required to make a positive impact and lasting memory in a child’s life. Tulsa Public Schools needs reading partners; volunteer to mentor a child through the Big Brother, Big Sister program, or start with your church by volunteering to teach Sunday School classes or help with Vacation Bible Schools. Children need all the love they can get. It’s not a competition. There is always room for one more “kind of," surrogate, pretend grandparent in a child’s life!