Columbus Day, 1984

This essay was first published in 1994, as it’s Columbus Day Weekend, I’ve recycled it. Iwasn’t Christian at that time so long ago, as you can tell by the closing comments, but I ask your prayers for Bessie Mae: may her memory be eternal. – DHR
My grandmother, having a fun time

In 1984, on Columbus Day. I was working for a presidential campaign. Mondale and Ferraro were not the most exciting pair imaginable. There was some hoopla over the lack of Y Chromosomes in Ms Ferraro’s blood stream, but she was a politician through and through: very skilled and stirring up the emotions of domesticated primates. She and her Alpha Male was not as skilled as the leaders of the Republicans but that’s OK. I was walking up the Parade Route at about noon. Behind the Candidates, and their secret service and the media vans, there was a crowd of supporters. We had been stationed along the route before the parade. The idea was to sort of flow into the parade behind the passing group as a sort of staged ground swell of support. The night before, another political campaign group had been climbing light poles all up and down Fifth Ave. to place posters of “Mark Greene for US Senate”. I had discovered that with the right assistance – someone else to hold the posters and the stapler – I could climb up the light poll and run a line of Greene posters out along the electrical wire and thus make these huge arches along over 5th Ave. This was especially useful at the Metropolitan Museum where the trees parted and the gray and white stone and sky formed a perfect backdrop to the green arches of Mark’s Posters.

In the fake, Grass Roots mob, I was leading a sort of Greek chorus in a chant. I would yell, “Mondale!” And then a host of women would yell back “Ferraro!” Several media persons had commented on how the lone man in the group seemed to be the only person yelling for Mondale. At about 60th Street, I was surprised to find that I had been joined by my Fraternity Brother, David. He put his arm around my shoulder and very simply said, “Your Grandmother has died.” David took me to place a call to Mom, and then put me on the subway. It was that day that I learned that crying on the NYC subway can get you nearly a whole car to yourself.

L-R, My Great Grandfather, Great Uncle Lyle, My Great Grandmother,  and my Grandmother.
On the wall are photos of my Great-Greats…

My grandmother, Gran’ma, Bessie Richardson, had raised me from the time I was 1 until I started school in the Fall of 1970. It was she that – for better or worse – taught me how to clean and use all sorts of kitchen things. My grandfather taught me how to build with tools and to do electrical wire stuff. But I was home all day with Gran’ma. Gran’pa was an evening and weekend kind of experience. When she wasn’t yelling at me to stop watching TV and to go outside and play, Gran’ma was getting her house in order. That’s all I can remember her doing. She’d clean. She’d cook. She’d bake bread. She’d make lunch. Gran’pa would come home. We’d eat lunch. Then we all took a nap. She’d clean, and get dinner ready. At night, after she had done the dishes, we’d watch TV while Gran’ma would crochet. On other nights, if there was a special movie, she would pop corn on the stove, or make fudge. Sometimes she would go back in her bedroom and play the little electric organ that sat on her trunk.

There are some special memories all tied up in sitting on her bed, feeling the chilled mix of air- conditioning and the satin-like bed spread, while she played and sang hymns from her old song books: “I come to the Garden Alone” and “The Old Rugged Cross” and “The Little Brown Church in the Dale.” I can’t imagine what memories those songs inspired in her. I know what they bring back to me.

She couldn’t really sing. She sang with a voice which crossed somewhere between the older Kathryn Hepburn and Harvey Firestien. I can still hear her, and I’m still smiling. She taught me how to play the organ and to crochet granny squares with the same patience and skill that my grandfather, Kenny, used to teach me wires, ohms and resistance and other science things like evolution and geology.

Grandma and her brother, Lyle

The family gathered in the home town of Edenville, Michigan. The town is very much trapped in the 40s and 50s. Sitting in a little pedal boat, you move up the local river very slowly, until rounding a bend you come upon a large dam. There, on the other side of it, time moves forward, but Edenville is still sitting in the time when my grandmother owned a restaurant and filled it with her daughters, cooking for the locals during the depression and WW2.

At the funeral, all that time ago, I preached the eulogy, as was fitting for the “Son” even though I was the oldest son of the youngest daughter, almost everyone in the family had met me through Gran’ma: my first trip to Michigan had been with her. I also sang, “I come to the Garden Alone”. It was her favorite. My cousin Greg played the organ in the funeral home while I sang. People cried. She had red roses all over her casket, or at least she does in my memory.

I’m not going anywhere with this story. It’s has just been on my mind all week, as I realized that Columbus day was coming up. Grandma was the center of her very large family: 7 daughters, her children’s children and the sisters and nieces and nephews and grand nieces and grand nephews. Her death was really the last time we were all together. The center had gone out and there were to be no other Matriarchs. In a large sense, there are now 7 matriarchs, all the sisters heading their own families, but I miss the days when we had a center. I could sit in her kitchen and look at the plates on the walls, from places that she had traveled with Gran’pa and I was constantly imagining a world that was no longer open to me: a world where she and Gran’pa had traveled after the war. The closest thing I’ve found so far is Muir Woods. That still looks the same as many of the pictures that were found in their albums. San Francisco, on the other hand, has changed greatly: the pictures I received from Gran’pa look nothing like the city in which I live. Those pictures were taken in 1961.

I miss my Grandmother. I have a lot of her in my heart and life: I still take my rings off when I bake bread. I can still make an afghan though it takes me months and months to do it because I won’t pick it up every night to work on it. I still believe in hard work, and when I don’t clean right, I can still hear her voice.

Anyway, I’ve rambled a long time. If the Internet is connected to the Astral Plane – as some people seem to believe – then Gran’ma’s continuing Ed class in Heaven has probably surfed this page a couple of times. I love you, Gran’ma. I miss you.

Mom hates this pic, lol.  But it’s rather a mid-century classic!

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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