I recently read a Facebook post that posed the question: If you could spend an hour with anybody from the past, who would it be?
I suspect that the question was meant to elicit the names of famous people who have influenced nations or human destiny worldwide. But my immediate response -- had I chosen to respond online -- would have been: my maternal grandmother. She was a special person to me throughout my life... right up until she passed away at the age of 97 in 2003.
Born Anna Burritt in Connecticut to an English father and Welsh mother, my grandmother ("Grandma" to me) was one of six children. In many ways, she was a lady (in the truest sense of the word) of her times. However, she also engaged in some activities that were somewhat outside the norm for her generation: changing her name to Anne (she hated Anna), hosting a radio talk show on fashion, acting in local theater productions, and earning her own income as a clothing buyer for a department store.
Although she gave up these pursuits when she married, her artistic instincts and flair for fashion were apparent all her life. Not only did she manage to stretch her weekly household allowance to cover the costs of decorating the apartment she shared with my grandfather and her two daughters by finding beautiful horticultural and Asian prints in second-hand book and print stores and framing them herself, but she also sewed some of her own clothes... usually without a pattern. And she always seemed to know just what scarf and/or brooch would complete "the look."
I remember a couple of dresses she made for me when I was in elementary school, both of fabric I helped select. My favorite was a luscious, impressionistic, floral print of greens, pinks, purples and blues; it made me think of a Monet painting. And she even made some beautiful dolls' dresses, including a red gown with net overlay and black velvet belt and bow sleeves for my Francie doll. (Those of you of a certain age will remember Francie, Barbie's younger, less-voluptuous, sister.)
Because my parents settled in northern New Jersey, not far from Riverdale, NY, where my grandparents lived (in the apartment my mother grew up in), my grandparents were a fairly regular presence in our lives.
From the time I was in elementary school, I loved to spend occasional weekends with them. My grandmother taught me to play Parcheesi and Scrabble. She cooked a delicious and, to me, exotic Dover sole covered in a thin crust of melted and browned cheddar cheese. And she introduced me to Trident cinnamon-flavored gum and little hard candies made with sesame seeds.
I discovered the pleasures of tea drinking at my grandparents' apartment, enjoying a cup in the afternoon or evening while sitting on the bed my mother once slept in and watching the small black-and-white TV sitting on a painted chest of drawers.
During these weekend visits, I was allowed to indulge my great pleasure of reading, soaking, and just day dreaming in the bath tub, a pastime I still enjoy. Their tub was old and big and perfectly sloped for reclining in. And, best of all, I was allowed to partially empty the water when it cooled and refill it with new, hot water...something I was not allowed to do at home because of concerns about the water bill. I'd emerge an hour later, fingers and toes wrinkled like prunes, but blissfully content.
My love of jewelry -- both fine and costume -- dates back to these childhood visits. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of one of my grandmother's neighbors giving me a Danish sterling vermeil bracelet of linked white enameled butterflies. And my four- or five-year-old self took exquisite pleasure in donning several of my grandmother's sparkly Regency and Trifari rhinestone necklaces and brooches -- with earrings to match -- and then applying bright teal eye shadow from eyelashes to eyebrows and vermillion lipstick to my lips. (Subtlety was not my forte.) Best of all, my grandmother would let me keep on the jewels and makeup when we headed to the market for fish or chops and some fresh peas. I rode proudly in the grocery cart, munching on peas from the single fresh pod she allowed me to open. Years, later, for my 16th birthday, my grandmother gave me her matched pair of opal band rings, which I still enjoy wearing today.
Getting "dressed up" wasn't the only adult activity I engaged in when staying with my grandparents. Once I discovered that they each drank a glass of warm water with lemon every morning, I quickly decided to join them... never asking why they did it. I also lay on my back on the floor next to my grandfather, both of us with our feet propped up against the wall for 10 minutes, as some sort of adult health ritual.
During my early teen years, my NYC weekends included shopping excursions with my grandmother to Macy's, Gimbels, and various small Manhattan boutiques, along with lunch at some attractive lunch spot or other. I distinctly remember a little place called La Potagerie, where we enjoyed an amazing, hearty, minestrone soup with a spoonful of parmesan cheese in the middle.
We rarely bought anything on these girls' days out, but we had great fun browsing. And I did make a couple of memorable purchases: my first long dress -- white with pink flowers and tied at the back--to wear to the retirement party of one of my father's colleagues and a brown leather purse which met my very specific criteria for color and shape. It still hangs in my closet, and except for some minor cracking of the leather, it's in near mint -- and stylish -- condition.
Over the years, things changed... as they always do. I went away to college, moved to the DC area, and got married. But my grandmother remained a constant, if somewhat removed, presence in my life. We exchanged letters and chatted periodically on the phone; she was always interested in what my husband and I were doing, especially when it involved our house or our dogs... or even our parakeets.
She especially loved hearing about and seeing pictures of our first trip to England, reminiscing about her own visit there. I remember her recounting a stay in a small inn somewhere in the middle of the moors, huddling under the blankets at night, listening to the wind blow and being reminded about Daphne Du Mauriers' novel Jamaica Inn.
At the age of 90, when loss of vision caused by macular degeneration made everyday chores a challenge, my grandmother moved out of the apartment she had lived in for more than half a century and into a senior residence. I was deeply impressed by her ability to adjust to life in a community that could be as cliquish as any high school. With help from my mother she decorated her room with her favorite furnishings and created an oasis that was her to a T. She lived there for seven years--her mind sharp as a tack--until she passed away quietly and peacefully in her sleep.
She died before I became involved in animal rescue and took a job at an animal shelter, before I had the opportunity to visit some European countries she had explored, and before my interest in photography truly blossomed. So an hour would be far too short to share everything I'd like to with my grandmother: to look at travel photos on my laptop, to show her my small collection of opal jewelry and my larger collection of vintage costume jewelry, to introduce her to our dogs and our current two parakeets.
But it would be a gift nonetheless... one enjoyed, of course, over a good cup of tea.