Ninety years ago an infant girl lay wrapped in blankets to keep out the chill from early winter in Connecticut. A girl born in 1920 would have seen a much different world than we do today. There would have been different expectations and allowances made to a girl of that time. But not this girl, with her deep blue eyes and rich brown hair, born to Scottish-Sweedish parents who had made their way from New York City to Connecticut to raise their new family. This girl was allowed to live from the wild heart that beat inside her chest. This girl would be sent to school to learn reading, writing, art, and history. She always listened to classical music and show tunes. She would fall in love with art, but prided herself on being a tomboy, climbing trees and balancing across logs. Her sense of adventure was great and lasted the length of her life. In high school she made the local paper for her strong swimming skills….when she and her girlfriends were caught skinny dipping in the river. She was beautiful and intelligent, and it was those shining deep blue eyes that let you see right through to her heart.
It is hard to tame a girl with a wild heart, not even the Great Depression nor the World War she sent her husband to could settle her. As I type I look at her wedding picture, sometime around 1942 or so, and she is beaming as she stands next to her love in his Navy uniform. She raised babies and lost babies and saw six grandchildren and five great grandchildren come into the world. Over time she had hurts, and she wasn’t as nice to everyone as she was to me.
But I was her raven-haired, dark eyed grandchild who inherited her wild heart. Not many people saw my grandmother the way I did, but to me, she was a queen. I was her untamed girl, and I hold not a single doubt that she favored me and spoiled me. I would tear into her house, chest heaving from burning across the front yard as my brothers and I raced home from the park, breathless with leaves in my hair, holding my hand out for a cup of water. Maybe it was that she sympathsized with me as being the eldest child, but I cannot recall a single time when she told me to ’act like a lady’ or became angry with me for behaving like a hooligan with my younger brothers. Not the time we let the dog, covered with mud, into her house and onto the cream-colored Oriental rug. Not the time we melted Lego men all over her marble fireplace, or tromped through the house covered in wet sand from the river bank. Not the time I got gum stuck in my hair, or knocked a framed picture from the wall while wrestling with my brothers. Not the time we got marbles stuck in the track of her sliding glass door, or lost a golf club in the neighbor’s yard while hitting balls into the trees that led down to the river. And certainly not the time she was babysitting while my parents were on a trip and my brothers and I dug up the backyard as we constructed an 18 hole miniature golf course.
She taught me life is a time to see and feel beauty. She taught me to see the beauty in things, and that the most beautiful parts of life are not things. She taught me when you hug a person, really squeeze them so they can feel your love. Oh my word could that woman squeeze you. Perhaps it was all those years of rose gardening, but her arms were freakishly strong, even as an old woman. She taught me when you laugh, to toss your head back and really let it out. And if the moment was a really good one, to clasp your hands and truly bring in that joy. She taught us to travel the world. She taught me that when family comes over for a meal, fill the table with as much food as it can hold, and feed them until they wave their napkins in surrender.
My grandmother honored my imagination, that most precious gift children have. As a girl, I was obsessed with unicorns. I truly believed if I wished hard enough, one would appear and it would be mine. I would tell my grandma my daydreams when I visited her, usually when we were in the kitchen while she cooked, or curled on the sofa by the fire. I would write down my stories and mail them to her. When we would stay at her house during the holidays, I would sleep in the far back bedroom, the Princess Bedroom. She would lay on the bed to tuck me in, telling me only true princesses can see unicorns. She and I would tell stories together, and then she would hum Brahm’s lullaby and I would drift off to sleep. One year for Christmas she gave me a book she had written and illustrated about a unicorn who saves a village from a horrible serpent. When my grandmother would travel to Europe, she would often bring me a doll from whatever country she had been visiting. But my favorite gift was a little blue tin that had the most majestic unicorn painted on the lid. What I loved most about the tin was that it allowed me to store my little childhood secrets – a ring, a sea shell, a locket…all those things little girls pick up and turn into treasure. I think my grandma knew this, as she always fed my imagination.
Most importantly, my grandmother taught me that I was beautiful. I’m not sure whether or not I was a beautiful child, but because of my grandmother, I felt like I was. I suppose I really never gave it much thought until I was about ten years old or so. I know that was the year I finally, voluntarily, brushed my hair. My wavy black hair my grandmother used to braid so tightly my eyelids would peel back and I could feel my forehead stretch when I chewed. She would comment on my widow’s peak and high cheek bones, saying that I was her Black Irish girl and reminded her of family in Northern Ireland. I’m not even sure if that is true, or if she was just allowing me to feel mysterious. She would grab my face and let out an “Oh!” that almost sounded like the beginning of a prayer, and she would tell me how gorgeous I was. She never told me what to do with my beauty, like “Oh! You’ll be a heartbreaker” or those kind of useless things, she would just simply comment on the beauty she saw and we would sit in that moment. That is what I treasure most about my memory of her, is giving me that knowledge that I was beautiful and could be beautiful for myself. I didn’t have to do anything with it or do anything for anybody, I could be my own beautiful creature. In the presense of my grandmother, I felt exquisite. That is a rare thing for a girl to feel, and feel it so assuredly. The legacy she left for me: that my beauty is mine and I am my own.
I now have my own raven-haired, wild hearted girl. Like her great-grandmother, my child loves art and reading and the water. She loves to be a hooligan with her own little brother. This child’s imagination is so rich you can see it in the air, dancing out of her head when she thinks and speaks. And oh, is this child gorgeous! Her great-grandmother would be so proud of her. My grandmother, my beloved Grandma Jean, allowed me to be a girl in the fullness that a girl should be allowed. This is a truth I fiercely protect for my own girl.
My grandmother, Jean Russel McAuley Marriott, passed away last night, holding my mother’s hand. She was 90 years old, our final grandparent, the last of her amazing generation.
Her last word spoken was, “Wonderful”. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
It would mean a lot to me if you would share something beautiful your grandmother taught you, or left as a legacy for your family.