My world has wobbled on its axis with the passage of my mother’s mother this week. To have grandparents well into the middle of one’s life is a rare gift, and bittersweet to let go this late in the game. It sets me to reflecting, as I’ve been reflecting for years during her aging and decline.
Grandmothers are special beings. For the most part, they are disentangled from the relationships we have to the woman who gave birth to us. Grandmothers are free to nurture and play and spoil, wipe up and discipline when necessary, then send the little creatures home to their parents. Grandmothers can be a source of unconditional love, and the memory of their smile can last a lifetime.
My Gramma Mueller and I were kindred spirits from the get-go. My first memories of her are asking permission to pick some flowers from the yard. Pansies, specifically. She always said yes. I would carefully pluck some blossoms, then go tearing into the house to present her with the bouquet and watch as she placed them in water. Everything I gave to her was treated as a gift. With my mom carrying my younger sister, and me clutching Gramma’s hand, we would go for walks across the creek—a huge adventure. We crossed on a footlog, being very careful. “What’s that, what’s that?” I asked and pointed. My curiosity about nature was insatiable, and she always had the answer. Sword fern. Johnny-jump-up. Cedar tree. She taught me to pee in the woods.
Besides a love of nature, Gramma and I shared an urge to create. Her sewing room was a wonderland on rainy days. She didn’t just sew in there. Yarn for knitting and crocheting, ribbons, sequins, plaster of paris, scissors—she experimented with all sorts of crafts. Every pillowcase was embellished with embroidery and a crocheted edging. Every potholder was handmade. Much of the needlework and crafts were sold at the Grange Bazaar in November, with money donated to the Boistfort Valley Helping Hand Club. This group of women gathered to socialize and find ways to help neighbors in need.
The Boistfort Valley was home. This long valley follows the South Fork of the Chehalis River and Gramma’s relatives were among the first to settle there. Her parents worked a homestead along the river, with extended family at the next farm downstream. It was remote then, and going to town took all day. There are photos and stories of Great-Grampa Rayton clearing land with a team of horses. I don’t believe he ever had a tractor. Cousins going berrypicking with lard pails, and running home when they were afraid of bears. A sister, Mildred, who slipped off a footlog and drowned in the river—sorrow never forgotten. Gramma was the only one of my grandparents to graduate from high school. She was musical, but there was no hope of college during the Depression. She found work as a hired girl on a farm near Chehalis. The lady she worked for was something of a matchmaker, and set up a date with a neighbor. My Grampa. They married in 1935.
Grampa found work with the Long-Bell Logging Company, and the young family moved back to the Valley, to a piece of land next to Gramma’s parents. They set about building a house from scratch, creating a small farm, raising three daughters and a son. That house burned in the early 1950s and they lost nearly everything. They started over. By the time grandkids came along (my cousin Matt was the first in 1958, followed by Andy in 1959, me in 1960, etc.), the house was almost finished. There was a garage, an orchard, big garden, little barn for the milk cows, chicken house, pig pen. Family activities centered here on weekends and holidays. There was always plenty to eat and do. As the grandkids grew, we were enveloped in the rhythm of the place: gathering eggs, washing hands before meals, picking up sticks in the field still being cleared, chewing on sour stalks of rhubarb, watching Grampa milk the cow. There was much playing and silliness. I remember laughing so hard that milk squirted out my nose, and it was parents who told us to settle down. Not grandparents. My epiphany about grandparents came when I watched Matt, who was inordinately fond of raisins, reach into the raisin tub in the cupboard to snag a handful and he didn’t get scolded. Gramma’s house was different. Little allowances were made for grandkids, as long as we didn’t push too far.
Gramma was a safe haven during my teen years. Things were not good at home, as they said in those days. My dad’s alcoholism, my parents’ failing marriage, my own sensitivity made the 1970s a hard hard time. I was able to spend a lot of time with Gramma and Grampa, especially in the summer, and those days shaped my young malleable self. They were so solid, so rooted in the rain-soaked earth and the ways they had learned. As I followed Gramma through those days I learned about gardening, helped her can green beans and peaches, churn butter, bake a perfect pie. I learned to sew on her machine, how to make jam, how to bottle feed a calf. I learned about a million useful things. The sewing room was open to me, and I made all sorts of doo-dads that she kept around the house for years. I saw how she had a little quiet time every morning for her prayers, how she slipped to the mailbox with a birthday card or note to a neighbor. My grandparents were the hub of a family, and members of a community.
She was not all sweetness and light, in spite of her love of animals and sentimental things. She was a farmer’s daughter. She was a full-time farmer herself. She and Grampa collaborated and they both worked unbelievably hard. But he had the day job, and she held it all together. She could chop the head off a chicken, chase cows, run equipment, cuss and tell it like she saw it. She waged war on the Steller’s jays at the bird feeders, calling them “hogs” and “dirty devils” who chased the little birds away. One way she had of clearing up clutter outside was to set it on fire. Sometimes we would be washing supper dishes in the kitchen while the evening news played in the living room, and I would hear what she really thought about the state of the world. Her judgments were often startling in their ferocity. Gramma was a feminist in her own way, and didn’t always agree with how men were running things. Might be better if people minded their own business. Might be better if we all practiced what we preached.
When my dad died unexpectedly, it was Gramma who called to tell me. It was the first time I heard her cry, one of the few. I was 20 years old, settling my father’s estate and trying to figure out how to arrange life for another grandmother with dementia. She came to see me at my dad’s house, and brought me a bouquet of clove pinks. I don’t remember what we talked about. Maybe it was nothing. But I knew she held me in her heart, and I drew strength from her love.
In my twenties, I was a something of a wanderer. I started working in the woods, and was without a phone for a few years. When I went for my mail, there was a letter from her every week. I wrote back. Our weekly correspondence lasted for over 20 years. If I missed a week, she called me on the phone. The firefighting made her nervous, and I know I was always mentioned in her prayers.
She accepted me as I am, even when she didn’t understand. Without her saying a word, I knew that my decision to go to art school was fully supported. My choice to not have children probably baffled her, but she never questioned. When my marriage came apart, I know that my pain hurt her. Her Christian faith was unshakable. When I told her that I couldn’t swallow organized religion, all she said was “Your church is outside.”
She got it about me.
After 66 years of marriage, Gramma was widowed for almost 11 years. I don’t think she ever got used to it. Like so many things in her life, she accepted it. But the last years were hard. She was able to stay in her own house, but it was isolated. The world had changed, and families are more far-flung. So many things changed during her lifetime. She stopped keeping track. The world zoomed by faster and faster, and she stayed there on Wildwood Road. Going to her house, being in her company, was a way to slow down.
I will miss that. I will miss my most familiar kindred spirit, and connection with a treasured part of my life. Of course I’m beyond grateful to have had her so long. To have seen her last week to say goodbye, to have held her twisted hands and looked into her familiar brown eyes. Never a big person, she was much diminished by living 99 years. Small but mighty, and ready to go.
As with all loss, I know I will be feeling this one for awhile. Tangible reminders are everywhere—I mix bread dough in her yellow bowl, sew on her old machine, pull on a crosscut saw like she did. A honeysuckle vine from her house twines on my arbor. Along with the loss, there are the gifts. I know I carry my Gramma’s spirit within me because I recognize the creativity and fierceness. I grow flowers to give away, remember birthdays, write poetry, light fires. Any one of us can do what she did—plant hundreds of daffodils, pray for those in need, spend time in nature, make things with our hands. Be a presence in the lives of many, be humble, be strong, be vulnerable. I wish for the grace to live as honestly as she did.
I wish it for us all.
Dorothy Marie Rayton Mueller
April 15, 1913 to August 21, 2012