to love like a grandmother

grammie s“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.” ~Derek Wolcott

I was not the best little girl. Shy, bookish, solitary, dreamy, not athletic, a bit chubby, I was certainly no trouble-maker. At school, a year younger than most of my classmates, utterly clueless about fashion, part of no clique and always two steps behind on the latest trend, I kept my head down and my mouth shut, hoping not to be noticed. At home, where repercussions for misbehavior were swift, I did as I was told and tried to stay out of the way. I read a lot. I wrote. I colored, painstakingly, in a beloved, finely drawn coloring book with my colored pencils. I sat contentedly on the floor of my bedroom, making tiny dolls from wooden clothespins and sewing clothes for them.

But the truth is, at my grandmother’s house, I pushed the limits. When my brother and I were little we spent many weekends with our grandparents, who were happy to give my young, overworked parents a break. My grandmother who, at the age I’m remembering her, was just a few years older than I am now, seemed to me at once frail, elderly, and immortal. She was tiny, less than a hundred pounds, with feet the size of a small child’s. Asthma sometimes forced her to lie down on the couch in the middle of the day, wheezing with each breath. Her heart was weak. She was always in and out of the hospital, for gallstones and kidney stones and I don’t know what else. And yet, because I’d never known anyone to die, it never occurred to me that someday she would. I couldn’t imagine her other than as she was, up in the morning before anyone else, her breath rattling a bit in her chest, frying eggs at the stove, tending to her home, to my grandfather, to us pesky children with our endless questions and demands.

My grandmother – Wilda was her name — was a housedress-and-apron kind of grandmother. There were always cookies in the jar, a dried up Lipton tea bag by the sink waiting to be used a second time, a half-stick of butter softening in a dish by the stove. She kept her collection of china tea cups on proud display in the dining room, a stack of magazines — The Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle, and McCall’s — by her chair, recipes copied by hand into a falling-apart notebook, antimacassars tacked into place along the back of the sofa, hard butterscotch candies in a covered glass dish, Laurence Welk on the TV, witch hazel and a big blue jar of Vicks and a flesh colored bottle of calamine lotion in the bathroom cabinet, lace-trimmed hankies in the top right dresser drawer, a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum down at the bottom of her black handbag, amidst the lipstick-stained tissues. (Gum that she would generously dispense, though always by the half piece, to make it last longer.)

I see her now in my mind’s eye, this small, kind, busy woman, pushing her huge brown Hoover vacuum across the flowered carpet, it’s bright headlight illuminating the path ahead.   There was always a seriousness to her work, care taken but no fuss made, simply another dinner to be prepared, more dishes to wash, a shopping list to be written out on the back of an envelope.

I remember standing by her side in the vast Baptist church she and my grandfather attended, smelling her powdery smell, listening to her sing the hymns in a high, thin, warbly voice, feeling at once terribly bored and completely safe. I remember five-minute trips in her boat-sized white Oldsmobile – she could barely see over the wheel, despite the extra height afforded by a square pillow she sat upon to drive — to the little store down the road. There, my brother and I would pester her for treats – something we never would have dared with our parents — and she would always give in, extracting quarters from her change purse to pay for our orange popsicles and Pixie Stix and cheap plastic toys.

I loved her. And yet.

When I came across this beautiful line by Derek Wolcott yesterday, the first thought that came into my head was a memory of the evening I broke my grandmother’s antique, hand-painted kerosene globe lamp that had once belonged to her mother. The lamp, one of the only things that had accompanied my grandmother throughout her modest life, from her childhood in a small town in the Maine woods to the tidy ranch house where she would end her days, had been wired with electricity for the 20th century. It was delicate and beautiful, her most precious, most cherished possession.

My brother and I had had our after-dinner baths. We were probably still dripping, damp skin sticking to our pajamas, revved up and acting silly because, at our grandparents’ house, no one cared if we made noise or danced like wild little savages in the living room. He was three, a toddler imitating his big sister; I was six, old enough to know better than to swing a big wet towel around over my head like a lasso. My grandmother asked us, kindly I’m sure, to stop. We pretended not to hear. She asked again, firmly this time, warning, “Something is going to get broken.”

Something did. I whipped my towel around with a mighty flourish, one last time. It caught the lamp and sent it flying. The glass shattered, scattering everywhere. My grandmother burst into tears.

I remember little else about that night, except that there were no raised voices, or spankings, as there would have been at home. I was not shouted at or punished, though I fled down the hall to my bed, in tears myself. There was no hope of reassembling the fragments. From behind the closed door, I could hear my grandmother weeping, the tinkle of glass being swept into the dustpan, the roar of the Hoover getting up the last bits.

As I tell this story now, my heart still hurts to recall it. The lesson, too, is fresh and raw; in fact, I am learning it anew these days. And it has nothing to do with obeying my elders or refraining from rough-housing in the living room.

My grandmother’s beautiful heirloom was shattered, but her love for me was intact, not even chipped or cracked. In the morning, there was no mention of the lamp I had broken. Instead my grandmother took me into her arms and reassembled the fragments of me, gluing my broken, heartsick, remorseful, self back together.

I did not know, at six, whether I was a good person or not.

I was very much afraid that I might not be very good after all, that I wasn’t worthy of love — or even of the Pixie Stix and gingersnaps and half sticks of gum my grandmother gave me. I did not know that good people say and do stupid, reckless stuff, which does not make them bad, only foolhardy. I did not know that a broken thing doesn’t matter nearly as much as a broken heart, or a broken word, or a broken trust. I did not know that the glue that mends a broken relationship is forgiveness. Or that in choosing to forgive someone who has wronged or hurt us, we do indeed reassemble a shattered love into a stronger whole.

I did not know when I was six that, that fifty years later, with my grandmother long gone from this earth, I would sit in my kitchen on a snowy winter day thinking about her, yearning for the kind of open-hearted pardon she offered me so long ago. For, although I do now believe in my own essential goodness, I can still, unwittingly, break things that are precious. I can be wrong and graceless and dumb. Recently, I wrote and sent a letter I should have kept to myself; the emotional equivalent of swinging a towel in the living room. I caused a special friend, a cherished friendship, to suffer.

Whether this particular vase can be reassembled by love I don’t know. I can only do my best to gather up the broken pieces, to make amends, to wait patiently and see. But in the meantime, I want to do a better job of loving like my grandmother, quietly and wholeheartedly — without feeling so compelled to have my say or my way, without expectation or attachment.

To love like a grandmother means to offer pardon without need of an apology. It means to love with no strings attached or conditions to be met. To love like a grandmother is to know: we all make mistakes and we all need to be hugged and held and forgiven the errors of our clumsy ways. To love like a grandmother is to remember that no one gets out of bed in the morning with the intention of sending a lamp flying through the air or doing harm to someone we love, and yet our lives and our needs inevitably bump up painfully against the lives and needs of others. A wrong word, a rash action, a hurtful gesture, or a simple lapse of attention – we are all guilty. To love like a grandmother means to tenderly forgive these human errors in others, in ourselves. It is to see the beauty and the value in the vase that’s been broken and painstakingly, imperfectly repaired.

for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. Beautiful. And what I aspire to with two of my grandchildren who live with us during the summers. A grandmother’s love is a precious gift.

  2. Tamara Willems says:

    This is just so lovely Katrina. As is everything you write and share. This put me in mind of my own grandmother as I read it. Beautifully spoken, beautifully received, thank you ♥

  3. Oh my. What perfectly beautiful thoughts.

    I too had an apron wearing grandmother, flour dusted and perfumed with fried chicken and yeasty home baked bread. She expected me to be good, and I was. I’m not sure she would have been as forgiving as your grandmother had I broken something precious – she didn’t much hold with careless behaviors. But she did hold me at night when my asthma kept me awake. She did guide my hands over the piano keys, teaching me my first songs. She did put down the rolling pin or the put away the vacuum cleaner whenever I asked her to read to me. She knew what I needed, and gave it to me unstintingly.

    Something else we should do for ourselves – tender, loving, care, all the time.

  4. Katrina,
    Your story is one we can all relate to, especially me. I think age gives us a different perspective and I know I work harder at loving with more kindness and gentleness. Thank you for the beautiful reminder. Love your writings. ❤️

  5. These words are very meaningful. They apply, in some way, to all of us imperfect people. Your posts are ones I look forward to, and I appreciate your vulnerability and your wisdom. Thank you. I wish you healing, in the relationship you mentioned. It’s hard to wait. Blessings. Forgive yourself also.

  6. I love you.

  7. Karen Martin says:

    This was so touching. It brought back some much loved memories of my grandmother also. Life is fragile and yet so strong at the same time. Some of the most important lessons, need no words at all. they are spoken from the heart.

  8. Insightful and oh-so-personally-timely. I needed to hear it as much as you needed to write it. Thank you, dear Katrina.

  9. Dear Katrina,

    I want to give you a great big hug. We ALL do things like this. 4 years ago, I sent a letter too and it caused hurt feelings. I remember that I had the best intentions when I sent it, but after my friend’s reaction, I wished that I hadn’t sent it. I know this is such an uncomfortable feeling, but remember that we are all learners in this lifetime (another phrase stolen from Rolf).

    This line slayed me:
    I did not know, at six, whether I was a good person or not.

    Wow.

    I know that you are sure of your own goodness, but like the Galway Kinnell poem, I will always be here to “reteach a thing its loveliness.” Be gentle with yourself. xoxo

  10. Sometimes we do things we are not always proud of but forgiveness can change our lives, especially by those we love. Life is too short to let past grievances continue.
    Thank you for sharing your memories.

  11. I was recently deeplly hurt by a friend but unlike you, I am sure, this friend has repeatedly hurt me through the years. While I want to love like a grandmother and think our friendship can be mended, I am thinking this latest swipe is the universe telling me to love MYSELF like a grandmother and forgive myself for wanting to cut the friendship loose.

  12. What a beautiful and hard lesson to learn. Your grandmother sounds so much like mine – from her stature, her magazines, her lamp, to her unwavering love and forgiveness. I miss her so much. Thank you for making me think of her tonight. I needed that.

  13. Forgiveness is the glue but the waiting can be hard. Isn’t it wonderful that your grandmother gave you a memory to help you through this time. I’m sure it is one of many. She sounds very special. Like you.

  14. I love this and am going to try and remember the lesson… Beautiful. And essential to live happily.

  15. Oh, what a powerful story. I love the lesson and you! Thank you so much! XO

  16. Tobey Levine says:

    Thank you, Katrina, for this beautiful writing. The description of your grandparents’ home brought loving memories of my own grandparents. And your words on how to forgive resonate deeply. Sometimes at a loss of words myself, I honor the gift you have and share.

  17. Katrina – you have such a way of cutting to the chase and describing your world with perfect, clear details. Loved this story and lesson and I could FEEL the pain you felt (feel). Thank you for your deep honesty. It encourages your reader to try to follow suit.

  18. Sharon curran says:

    I have my Mom’s fragile gas lamp that was wired for electricity. it has painted hollyhock flowers on it which was also a favorite flower of hers. just this Christmas, I preserved it by removing a nearby dish full of M+M’s that my 4 yr old grandaugher was precariously leaning over to reach. Not all of our stops on our sacred journey are ones we are proud of. To forgive ourselves aids our efforts to continually make it better. THX for your thoughtful insights!

  19. Oh, this was so heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and so full of detail that it made me think of my own grandmother, and how she did some of the same things yours did–the tea bags by the sink for re-use, the hard candies in a crystal jar. I was a shy, quiet child, too, and the slightest mistake would fill me with fear that I wouldn’t be loved any more, just as your six-year old self in this piece. What a powerful message your grandmother sent you that day.

  20. Forgiveness of others is not nearly as difficult as forgiveness of ones self. This is beautiful. Thank you Katrina!

  21. Heidi Nyman says:

    Beautifully said….I remember when I dropped a favorite serving bowl at my Swedish grandmother’s house. I still feel bad.
    I can’t help but compare your grandmother’s love and her reaction to how God responds, loves and forgives us.
    We are all broken pots till He puts us back together.
    Thank you for sharing this memory Katrina.

  22. beautiful. you are so blessed to have had a grandmother who scooped you up in the morning and patched you together again. my grandma, sadly, always made me feel i didn’t measure up. and i think deep down i’ve carried that with me for a very long time. i’ve had to find the ones who would love me like your grandma did. and i have had to teach myself to love myself in that same, all-forgiving, all-embracing way. one of the upsides is that before my own babies were born, i swore i would love them in the way i had so deeply wanted to be loved. and i have done just that. for nearly 22.5 years…..thanks for touching a deep deep place inside….and giving it an escape valve….

  23. Beautiful story. True message.

  24. I can feel your soft heart in this story and the warm arms of your grandmother’s embrace.Thank you.

  25. Cathy Harrington says:

    Hi Katrina,
    I have been an admirer for a long time, especially after reading your book ! Now I have five grandchildren, three more on the way:-) I sometimes think I do not spend enough time with them because I still work full time and go to school myself:-( but after reading your post I feel it is not the amount of time but the quality of time:-) the love you felt from your grandmother was felt because a bond that was formed from her sharing her love with you! Thank you for sharing how our own feelings from our youth can guide on the importance of sharing our own love with our grandchildren:-)

  26. Dearest Katrina,

    After a busy weekend, I began catching up with the online world last night. After I read – or, shall I say, experienced – this stunning essay, I clicked off my bedside light with your words tucked deep inside my heart. My first thoughts this morning were of you, of this story. I cannot stop thinking about the powerful truths you have so eloquently, so tenderly articulated here.

    May time and love be the gold that mends the fragments of this friendship you treasure. May kindness fall soft as petals around all aching hearts. May peace surround you, my gentle friend, like your precious grandmother’s embrace. Sending all my love~ xoxo

  27. THAT-was beautiful! What a lovely picture you paint of something we should all aspire to. I’m so glad I opened this post and took the time to read it. I kept thinking of God’s love and and mercy to us. It warmed my heart.

  28. Amy Adams says:

    katrina, this post is beautiful, and i recall the love of my grandmother. it brought my grandmother back to me after so many years that she has been gone.

    i, too, am a grandmother, and i am grateful for your prescription of and for a grandmother. i will try to emulate these words, and love with my grandchildren.

    i am currently reading broken for you, by stephanie kallos, and it is all about china, porcelain, tea cups, etc. and the broken, so i do so appreciate the quote. i will take it to heart. be well!

  29. Sally Piscitelli says:

    I am 78 and as such an old person I grew up in a long ago age. My apron housedress wearing Angel in my life was not a grandmother but my own mother. I lived thru an era of outhouses, no TV or fast food. No ready transportation. our feet was the best way to get around. We 6 kids didn’t have a lot, but no one did then. My mother baked all our bread, cakes etc. and we didn’t get to eat anytime the whim hit us. We were loved, fed, taken care of and had the run of all the hills and woods we could manage. There was freedom then to run and play all over without fear. It was the best childhood I could have had. that’s mostly a way of life unseen today.
    Thank you for your books and everyone’s thoughts here. I love them all.

  30. Wow! Just a simple wow. You have captured the spirit of the deep relationships experienced between mothers, grandmothers, and siblings. The damage done and the wounds healed (or not). Thank you for focusing on the strength of bonds and love and mending through breakage! So thoughtful.

    • Sally Piscitelli says:

      Reading all these lovely comments on anything Katrina says restores my faith in the human race. There are millions more who feel the same as we all do but don’t tell anyone. I know because I was one of them. Thanks to all the wonderful people in the world my days are peaceful and lovely.

  31. Beautifully shared.

    The piece I will take away with me is this line: “I did not know, at six, whether I was a good person or not.”

    • Sally Piscitelli says:

      I certainly didn’t know when I was young whether I was a good person either. I kind of thought of myself as basically not very important to anyone but by mom and dad. At my age now,78, I know a lot more about a lot of things. Especially “Life is good” Thank you Katrina for the chance to read what others feel about life.

  32. I never knew either of my grandmothers which still saddens me greatly. I just hope and pray I can be like Wilda for my grandchildren.

  33. This tender piece is so eloquent and honest that it almost breaks my heart. I always appreciate your honesty and vulnerability which opens the door to trust and allows us to enter into the depths of your own heart. I’ve re-read this many times. With every reading something different tugs at me. One of my favorite lines is: My grandmother’s beautiful heirloom was shattered, but her love for me was intact, not even chipped or cracked.” It reminds me that no matter what happens, love will hold us together–and that forgiveness is essential to give to those who hurt us, and to ourselves.

  34. Tara in TX says:

    Katrina, my goodness, your beautiful words can cause instant, heartfelt tears ~ “Instead my grandmother took me into her arms and reassembled the fragments of me..”. This phrase is so beautiful, strong and meant to be woven into the fabric of my daily rhythm. To be that kind of deep healing for my children’s little misfortunes. Once again, thank you for living with your heart wide open and sharing it with us.

  35. Lovely words.

  36. So beautiful. I wish I could love like a grandmother now, as the mother of three girls.

  37. As I read your essay, it brought me back to fond childhood memories of my maternal grandmother. In my latter grade school years (as my mom had a part-time job), I would walk from school to her house daily for lunch–which always started and ended with chocolate milk (made with Hershey’s syrup with a long stemmed spoon-ended straw) and (cooked, not instant) chocolate or tapioca pudding for dessert. She was my best friend…Her name was Lydia, as was my mom’s. Only living two blocks from my home, I would routinely walk to see her Friday or Saturday afternoon and end up staying overnight. If it was a Saturday, I, too, would watch Lawrence Welk with her and then she would tirelessly look through the brittle black and white pasted photo albums and tell and re-tell all the stories behind each photo. She also had a large Currier and Ives photo book (which I wish I had now, as it must be great in value!) that I would look through and each time be horrified when I came upon the bloody violent photos of soldiers, indians, and blacks, ….I would then brush my teeth with Pepsodent in a round squeeze bottle and put Rexall Cara Nome cream on my hands, in her gleaming pink and blue tiled bathroom. I couldn’t wait to snuggle in the spare cedar smelling bedroom in a bed made so tightly , I had to wiggle to get underneath the cool fresh sheets. I have yet to find a feather pillow as comfortable! I would wake up to the smell of my favorite made-from-scratch pancakes (Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook recipe) because she knew they were my favorite. I would help her rake leaves, she would let me iron handkerchiefs, we would go for walks through the nearby cemetery, and each August we would get on the bus and go downtown to shop for a few school dresses for me. Holidays were always at my house then, but she would bake the pies and tins of the best chocolate chip cookies I had ever tasted–with lots of WALNUTS! As an adult, I came to realize that my grandmother always had an aura of sadness, but camouflaged it well. She lost my Aunt Marion (my brother and my own Auntie Mame) when she was in her 30s to a brain tumor. I was five then and I remember being at her house– everyone crying. My grandfather and grandmother were never the same after that and I don’t remember them even talking much until my grandfather’s death when I was nine.

    Thank you, Katrina, for bringing me back to those happy memories….I am now 62 and grandmother to six ranging from 8 yrs. to 5 months. Only two grandchildren are local, four live two states away. I try to visit at least once a month. But even with our daily schedules–I still work full-time as does my daughter. I still have a 19 year old at home commuting to college — I am tired, as are they. I don’t get to see them as often as I can or should, sleepovers aren’t routine–everyone is busy and running, constantly running, school, day care, sports, appointments….I am divorced, there is grandma’s house and grandpa’s house. I feel constantly guilty that I am not living up to the legacy I remember. I want to be the grandmother to them that I had. Therefore, I try to make our time together loving and fun. I recently came back from a weekend at my son’s visiting with his four. I had a blast, we crafted, we went for walks, we played basketball, and when I sent my son and daughter-in-law out to dinner, we got silly playing indoor volleyball with a balloon (that had 9 lives!) and they introduced me to a phenomenon called “Alexa” who I asked to play dance music for us–a far cry from Lawrence Welk, but, hopefully, memories cherished were made–I know they were for me. I will be traveling back up there to Connecticut this week My children, grandchildren, and I (with their new stepfather) will all be together for new traditions–my son has been taking over hosting Thanksgiving. Families blended and bonded with love. This year, in addition to my always requested sweet potato and corn casseroles, I will be bringing chocolate chip cookies in tins–(with and without walnuts)–I hope they live up to their great-great grandmother’s!

  38. Lise Bixler says:

    I am thinking of my grandmother Rose, who sewed her own dresses and made pillows out of the leftover fabric, and who let me tease her about being a pillow grandma. The fabric of her dress was silky smooth. She and my grandfather had separate sewing machines. My grandmother Frieda worked in the garment district of New York. She could sew a dress without a pattern, imagining it in her head. Both of my grandmothers were housedress and apron grandmas.

  39. Terri Meyer says:

    My Grandmothers, I loved them so. Elva and Harriet. I miss them more.
    Thank you for letting me revisit them with your words.

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