Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Grandma Simmons

There is a story that I need to tell. It involves a topic that is so sacred to me, I don't want to write about it until my skill improves. I want to do it justice because to tell it improperly would be unforgivable. I placed it on a "Future Topics" list on my notepad and hoped to get around to it when I became more polished. Here's the problem: It won't leave me alone. I sit and try to focus on "My Garden," "My Love of the Cleveland Browns," and "Ghost Tours," but The Topic keeps butting in. It jumps up and down in my brain while I'm trying to sleep and shouts, "WRITE ME!" So I'm going to write that story today, even though I'm not ready. I'm also sleep deprived, haven't brushed my teeth yet, and am in great need of a shower. But The Topic is persistent and will not rest until this is done. So here goes...

I think just about everyone can name an endearing family member who had a profound effect on their childhood. My husband talks at great length about his Paw Paw who bought him his first tricycle and "popped" his toes. My friend has a great aunt who took her to her first live theater productions, inspiring her to pursue a life on the stage.

My siblings and I had Grandma Simmons. Grandma was our 4'10" maternal grandmother who lived with my grandfather in a tiny, post-war bungalow in Bedford, OH. Her daily uniform consisted of a cotton shift "housedress" and slippers. She wore her hair in a cute, short, straight bob. She always smelled of Sweetheart soap and Balm Barr hand lotion, except on special occasions when she'd spray on a little Emeraude cologne. She had this great, deep, silent laugh. Her shoulders would just bob up and down, you'd hear a quiet wheeze, and then her eyes would water. We LOVED setting off that laugh! My mother was an only child, so the five of us kids were her only grandchildren. This made us the luckiest children on the face of the earth.

As I've mentioned, ad nauseum, the Donnelly children were frequently referred to as a "group." My dad was one of five children, his mom one of thirteen (catholics!!), so there was never a shortage of aunts, uncles, cousins, and confusion over who was who. I've talked about my great desire to break out from the pack and be considered individual and special. Enter Grandma Simmons. To this day, I don't know if Grandma actually SAW this need and set-out to fill it, or if she was just doing her thing. I do know that so much of what I am now is a direct result of what she did for me back then, and I am forever grateful.

Here's a great example: Grandma color-coded. For instance, my favorite color has always been yellow. So Grandma had a yellow cup, yellow bowl, yellow towel, yellow floor cushion, all that were just for MY use. Laura's color was purple. Kathy's was green. I can assure you, while at Grandma's, I never ONCE took a sip from a purple cup. When colors weren't available, she'd pull out her bottle of bright red nail polish. We all had identical trick-or-treat pumpkins, except that mine had a tiny red "J" painted on the back. It probably seems silly, but I assure you it meant the world to me. Even our monkey swings were personalized. Monkey swings are large, round wooden discs that have a hole in the center through which a rope is threaded. We spent hours swinging on them from her enormous backyard tree. The wood was hard, so she designed cushions for each of them with brightly-colored chenille toilet lid covers. You guessed it, mine was yellow.

She cared for us individually in the way she played with each of us. I wanted to play with the many, many dolls she had in her walk-up attic, Laura wanted to throw a tea party with REAL liquid in her miniature tea set, Jack wanted to play in the "fort" she made out of sheets draped over a clothesline in her backyard. Grandma made it all happen.

Holidays were more than special at her house. She had a round dining room table that she would decorate with bunnies and ducks, turkeys and cornucopias, patriotic pinwheels, or pine cones and holly, depending on the time of year. December was her time to shine. I'm sure I will write countless more posts detailing the window stenciling, ornament making, and cookie baking that we did with her every Christmas season. She had one of those giant, silver aluminum trees that had a color wheel light illuminating it. We thought it was breathtaking. She and Grandpa would come to our house for Christmas dinner and we'd show her all the wonderful things from Santa that we had opened that morning. She'd inform us that she saw Santa the night before as well. Apparently he came to her place with presents for us. She told him she'd make sure we got them the next time we visited her. We had absolutely no problem believing that our magical grandmother had a direct conversation with the otherwise elusive Santa.

I think Grandma's greatest achievement was what she did for us on our birthdays. The weekend closest to our big day, we got to stay, by OURSELVES, at her house. No siblings allowed. We'd spend the night and catch the morning bus (Grandma didn't drive) to Southgate Shopping Center. We'd have lunch together at the dinette located in Sears, then shop for birthday presents. We usually ended up at Woolworth's dime store, where we'd purchase wonderful plastic treasures of toys and games. My frequent choice was doll clothes for Tubsy (Grandma LOVED Tubsy!). The rule was, though, that you also had to pick out one small gift for each of our sisters and brother. Even on our special day together, Grandma couldn't bear to leave the others out completely.

Thanks to a herculean effort by my mother, we were all involved in many, many school activities. There were lots and lots of band concerts, choir concerts, play productions, and dance recitals spanning over several years. Grandma missed very few of them. In fact, she was the one that showed up hours early, saving the best seats with her coat, her scarf, a purse, and my grandfather.

We loved her intensely. She was the recipient of the first Christmas present I ever purchased. It was a rhinestone Partridge in a Pear Tree. I think I got it at Woolworth's. I thought it was beautiful, like her. She wore it every year. Above one of her kitchen cabinets, she kept this pitiful paper mache "thing" (I think it was supposed to be a giraffe) that I made for her in first grade. When I reached high school I begged her to take that silly thing down. She told me it was a great work of art and she liked it just where it was, thank you very much. The same went for the construction paper/cotton ball santa on the wall and the decoupage wooden spoon hanging on the cabinet door.

When I was away at school, she became the Care Package Queen. Just about every week or so a large box would arrive from Bedford, OH filled with homemade cookies and trinkets along with cut-out comic strips from the paper. She'd write underneath the strip, "Thought this would make you laugh." Opening those boxes was like receiving a giant, Sweetheart- soap- scented bear hug. Priceless.

Shortly after I moved to NYC, I read about an upcoming audition for a role I was perfect for: Brunette, brown eyes, medium height, age range 20-25. "That's ME!!" I thought, "They are going to be SO happy when I walk through that door!" The day of the audition I entered the lobby to a veritable SEA of brown-eyed, twenty-something brunettes. They handed me my audition number. I promise you I am not making this up, it was #825. I found a quiet corner, shut my eyes and reminded myself that just a few hundred miles away stood a small bungalow where my first grade art projects hung on the wall. I thought about the lady who placed them there and how completely I was loved by her. Special, indeed. I didn't get the part, but when I got home there was a card waiting for me. When I opened it, a Family Circus comic fell out. I must admit, it made me laugh.

Catherine Alberta Simmons died from colon cancer on a Thursday, March 16, 1989. She didn't really fight that hard, she said it was time to go and was ready to return "home." She donated her body to science because she didn't want her family to spend one cent on funeral expenses. I asked her pastor if I could say a few words at her memorial service. It was going to be an intensely hard thing to do, but I felt I owed it to this woman who had given everything to ensure my happiness. I needed to speak that day because, as I explained to the congregation, everybody knew her as something different. To one, she was a wife, to another she was "Mom." She was to some a fellow church member, a co-worker, or a friend. I told them all they had been enormously cheated. Because Kathy, Laura, Jennifer, Jack and I were the only ones who knew her as "Grandma." And this, I know from the bottom of my heart, is what she did the very, very best.

It's been years since her death, but I can assure you I still think of my precious Grandma every single day. And every birthday, I put on a yellow outfit and think about how I'd give everything I own to take just one more bus ride with her to Woolworth's.

To Kathy, Laura, Jen, and Jack: I know, it's not good enough. I'll work to make it better. I promise you.

To everyone else: I hope this has made you think of the Grandma Simmons in your life. If that person is still around, put down this post immediately and go hug their neck. They deserve it!!

Thanks for reading!


Kathy B said...

Thank you. I don't know what else to say - I'm crying too much. I miss her too.

CentFla said...

Awesome again Baby!

Shan said...

Your Grandma Simmons was a mix of many people in my life. How amazing to have them all wrapped up in one person!

Now, where is my tissue?

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