Saturday, October 10, 2015

"Grandma Blake" from HOME IS WHERE...


         Let me tell you more about the people who were a part of my childhood.


         First, my Grandma Blake, who lived with us and was a big part of our lives. Her husband had passed away in the early 1940s, and after Mom and Dad married, they all lived together.

         I was ever so lucky to have such a beloved woman as my Grandma Elizabeth Blake, “Lizzie” to all. She had ten children, six girls and four boys, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This was why Christmas seemed to last a week. Every day, more company would come.

         All of her boys – my father and his three brothers – worked on the railroad, as did many of the other men in Maybrook, NY.

         Our six aunts also lived close by, and were always a presence.

         My grandma gave me an old newspaper reporting President Abraham Lincoln's death. Each of us sisters took the paper to school, and it started to fall apart. After we moved, I could never find it again.

         Grandma would often tell us stories of her childhood. At the time, they weren't very interesting to us, but, oh, how I wish I could hear them now! Grandma would tell us how she raised ten children and did her chores, making butter, bread, doing laundry, and tending the garden and livestock.

         Grandma loved to go for rides in the car, and it didn't matter where. She was always in the back seat, and when we returned home, she would always say the same thing, "Home again, home again, giggle dee gig." Grandma was happy all the time, even when her knees ached or her ankle bothered her; she had broken it years before.

         Grandma Blake used to tell Nancy and me about the Depression and the hard times, with men walking the tracks from town to town and coming up on our yard, not asking for much, maybe coffee or a piece of bread. Grandma told how she treated them all with a meal and another one to go, a jar of coffee, and cardboard for the inside of their shoes, and she would darn the holes in their socks and listen to all of their stories.  Almost all the same, going from town to town, looking for any job so they could send money home to their families, not having much luck, they were so grateful for the kindness she showed them. You could see in her face the joy that she got out of helping others.

         Grandma Blake would tell us that when they worked the farm with their father, the family would eat a breakfast that was like a supper: potatoes, biscuits, some kind of meat, and coffee.

         She was not your Grandma of today. She wore her long white hair in a bun, wore a housedress, apron, cotton stockings, and black shoes. She sat in the kitchen by the window in her big rocking chair, whistling either "Silver Threads Among the Gold" or "Rock of Ages."

         One of us girls was called upon to empty Grandma's potty chair. This was not a chore we tried to beat the other girls out of, but when asked to do it, we did it with love.

         Grandma didn't raise her voice often. One particular time, we went for a ride, and she loved to go. We would go on the back roads. She would get excited if she saw a big turtle, “Stop,” she would say, "I can make turtle soup." We never did, though.

         On one of these trips, when we got home, I got out and then Grandma did. I was watching something else and I shut the door with her hand in it. All she said, calmly, was, "Dear, my hand is in the door." Her fingers were bleeding, and her hand was black and blue for awhile, but she never complained.

         I couldn't say, “I'm so sorry!” often enough. She would try to make me feel better.

         As Grandma got older, we would do more for her, set the table, tie her shoes, make her bed, fix her breakfast. I was 21 when she died, a big loss. Her death left a huge empty space. She was our friend, care-giver, secret-keeper, advisor, and, mostly, Grandma.

         At times, we wouldn't be allowed to do something we wanted to do. We would run to Gram and say, "if I can't do [whatever it was], I'll die,” and she would reply, “Oh, not now, the grounds to bury you in will have to thaw.”

         "Oh, Gram," we would reply.

         Nancy and I would get those toy paddles that each had a rubber band and ball attached. After they broke, Dad would save the paddles supposedly to use for spanking us (it never happened). Grandma would throw every one away if she found them, but as I said we never got hit, ever.

         We always knew the line not to cross. I have heard other people say the same thing: “All I needed was The Look.” That was so true. I remember “The Look.” It still gives me goose bumps.

         Grandma Blake had some cute sayings. One I remember most is the one she would say every time someone gave her money. She would fold it up and put it down the front of her dress, and with a twinkle in her eye, she would say, "I'm going to save it for the peanut bus.“  I still don't know what that meant.

         My mother and father told Grandma to apply for Social Security. She couldn't understand how the government gave you money for doing nothing. She did apply, though, and bought herself some new things. She would give us money for our birthdays and Christmas.

         We also got money for a tooth that fell out, $.10 per tooth. Sometimes, we would make the mistake of telling Dad our tooth was loose, and he would go and get the needle-nose pliers and pull it out. We also learned never to tell Dad we didn't feel well. We would be given an enema, not pleasant at all.

         Grandma Blake told us about a neighbor across the street from her who also had cows; one day the neighbor---who had just gotten a new, big diamond ring---came over to Grandma while she was in the yard with another neighbor, and she put the hand with the new ring on it right up to her own face and said, “Has anyone seen my cows? They seem to have run off.”

         Grandma told us the woman’s cows were not missing, she had just tried to impress her with the diamond ring, and Grandma was not impressed at all. Even for Christmas when we asked Grandma what she wanted for gifts, she would reply, “Oh, I don’t need a thing. Don’t waste your money on me.”

         Grandma Blake had the same thing for breakfast nearly every day: coffee, shredded wheat, and Uneeda crackers with butter; the crackers were hard as rocks, but even when she had no teeth, somehow she ate them with no trouble at all. I have looked for Uneedas but can’t find them any more.

         Nancy and I made home-made birthday cards for Grandma’s eightieth birthday. We spent all day on them, even writing a poem. Grandma would get the usual birthday presents---aprons, hankies, hair combs, stockings, and candy.  Grandma had a leather mattress cover, and when Nancy was sick, she would go up to her bed. Grandma would ask her, “Now, you’re not going to be sick, are you?”

         “No,” Nancy would reply.  

         Guess what would come next? Grandma would then have to bring that leather mattress cover down to the kitchen sink to scrub on the washboard, but she wasn’t mad.

         When Grandma’s eyesight got bad, we read her the paper.

         Grandma would also recruit one of us to sit on her lap and pluck her chin hairs with her trusty tweezers. She had a number of chin hairs that she tried to contain. We would respond to each request by telling a sister, “I did it last time. It’s your turn this time.”

         Of course, this chin hair business was something else that Doreen was not a part of, but she couldn’t escape the family genetic curse: we all have these dreaded chin hairs that have been controlled in many different ways. I would love to have back just a part of the time we spent on this project. Grandma would thank you and you would be on your way back to whatever you had been taken away from. We didn’t much mind because Grandma had often taken the time to play Old Maid or Go Fish with us when we were bored on a rainy day or a sick day.
         Grandma Blake also was the cook and caregiver after Mom went to work, once Nancy started school. Grandma was there when we got sick or hurt, always with a cure. Pine pitch from the pine tree for an infection; these same green leaves mashed to juice for poison ivy; Wintergreen berries for a stomach ache.

         Many times, Grandma would sit on my bed, rubbing my aching legs with alcohol. Dad said if he saw us going upstairs before school, he knew we wouldn’t be attending school. Grandma also fixed Dad’s lunch every day, and in summer she would send Nancy and me outside to get things for the meal. We would get apples, berries, dandelions, some scallions, and she would fix these.
         Grandma had some old-fashioned beliefs. When I was 12, during the summer one day, I “became a woman,” as what they called my "friend," came to visit. It wasn't much of a friend. It was a big surprise. We had been told nothing. Nancy ran to Grandma, telling her I must be dying. Well, I wasn't, Grandma said. Although I wasn't dying, I was taken away from any water: no hose, no pool, no bath, no shower, and no hair washing. I never knew the reason for all this, and of course there was no playing or over-doing, just rest. This, according to Grandma, was a major event that should be celebrated. I soon learned how to use this to my advantage: no gym or gym showers and taking the day off from school once in a while.

         Getting back to Grandma Blake and her beliefs, one year Nancy and I got little recliners for Christmas. Hers was green and mine was red. We loved them. We’d push them up to the television really close.

         Grandma would yell, "You are going to go blind sitting that close.

         We’d move them, and after she left, we’d put them right back.
         Grandma always loved seeing the new members of the ever-growing family. When Doreen’s son was born in October 1969, they stopped off on the way home from the hospital to show Grandma Blake the baby.

         Grandma said, "Oh, what a cute puppy! Now, why did I say that?" And then she laughed.

         One day after school, Nancy and I got into a big fight. Grandma did her best to stop us, pleading for us to stop. We didn't, and Grandma had some kind of attack. We were scared she was dying. She asked us for a drink, and Nancy got her a big bowl of water while I went across the street to get help. She was fine, but we were wrecks. We didn't forget that for a long time.

         Grandma Blake had one sister and three brothers. Her father fought for the South in the Civil War. He was also a glassblower and would take long trips for work; when he came home, her mother would hold out her apron and he would drop gold coins in it. He was leaving on another trip when all his children held onto his legs, begging him not to go. That was his last trip. He never went again.

         Grandma believed in taking care of the graves of loved ones, which Nancy and I helped with at Christmas and on Memorial Day.

         As I told you, Grandma Blake raised us, and she made sure that we behaved. Two things I remember that she would say if we were fighting among ourselves. The first was, "Wish-a-dee, child. Wish-a-dee." If we didn't stop, her next was, "Now, by the great horn spoon!" We didn't know exactly what this meant, only to us it indicated we would better get moving, because we didn't know what was going to happen next.

         Grandma cooked a few dishes that were her own recipes, great fried green tomatoes, and chutney that we would use on the pork chops. Unfortunately, we never paid attention to how she made the chutney, so the recipe is lost forever.

         Grandma loved the holidays, and she really loved the Christmas tree, especially the lights and the smell. She never asked for any gifts, and always when she was asked, she said, "Just get me some handkerchiefs." I'm sure this made gift-giving quite difficult for the big family. She would end up getting powder, stockings, aprons, pins, and sometimes a box of candy.

         One Christmas she received a box of ribbon candy. Nancy and I took this to the back of our bedroom closet and ate the whole box. I swear I've never eaten another piece of ribbon candy again, nor do I know if Grandma ever knew what happened to the candy.

         Grandma Blake had been born December 12, 1875. On her 90th birthday, in 1965, they gave her a big party; friends and relatives came. Everyone who knew her, called her "Ma Blake." After she passed away at the age of 94, she was greatly missed. She had died in her own bed. Her last words were, “Get me my hat. I'm going home."


We are serializing here Home is Where the Story Begins: Memoir of a Happy Childhood, written by Kathleen Blake Shields, with my coaching and editing. Her book is available through her publisher, Outskirts Press, as well as through such online booksellers as and You will enjoy it.

My writing/coaching site is

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