13 Aug 8 Garden Street: A Memoir
My grandmother was a tough, old bit and you either loved her or hated her. I loved her with my whole heart. Today is her birthday – she died a few years ago at the age of 102 and today I celebrate the wonderful memories I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Being that Gram only lived a few blocks away, I was able to ride my bike there several times a week. She lived in a big, old Dutch Colonial where she grew raspberries, and pears, and had the most beautiful English flower garden she had cultivated for over 50 years. She said that part of the reason she lived so long was that she was always digging in the dirt and actually liked flowers more than she did people.
It was always an adventure when I went to my grandmother’s house. In the spring, Gram and I would sit in the old, metal yellow swing and she would tell me stories in vivid detail about her childhood: growing up in Princeton as the daughter of the crew coach, the one time she drank bootleg gin, how she wore a butterfly pin in her hair as a teenager, got kicked out of Miss Carter’s School for Girls, and she swore she had fairies that lived in her brook. Later, as she weeded and cut flowers, I could be found knee deep in the raspberry patch, filling baskets of pump, juicy berries to be made into jam, pies or scattered over our cereal in the morning.
Gram’s house was like summer camp for me, my brothers and cousins. The best was staying overnight for occasionally we would sleep in the creepy attic on a dare. It was always so hot and stuffy up there, with ancient shoes, clothing and furniture lying around. I was terrified of the coconut that was shaped into a monkey’s head and hung from the big, old bed post. I felt like I was taking part in a horror film as the spring storm of thunder and lightning echoed through the night and Gram talked us to sleep. The fierce wind would make the shutters bang against the house and the tree branches would tap at the windows. The faint sound of trains moving through the stillness when the storm subsided was the comfort that finally put me to sleep. I thanked God when I woke up the next morning alive! Gram was always up at the crack of dawn preparing thick, hot oatmeal with melted butter and whipped orange juice.
The summer was the season for Japanese lantern parties. The brightly colored lanterns were strung all around the yard, while special candles glowed in their jars to keep the bugs away. As the adults talked amongst themselves, we could be found playing basketball on the cement patio at the end of the driveway. The hoop was above the garage and we all took turns shooting from a certain crack in the concrete. When the night grew cooler and bugs had invaded our territory, we took the party downstairs to the finished basement where we practiced scaring each other to death in the oil burner room. Of the two dark paths in this horrifying room, the one to the left was the most challenging because the inky blackness went so far behind the walls. As the end of the route was a glow-in-the-dark Halloween skeleton and although we knew what it was, it managed to attack our imagination every time.
Come fall, I can still smell the crisp, dry leaves gathered all around the house. Bags upon bags were filled after we’d had our share of jumping in them. Before they banned leaf-burning in New York, Grandpa could be found at the curb watching a trail of leaves go up in smoke. When the nights were still warm enough, we’d sit in the screened in porch with a Kerosene lantern glowing on the glass table we all sat around. My father would tell ghost stories, all of them he claimed to be true, in a monotone story teller’s voice in rhythm with the chirping of the crickets outside. Cool breezes would rush in the screens, carrying the scent of pine from the surrounding trees. Faintly audible were the calls of mothers to their children to come in because the streetlights had come on.
Christmas had a whole other meaning at Gram’s house. As we got older, her house became a bed and breakfast and every year she had Santa from the mall staying with her for the season. Who had a grandmother with Santa sleeping upstairs? And later she had a semi-famous football player staying with her and one day I walked in and he was vacuuming the house for her!
Gram was a rip and really knew how to have fun. She would let us do things we would never be allowed to do at home, like pile on the cot mattress to make a “magic carpet” and fly down the stairs. Every few years we would go with her back to Princeton to visit the Boat House where her father’s picture is still hung. One year, my cousin and I took her to a Princeton-Harvard football game and got her to do Jello shots with us!
My grandmother created a truly magical childhood for me and I will forever be grateful for all the love and time we spent together.
Happy, happy birthday, Gram! xo
Some of her favorite pictures: