Thursday, October 6, 2011

A particular clear shade of blue

My grandmother died on Wednesday morning. She was 93 and it was good that she finally went. She was ready; had been ready for a while, but her puritan sense of duty probably kept her going even when the rest of her wanted to lay down the burden. Mary Tyrrell Ritchie Thayer was a complicated woman, not without contradictions and difficult angles. Her influence on my life has been enormous, incalculable really.

The work I do in my day job now, for reproductive justice, was directly influenced by her own commitment to women's health and intentional motherhood. I will keep analyzing all the ways she shaped me for years to come. I have a feeling there is a book in it. But her influence on me was perhaps most strongly felt in the simple gifts she brought to my topsy turvy childhood.

The following is something I wrote for a memory book my aunt made when Mary turned 90. It was intended for a family audience, so references may be obscure. Don't be too alarmed by the joint. It was the early 70s after all; I was raised among hippies.

I am told that I once rolled Grandma a toilet-paper joint. I don't remember this myself. She probably said, "Oh, why thank you," and raised her eyebrows. I do recall walking down Broadway with her while in New York for Jonathan and Linda's wedding and seeing a man energetically gesturing and talking to himself. I was very young. I must have stared. Grandma leaned down and told me, "That, Beedie, is what we call a character." 
Matter-of-fact, drily funny, and kind, Grandma was a great friend in my childhood. The house on Roosevelt Drive was a soothing and orderly oasis for me; it seemed then to be eternal. These are some of the things I remember.
- Finger games and knee bounces on the couch under Van Gogh's room in Arles and the somber gaze of his postmaster.
- A particular clear shade of blue.
- The smell of Dial soap and Norwegian hand lotion.
- Milk in a Wedgwood pitcher (not unlike the one that served half-and-half for my Kix cereal when I met Great Grandma Ritchie in Kansas City).
- Warm chunky applesauce full of cinnamon, 'cots up in the cupboard, and Swiss cheese with butter on homemade white bread.
- Sardines and lettuce on the same. (Orson, recently obsessed with the eating of "fish that dieded," prompted a purchase of sardines, and I pass on my sentimental fondness to my own children.)
- Handwrittern menus for my personal "Hilltop Restaurant" passed through the phone nook along with a short pencil so I could mark my choices in the little boxes drawn along the left margin.
- Creamy, white TicTacs in a little box beside the blue rocking chair.
- The whole series of Robert Coles' Children of Crisis. I don't know why, but these made a strong impression.
- The cool, quiet darkness of the playroom.
- Flower bulbs sleeping in pots on the floor of the closet that also contained my shelf of board games.
- Chutes and Ladders, and later the Miss America Pageant game, which I adored, played on the floor despite how it made Grandma complain of stiff knees.
- Tiddly Winks and Pick-up Sticks!
- Draping myself like a bobby-sox infanta in black lace mantillas and Aunt Nell's old petticoats.
- Sometimes getting to add a string of millefiori beads from her dresser top to the costume. 
- Sitting on the basement stairs and waiting for her to be done with the laundry. (I picture an old washing machine with rollers, but I'm not sure she used it.)
- We ventured out, too, for rambles at Stroud's Run, where we monitored the progress of a giant crawdad that lived in the shade under a footbridge 
- The footbridge was on the path to the "pioneer cemetery," which I thought we must have discovered all on our own.
I think it is because of her that I notice the small details of the world. I am a writer because of that as much as I am because of Grandpa's literary influence. There is more than one kind of character. I am so grateful for all the time I spent in the company of this one.