Monday, April 12, 2010

a granddaughter remembers...

My grandmother Edith (pictured below holding a python because, really, why wouldn't she be?) would have turned 91 today. 

The following excerpts are from the eulogy  I gave at her funeral in 2006 which will shed a little light on a rather remarkable individual...

“If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

Somewhere along the way, my great-grandmother Agnes McLaughlin came across this poem and whispered the phrase “hyacinths for the soul” to her daughter, Edith, as a gentle reminder of the soul-restoring power of simple beauties.

With her artistic eye and seemingly limitless creativity, my grandmother delighted in finding beauty everywhere. There was no ordinary event that with her planning and creativity could not be turned into an extraordinary occasion.

But it didn’t always turn out as planned.

She told of one particular incident during her time in India. She was hosting dinner for visiting dignitaries. Ever the conscientious hostess she had chosen the menu and linens and tableware with the greatest care. My grandmother was very determined; things were to be done her way. Equally determined was Choitna, her cook. This led to gigantic clashes of wills. She had given Choitna instructions to serve after-dinner coffee in dainty demitasse cups.

Choitna assured her that the guests would want to take their coffee with lots of hot milk. But my grandmother insisted – there would be demitasse cups.

Dinner went flawlessly, of course, and as the guests were settling in for conversation Choitna appeared silently with the coffee.

In large, chipped pottery mugs.

On a cookie sheet.

Lined with that day's copy of the Madras Mail.

It may perhaps be the only time on record when my grandmother was rendered speechless.


My grandmother loved girls – particularly those of the high-spirited independent variety. It’s probably why she loved Jane Austen’s heroines so much. I think perhaps she could relate to their struggle to balance free spirits with sometimes rigid social custom.

She would be nearly as excited as I was about the arrival every summer of my cousins, Meredith, Kate and Amy. Year after year we returned to our favourite nooks and crevices and tide pools on the rocks on “Grammy’s beach." And year after year, she would delight in getting the grand tour of our imaginary castle. (I think she was particularly amused the year we added the imaginary shopping mall.) At the end of the day she would throw one of her picnics on the rocks. And as we reclined on our stone thrones and stuffed ourselves with hotdogs and hamburgers and marshmallows, we couldn’t imagine a more elaborate banquet.

On my 11th birthday, Grammy agreed to a sleepover at the cottage on Grand Manan. Having raised two sons, I suspect she had been storing up ideas for girls’ parties for about 50 years. Standard balloons and streamers wouldn’t do. Lavish crepe paper flowers festooned the “chair of honour” as she called it. And she had fashioned an elaborate birthday banner. with lettering and flowers made of cut-up bits of brightly coloured kitchen sponges. As she spent the evening attending to a gaggle of giggly girls, I think her feet hardly touched the ground.

How she laughed one summer night when Meredith and I burst through the door, sleeping bags trailing behind, after an ill-fated sleep-over in the cabin in the woods behind the cottage. Twenty years later she would still chuckle and re-enact our breathless explanation, “Oh Grammy - there was an IT! We can’t explain. It was just an IT!”

She was like that. Whenever a particular phrase or expression amused her she would hold on to it and remember it years later. Words delighted her. And she, in turn, delighted others with her command of a pen.

Her earliest letters from India are both poignant and funny portraits of a young woman warding off homesickness with a great deal of pluck.

“I’ve had to harden myself to a certain extent about some things – like Christmas at home, our old hot-dog parties and just sitting around the stove in the evening, or Sunday night church or going to George’s… For if I dwelt on the fun we always had, well, you folks made it too heard to leave; there was just too much fun to give up… I always think of you on Saturday night at ‘bean time’, drat it! And I wonder if the days of hamburgher parties and such will be outgrown in another five years.”

She adored fun and high spirits. But she was also deeply serious. She followed current affairs passionately and always brought a well-formed opinion to just about any subject. She was devoted to the arts both as an observer and participant. And she was deeply committed to bettering the lives of women.

The work she did in India teaching the women of the Sora tribe to read and write was a point of particular pride. I remember how her voice – that voice with its perfect modulation and flawless diction – how it would drop to barely a whisper as she told of the woman who was so proud of her letters, she refused to erase her slate. Or when she told of more than one husband who, angry at his wife’s first rudimentary experiments in writing, had smashed the slate to bits. I remember her stories of the women working by candlelight, taking those first tentative steps towards literacy and liberation. She had gone to India to support her husband’s mission and had found one of her own.

For 87 years, my grandmother delighted in small triumphs, in simple beauty and in everyday occasions in our imperfect world. She lived life as a reminder to stop and enjoy those “hyacinths that feed our souls.”


Anonymous said...

Lovely Heather.Nice to have such good memories.

the paris apartment said...

Wow, what a woman! Thanks for sharing such a wild spirit. Love your blog!

Liz said...

Beautiful Heather, she must have been one remarkable woman. She would be proud of you! this post brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing it. And thank you for being there for me a few years ago when My Nan passed away. It meant a lot to me

MissAllaby said...

Thanks so much for the kind comments. She had a great eye, great curiosity and enormous creativity. Often when I am working on blog posts I think how much she would have delighted in this medium.