Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Beads and Buttons: Grandmotherly Memories

Had she lived to this day, Enid Veronica Daniels née Sam would have seen her 99th year completed. My grandmother was born on September 25th, 1918. She was born under the British rule of what is now the former colony of Guyana, in South America. She once told me that she worked in rice paddy fields there, and left her formal education to help her family at an age comparable to 8th graders. She did not see Obama as president for eight years, and Grace spared her the indignity of many other events since.

Enid bore nine children to adulthood, and adopted four of her eldest grandchildren, sponsoring them to live with her in the United States and continue their education. She was twice as old when she had my mother, one of her later babies, than when my mother had me. I believe she was in the middle of her own siblings, of whom I only ever met two, but heard tales of most of them all of my life. There is a lot of mystery (to me, yet) surrounding some other facts of her origin, like the tale of distant Chinese ancestry, her maiden name allegedly Anglicized over time.

Enid named her children very proper names. English, Roman, Christian, French names. Some middle names had Latinate or Germanic undertones, to be sure. Perhaps all of them had two middle names.

She worked all of her life, until she started forgetting the pot on the stove every day, and as she recounted to me more than once, accidentally left straight pins in the clothing she was mending for her charged. The parents got scared that the children would get injured, and as much as they loved her as their nanny, they parted with tears for the last time, her grey hair the only steely aspect of her disposition stubbornly intact. That was that.

She was amazing, nonetheless, in all of her ambitions, making countless sugar cakes on order for formal functions, guava jelly and pastes to the eternal distaste of several uncles and cousins tasked with helping her in the kitchen in their formal years. There is a picture of my grandmother in a crisp white nurse's uniform, testament to the tale of how she got her GED in New York City at age 65, and started going to nursing school before leaving that to care for the adopted grandchildren. She made a great many strides before Alzheimer's took over.

My grandmother's entrepreneurial spirit was borne of poverty and practical innovation of the resources she could command, on three continents, in four countries, spanning six decades. She funded several children's school fees and supplies, study-abroads, special projects, and fabric for uniforms she probably sewed, or at least darned, herself. All of this occurred before I was born, however.

The Enid I knew was decidedly more reserved and sternly adherent to her home devotionals and congregational services. I accompanied her on many Bible studies and bus outings to Boston and Washington D.C.. The old hymnals still ring in my head, and many of the lyrics as well are committed to memory. If she had her way, I would have always worn skirts and dresses and had my head covered and my hands gloved in her holy presence. She had a sharp tongue for rebuke, and a heavy hand for the occasional spanking. Had she lived to this day in full health and mental faculties, me, my mother AND sister would have some serious explaining to do about what we were all doing with our lives, for sure. It was not her style to smile for most pictures, and I was often scolded to "stop skinning my teeth", even when I knew she could cackle most vibrantly when put upon with a funny memory.

I first learned that onion, lime and cauliflower made delicious if peculiar pickles because of Enid. We would take trips to Woolworth and scour the craft section for zippers, beads, buttons and paper patterns. I credit her with my modern preoccupation with the minutiae of design, as I was often responsible for helping her rip out the incorrect bead-work in one of her coasters or table settings. I regret never learning to knit or crochet from her, or paid closer attention to the magical moment of her plait bread rising in doughy deliciousness.

For a while as a preteen, my grandparents held myself and my sister close while my mother worked on her undergraduate degree. I was very unhappy about being left in their care, and developed a distance from my grandmother in particular, favoring my grandfather's more taciturn benevolence (there were Werther's to be had, and long nights watching PBS when she fell asleep). She often seemed ill-tempered, and bossy. My grandmother's snores kept the dragons at bay, though. You could always find a treasure of quarters fastidiously wrapped in toilet paper when she sent me to fetch something form one of her many purses.

Things got progressively downhill after my family deposited me on campus in Southampton, and she was never the same after that farewell trip. She died three years after my grandfather, and thus I lost them both on the cusp of my young adulthood. I hold on dearly to the memories I have of Enid. There are videos somewhere from a long ago family function, and several boxes of pictures over the years. Occasionally my mother would reveal a craft piece that she had saved, or I'd come across an old postcard wedged in a book with her distinctive proper handwriting. She was the matriarch of the Daniels family for over 50 years, and she lives on in so many grand and great-grandchildren. I am honored to have known her as long as I did. Love you, Ma.

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