Wisteria, Enamelware, and Wee Grandma Alice
She is clothed with strength and dignity and laughs without fear of the future (Proverbs 31:25).
“How tall am I now, Grandma?”
Though my paternal grandparents didn’t live far from us, weeks might pass without us seeing them, and a lot of growing can be done in a month’s time.
Having asked, my sister and I would take turns sidling up to Grandma Alice, measuring our height to the buttoned bodice of her German Baptist church-uniform dress–the frock with the sewn in cape that served for warmth during colder months and suited nursing mothers well when breastfeeding babies.
“Three buttons down from the top!” one of us might exclaim. “Now only two!” Then one, until we eventually met her eye to eye. Not so difficult for even a twelve year old. After all, she was barely five feet.
Small but mighty was Grandma Alice. A mighty seamstress who made most of her clothes, as well as those of her husband Frank, and her children when they were young. A book-binder–known for her work around her rural Ohio community called Brookville. A gardener with a mighty green thumb–whose wisteria hung wild and wonderful around the front of their home, whose African violets produced blooms to no end.
One of nine children, Alice Rosetta Balsbaugh was born on February 21, 1906 to Albert and Phoebe Balsbaugh in Menominee, WI. She moved with her family to Flint, MI when she was five, all their possessions–farm equipment, animals, and household items–carried from Wisconsin to Michigan by train. She later met and then married Frank Everett Miller. Before Grandpa’s passing, they’d celebrated almost six decades of marriage.
There are many things I remember about Grandma Alice–the memories evoking sweet tugs on my heart, as well as burning tears in my eyes, so missed is she.
Her pantry–a step-up sort with a louvered folding door that, with eyes pressed close, offered just enough of a view from within for the hider in a game of Hide-and-Seek. While waiting to be discovered, one could nibble saline crackers from the tin tucked on the second shelf, just behind the box of Ralston whole wheat cereal.
The free-standing kitchen cupboard just inside the garage door–a narrow sort with several shelves. On the very bottom she always kept an enamelware tin that held an assortment of Keebler cookies–Fudge Stripes, a certainty, as well as Fudge Strips, and sometimes Coconut Dreams or some other variety. In a world of so much change, my sister, cousins, and I could always count–as predicable as the weather–on cookies in that cupboard, though I know something now that I didn’t know then. Grandma kept them in enamelware because clumsy, eager hands grasping for a tasty treat could always be heard. Small and mighty, and smart too, that Grandma Alice.
The trundle bed, made by Grandpa, in their guest room–so high for a youngster she needed to be hoisted to get in to it. Held up by sturdy linked chain, it virtually hung from the ceiling, and under it was a roll-away bed that, like Grandma’s pantry, made a perfect hideaway for game players, as long as one didn’t suffer from claustrophobia. Many cozy nights were spent in that double bed, with cousins and my sister Katie–where stories were told and secrets shared. A bookshelf, too, lined the foot of the bed, and I remember discovering Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin and reading it when I was of age–marveling at the courage it took to do what he did, feel what he felt, that he might better understand the plight of the black man and woman. Only the Lord knew then that I would later become the mother of a black boy–understand better in my own heart the sadness that sometimes comes in a cruel world where few desire to truly empathize with the plight of a people group unlike ones own. Perhaps the Lord was, in His mercy, preparing me for what He alone knew, there in that trundle bed.
The bulletin board on the underside of the pull-down train track that was also made by Grandpa there in that guest room. Grandma proudly pinned up the cards she and Grandpa would receive from grandchildren, drawings too, like a wall at the Chicago Museum of Art. Rarely were any taken down, just added to over the years, until the wall resembled a mosaic of Hallmark greetings, a collage of coloring pages created by thoughtful children for grandparents whom they adored.
The toy buggy and the patchwork dog that my sister, cousins, and I would playfully–and somewhat rebelliously–send flying down the basement stairs, count in whispers how many seconds it would take for Grandma Alice to proclaim, “Sakes alive. That poor dog! Please don’t do that, children.” We’d snicker behind fingers, though I realize now that we were willfully disobedient in the act, knowing full well it caused Grandma alarm and irritated her to no end, though such wasn’t an easy thing to do. Maybe that’s why we did it–just to see our small but mighty Grandma with her feathers a wee bit ruffled, though that was certainly rare.
All the treasures tucked behind a sheer curtain in Grandma’s front picture window–the forest diorama, with its woodland creatures glued to faux moss that always brought delight. “There’s a deer! There’s a bunny!” little Girl me would exclaim, pointing them out to Mama. And the ceramic overstuffed chair upon which perched a white Persian cat. Why such brought never-ending joy a grownup Me can’t quite comprehend, but it did, and the memory of such still does.
The glass candy dish that sat on the shelf by the front door–always a place to find a butter mint, a peppermint in pink or white, and sometimes hardtack upon entering or prior to departing Grandma’s house. Like the Keebler cookies, they were predicable in an ever-changing world, offering comfort simply because upon such one could rely.
And there are so many other things I recall. The broken bobbly-head Boston Terrier in the rear window of their Nova. No longer bobbling, it sat there in the sun, still as a statue, and made Katie and I laugh. The way Grandma always carried plastic baggies bound by rubberbands in her purse–holding treasures that could never be quietly unwrapped, like Horlick’s Malted Milk tablets. She always held in the confines of her purse several toys–a stretchy donkey and a cowboy–for her grandchildren to play with at church, especially for Katie and me when we’d visit them, attend their unique 2-hour long service, sit on wooden benches hard as stones and listen to hymns sung acapella from small black hymnals that everyone carried with them. Such was so unlike our own church–with its padded pews and Sunday School, hymnals hard-bound books in pockets on the backsides of each pew for easy access, and songs sung with an accompanying choir, as well as piano or organ accompaniment. Though I appreciate the memory today, even wish I could go back to experience it all again, the lengthy, stoic services of Grandma’s church–with men on one side and women on the other, where everyone literally greeted same-gender church members with a kiss–developed my faith, no doubt, and drew me closer to Jesus.
There was the laundry shoot in their bathroom. Grandma’s Dippety-Do and comb tucked in the medicine cabinet–something she used each morning as she bound her hair in a bun at the break of day. The dresser drawer in their bedroom that held special children’s books, the glass container in their closet that held marbles, and the old black telephone in the cubby in their foyer, right next to the closet that contained their old upright vacuum and a box of crayons and coloring books, comics and more children’s books.
Outside their home, one would discover an abundance of flowers and foliage and an old well pump that, if filled with a bucket of water, could still be primed–a perfect play thing for little girls pretending to live in pioneer days, when life was simple and hard work held reward. And don’t forget the cast iron bell that could be rung, calling pretend husbands to dinner and pretend children in from play. And I never understood why but was always grateful for the plethora of seashells that was in all of Grandma’s flowerbeds and around the yard. Perhaps she placed them there simply because she loved them, and perhaps that’s why I, too, love these gifts from the sea so much, all these years later. Like Grandma’s glass container that held marbles, I have one similar, which holds my abundant collection of shells from vacations past.
Perhaps I am who I am today, much in part because of dear Grandma Alice–who barely stood five feet tall and whose hair, though quite long, I rarely witnessed down–always wound around and knotted on her head, under a prayer covering that she wore every day, nearly every moment of the day, until she’d prepare for bed. Only then would she unpin it, allow it to hang loose over her cotton nightgown, before closing her eyes, then drift to sleep.
A small but mighty woman who’d often exclaim, “Wheeeee!”, she was always young at heart–even telling me once, with fingers crippled with arthritis held tight to her chest, “Even though my body reminds me I’m old, I still feel like a girl inside.” She was ever committed to her religious convictions, her faith in Jesus, and her family. Asleep now in the arms of her Savior, she’s forever young, and I can’t wait to see her again.
Thank you for everything you always were–for everything you are. More alive now than ever in your ninety years here on earth, I’m certain you’re delighting in being daughter to the King, right alongside Grandpa and so many others who now call Heaven “Home.” One day I’ll be there too. Until then, thank you for the wholesome recollections that, all these years later, shine light in this often dark world, even if only for a few moments when I stop, sit, and savor the memory. You instilled in me a love for wisteria and enamelware, and many other things, but mostly you encouraged me that, though quite small, one can be mighty in her faith. I love you, Grandma Alice. And when I grow up, I want to be like you!
To hear the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as I heard it as a girl, click the title here. And tears burn again…