Age Twelve: The Great Void

Around the age of eleven or twelve, a kind of cleansing took place, and my memories are as sterile as the old house became when my mother tried to make it new.

Not long after my grandfather died, my mother decided to remodel the house. Looking back, I suppose it had to do with wiping out those years of sickness and impending death, but she went for a modern look: more or less Danish modern inside a red brick cottage built in the 1920s. The ruffled organdy curtains came down, replaced by sheers. The oil stove, our lifesaver during the ice storm, was removed and the fireplace sealed off. My grandmother’s old-fashioned dining room furniture, including the table I had played house under since I was a toddler, was carted off and replaced by starkly modern pieces. I remember everything as being beige: beige carpet (that was new, too, over old hardwood floors), a beige couch, beige barrel chairs . . . Daddy installed a big, ugly window AC unit in the living room. He bought a television set, and although what we saw on the screen looked like snow, we sat glued to it. Milton Berle. The Howdy Doody Show. Roy Rogers. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. Ed Sullivan. (There’s a great list of shows of the 1950s at Wikipedia.)

My room changed, too: the wallpaper printed with cabbage roses came down, and the walls were painted a pleasant shade of pale green. Mother had flowered chintz curtains made and a built-in window seat where I loved to curl up and read. I was changing, too, but not fast enough to suit me. I was behind other girls my age who were blossoming. I was still a straight-up-and-down girl, no curves for me yet.

My grandmother’s banana pudding recipe
The ledger is dated 1924.

During those years, my grandmother, not my mother, was the primary cook in our house. She was one of those instinctive cooks–a pinch of this, a handful of that–and she never used a recipe she didn’t modify. I found the handwritten recipe above in a small ledger she kept sometime after the mid-twenties. The ledger contains other recipes and notes and meticulous records of her sales of eggs, milk, butter, and cream to her neighbors. That’s how hard times were. It was the depression, after all. By the time I came along, the cow was gone, and although there are photographs of me toddling around the yard, chasing chickens, I don’t remember them. The ledger is falling apart now, and all the pages deserve to be scanned. They tell the story of my grandmother’s hard life, which may help to explain why life with her became difficult as she grew older.

My mother made over our house, all right, but she didn’t succeed in changing the dynamics of the relationships. My grandmother remained more the mistress of the house than my mother was, although my dad was the true head. It was as though my mother had never grown up; my grandmother treated her like a child. To give you an idea of how complex things were, I called my mother “Mother” and my grandmother “Mama.” At times it did seem like I had two maternal parents. And as I approached adolescence, the complexity of three generations of women under one roof began to take shape.

Do you understand the dynamics of your growing-up household better now that you have an adult’s perspective, or are they still a mystery to you? What questions do you wish you had asked when you had the opportunity? 

This is entry twelve in Jane Ann McLachlan’s October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge.

12 thoughts on “Age Twelve: The Great Void

  1. Very interesting dynamic. Growing up my mother’s parents lived next door to us. My mother was always very close to her mother, but of course they have their own issues. Now my Mamaw lives next door again, because my mother managed to buy the house next to where they used to live and moved her in there so she can help take care of her but not have to live with her. She will turn 89 on her birthday and is still mobile and feisty. But the burden of being entangled with a parent has only changed, from the child to the caretaker..

    I can’t wait for your next post!

    1. “But the burden of being entangled with a parent has only changed, from the child to the caretaker…” You are so right. My mother died young (well, relatively; she was 65) and I was responsible for my grandmother’s care until she died nine years later. The next post is up. I’ll be interested to see what you think since you have a daughter!

  2. My mom told me when my father died, her mom wanted her to come home, so Grandma could help out. Mom thought about it, but Grandma was a woman of strong opinions, and Mom didn’t want her children raised the way Grandma thought they should be – so she took a teaching job a good 6 hours drive from Grandma. It must have been hard when we were all young – but even though I loved my Grandma, I think it would have been harder to live with her!
    With only one parent in the home, I missed a lot of the tension of adult relationships. It was a good thing to avoid – but didn’t prepare me well for marriage and shared parenthood. Fortunately, we’ve muddled through, Ian and I.
    Jane Ann
    http://www.janeannmclachlan.com

    1. Your mother was a strong woman, and I think she probably did what was best for her and for her children. I’m not sure the dynamics I knew prepared me for marriage either, though. I idealized my dad and my parents’ marriage, and probably no person could have lived up to that!

  3. Funny how your whole history can change once you start discovering bits and placing them in a social context that a child would not have any inkling of. No language for it.

  4. What interesting dynamics. It sounds like your mother tried really hard to make that house her own home.

    My mother more-or-less deliberately found a man who would take her far from home, so we never lived closer than a several hour drive from grandparents.

    1. Joy, I think you nailed my mother and said it in a way I had not thought of. But that’s exactly what she was doing–trying to make the house her own. Even much later, when my parents and my grandmother moved to a different house, the struggle was the same. I probably need to write more about their relationship just to get a handle on it. Thanks for the insight!

  5. Gosh, family dynamics… We also had grandma and grandpa living with us when we first immigrated. I remember tension. My grandma was an instinctive cook too. Grandma’s back then…Later on, I remember cooking with her and transfering everything from her hand over to cups and spoons to write down the amounts. 🙂

    1. Yes, translating recipes! My mother did that with some of my grandmother’s recipes. Some I still have in her original handwriting, like this one, and lots of notes in her old cookbooks. They are treasures, but they’re fading and falling apart. My grandmother wasn’t a good teacher, though; she couldn’t stand to let *me* do it. She would take things right out of my hands.

  6. Love the journal, it does deserve to be scanned! Also love the questions at the end of your posts!!
    I do think I know more about the dynamics of my family when I was a child now that I’m an adult. I can process the happenings much better with an adult perspective!
    BTW, in our family our mother was Mama and her mother, our grandmother was Mama Brown 🙂 Mama Brown didn’t live with us, though, and I really only have one clear memory of her.

    1. Susan, my perceptions of my family are still changing after many, many years. I continue to analyze those dynamics, trying to figure out who *I* am, I suppose. I wonder how common it was to have the “mother/mama” names. I may read too much into that.

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