No Meddling

Paula Grieve

© Copyright 2023 by Paula Grieve

Photo by Romina Farķas on Unsplash
Photo by Romina Farķas on Unsplash

Going to Grandma's house meant a trip to a special place, a veritable treasure trove filled with things irresistible to the curious nature of a child. Pulling into the gravel driveway, the first thing to be seen in summer was the manicured lawn stretching over a hundred yards, to a thick copse of trees. From the multiple bird feeders in the front yard, positioned above a family of three plastic deer, (in winter, snow drifted to cover the points of the buck's antlers), to the weeping willow overlooking a small combination flower and vegetable garden out back, Grandma's yard was full of opportunities for exploration.

Her lush green lawn was laden with ceramic frogs, gnomes, and swans interspersed amongst patches of tiger lilies, plumbago, and shasta daisies. Trees she had planted as saplings when my father was young soared 30 feet into the air. A perfectly groomed dome of pink tea roses, four feet in diameter, scented the air next to a small metal shed. Next to her porch, an old tractor tire sat, turned on its side, painted white, and filled with yellow flowering cactuses. A commercial wooden bird house welcomed a family of cardinals through the winter, while the plastic bird bath provided respite to blue jays, robins, and hummingbirds during the summer.

The dark, stained wood porch, rebuilt by my father after many years of weathering, was dotted with hanging baskets of begonias, petunias, and morning glories, which occasionally attracted a random bee or two. A large wood mushroom, which Grandma bought one year at a summer fair we attended, seemed to sprout from the base of the stairs leading to the porch. Grandma and I had watched in awe while a man sculpted the mushroom from the trunk of a tree using a chainsaw. The edge of her property line was marked by a four foot tall, covered, wooden wishing well. Countless times I peered into the shallow depths of the "well" making a wish for a thousand more summers with Grandma. A thick welcome mat, greeting all who entered, rested in front of the door to her home.

Once you graced the door to Grandma's house, just to the right upon entry, rows of flower pots lined shelves underneath two kitchen windows. The African violets were Grandma's pride and joy, while numerous pots of cactus piqued my interest. More than once I had to have a fine filament removed from a tiny finger that got too friendly with the prickly plant. A white tea kettle sat, stoically, on the gas burner of her olive green range, ready to pour a cup for every visitor. Multitudes of magnets, representing a recurring theme, decorated the refrigerator door: Mushrooms, birds, and frogs formed a collage I carefully repositioned to a spot more ascetically pleasing to my young eye. Years later, after I left Wisconsin and moved to Florida, I sent Grandma a lovely set of mushroom accented ceramic tea cups with saucers which I carefully laid into a FedEx box full of foam packing peanuts.

Grandma had a knack for engaging me in activities to enrich my life, while also providing entertainment. One year, she helped me to roll a hollow wooden dowel in peanut butter, coat it in bird seed, then tie it to a tree branch for the birds to peck at. She taught me how to stew the rhubarb, which grew in a patch along the shed. By adding just enough sugar, the bitter acidulous stalks morphed into a sweet tart treat we then turned out onto a prepared pie crust before baking. I'd often pick blackberries from the brambles behind her house to make pies. I spent countless hours of my childhood in that kitchen, helping to make homemade cookies, rosettes, and fried donuts while listening to the energetic sounds of Elvis. She had a special talent for creating the most delicious desserts which she rarely ever indulged in, preferring instead to wrap parcels of chocolate covered cherries, banana nut bread and a dozen kind of cookies to family and friends. The snapdragons, made from thick molasses, were a favorite of mine, as well as the sugar cookies she depressed a Hershey Kiss into the middle of.

At my father's home the pantry was stocked with Grape Nuts, Shredded Wheat, and occasionally Raisin Bran. More often than not, breakfast consisted of Cream of Wheat, Malt O Meal, oatmeal or French toast. Store bought snacks and soda were not to be found in my childhood home. I eagerly anticipated stays with Grandma, with her cupboards stocked full of Lucky Charms and Fruity Pebbles. Make no mistake, Grandma understood the value of a well balanced meal: Only skim milk for the sugary cereal, one half of a Ruby Red grapefruit first, and a cup of black tea rounded out breakfast.

Without cable, the metal rabbit ears on top the TV at my father's house provided limited broadcast shows on NBC. Grandma lived in town. During the day I would watch brilliant fish swim, clear and crisp, across the 19" screen while sitting on the brown calico carpet in her small living room. We would occasionally drive in Grandma's blue car to the only gas station in town, where VHS tapes were available for rental, so I could watch scary movies. I don't think my father ever knew that Grandma let me stay up until midnight watching Freddy Krueger slash the soft flesh of sleep deprived teenagers.

A glass fronted case, next to an easy chair in Grandma's living room, contained a display of plastic horses galloping and rearing towards a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. The last time I saw that comfy chair, the top bore the slight weight of a dozen green frog Beanie Babies. During every visit to Grandma's, a red rotary phone sat next to the chair. Eventually, when I was a teenager, she got a cordless for the bedroom.

There was this thing I used to do when I was real young: I would point out all the tchotchkas on the mantel that I wanted bequeathed to me one day. Grandma always played along and said that when she was gone those things would be mine. A small metal clock, a cardinal perched on a piece of bark, and a filigree heart shaped box were the items I claimed as my own.

I have photos of my son at age 5 sitting on Grandma's carpet watching TV, and there, on a table next to the recliner, is the same red, rotary dial phone she had when I was my son's age. Looking at those old photos gives me such pleasure. A glimpse back in time to a world that provided a lifetime of memories: The sand dollars and dried star fish my father brought back from a scuba diving trip to the Cayman Islands. Several crocheted afghans, near identical to the ones she crafted for me, draped across her davenport. The old record player Grandma used for playing Elvis's albums. By the front door, an old butter churn with blue painted leaves. Weary cattails, dried and brittle, in a tall blue and white pitcher.

Just inside the door to Grandma's bedroom, on a low wooden credenza under one of the room's two windows, was a crystal bowl full of "wheat" pennies. On the opposite side of Lincoln, two stalks of curved wheat hugged each copper penny. On 4th of July, I would stand on my tippy toes, looking out the other bedroom window, towards the park where fireworks lit up the night sky. I always slept with Grandma when I stayed overnight. In the bedside drawer she kept a stash of cookies and crackers for nighttime noshing. While Grandma read from her well worn bible, I would nibble. Eating in bed has remained one of the most normal things I do to this day.

Grandma made one promise to me: If she ever won the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes, she would take me to Hawaii. Grandma had worked for a Hawaiian family for most of her life. Each year the Malaysies would take Grandma with them to Hawaii. Each year Grandma would bring back gifts of coconut candy wrapped in edible rice paper, macadamia nuts, necklaces made from shells, grass skirts, and Hawaiian dolls.

I idolized Ed McMahon. He was the bespectacled, grandfatherly man I watched, season after season, smiling on Grandma's TV, who stood with the ecstatic recipient of the latest oversized check. All those zeros boggled my mind. Even though I was unable to fully comprehend the mathematical calculations, the import was conveyed by the winner's face. An exaggerated smile stretching to the fullest limit. I dreamed of trips to Hawaii.

From my earliest memories, I was always allowed to go to the bathroom at Grandma's by myself. I could even close and lock the door without worry. There, next to the commode, a stack of magazines sat patiently, waiting to have the pages perused. The Reader's Digest, with its child size articles, was always my favorite. While I was able to choose any magazine I wanted, I was not permitted to touch anything else in the bathroom. I would sit, longer than necessary, flipping through the dozens of magazines, with short, thin legs swinging against the porcelain, feet several inches from the ground, dreaming of the day we'd walk hand in hand on the sandy beaches of Kauai.

There was only one rule at Grandma's house.

A hard and fast rule, a repeated mantra drilled into me before I traveled the hallway to the bathroom.

"No meddling."

I heard this refrain so many times. I still hear Grandma's voice, usually kindly and comforting, or in turn stern and commanding.

"No meddling, Paula."

Grandma's yard was a treasure trove.

Her kitchen magical.

The living room a portal into another world.

The bedroom a refuge at day's end.

The bathroom was a mysterious cornucopia of glass bottles, plastic compacts, crystal knickknacks, powders, perfumes, nail polish in a dozen colors, makeup pallets, much STUFF. Stuff which I was trusted not to touch. No meddling meant I was precluded from rifling through the myriad mysteries that were literally begging to be handled, jostled, and inspected. I frequently peeked, struggled not to touch. Grandma's trust was never misplaced.

Exceptions to the no meddling rule were made on dress up nights when Grandma would accompany me in my exploration underneath the bathroom sink. Great Grandma was usually present at her daughter's home on dress up night. I chose a shade of polish for the tiny pink ovals tipping my fingers and toes and a second color for Great Grandma, who always sat patiently while I applied blue eye shadow from lash to brow bone.

On dress up night Grandma's closets were open for me to rummage through drawers of flowing dressing gowns and rows of shoes. After selecting a belt to cinch the voluminous fabric, I created multiple "pleats" by overlapping sections of material held tight at my slim waist. Grandma made sure that dress up night coincided with New Year's Eve. She would buy cardboard horns with crepe paper fringes at the end, along with matching tiaras spelling out HAPPY NEW YEAR in shiny metallic words.

I made a promise to Grandma as I sat in the seat next to her. She always reminded me to buckle up, even as I was reaching for the seat belt. On the drive back to father's house, I promised Grandma that once I was old enough to drive, she would never have to drive again. I chattered on and on about all the places I would take her.

Paula Grieve is a writer and poet living in a carceral community in South Florida with a breathtaking view of a lake, a dozen species of bird, fowl, and a peacock named Kevin..

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