Because We All Fall Down

Today I was recalling something that hadn’t come to mind since about 1970. There was a little pass-through shelf in my grandmother’s kitchen. It was at the end of a wall, as if part of the wall, open through from one part of the kitchen to another, but only about a foot or so wide. I can remember aluminum coasters with impressions of ducks on the lower shelf. And I remember The Fannie Farmer Cookbook on an upper shelf, out of my reach. My grandmother’s Fannie Farmer, which is in my kitchen today, fifty years later.

Who do you remember first in your earliest memories? I must be terribly self-centered, because my earliest memories are of myself. I thought I was receiving stolen goods. Someone was handing me a cookie to hand to someone else. There was a girl on the counter getting cookies from the jar. There was another girl on the floor. Through the doorway to the living room I could see the moms sitting and talking, paying no attention to us. But I was sure that the moms would catch us at any moment. I knew there was going to be trouble. The emotion that cemented that memory in my mind was fear, but coupled with excitement at getting a stolen cookie; the sweetest kind.

Years later I learned that we were not stealing the cookies, but the amazing thing to my mother was that I was 18 months old at the time. We were preparing to move back to Connecticut from Englewood, New Jersey, where my father had his first big job after college. I remember nothing else about Englewood. But around the same time, I have other memories. I tie most to the House at 351 Main Street in Old Saybrook.

My parents were both from the Shoreline. My father was born in New Haven and grew up in the Short Beach section of Branford. He spent all of his school years in Branford and went to college in Hamden at what is now Paier College of Art. My mother was born in Providence and raised in Killingly, CT until she was nine. Then her father took on a new territory on the coast of Maine for an insurance company. He started in Camden, but another company moved into Maine and offered him Portland, which he accepted, but they pulled out about the time he got the office open and staffed. So he moved back to Connecticut and set up an independent agency in Old Saybrook in about 1955.

Soon they settled on Main street, first at number 369, then at 351. My grandfather was a force when he brought his positive attitude into any endeavor. He was successful in Old Saybrook, and his Quaker demeanor fit well in the community. With a wife who backed him in all that he did, and with that old Yankee work ethic, he was soon successful.

My grandmother was not a force in her own right. Nearly ten years his junior and the youngest child of an artist-become-mill worker from Danielson, Mary Frances Geer was quietly daring, but never bold or certain of herself. Her marriage to Kenneth Earle Buffington changed more than her name. Beside him she was a confident and capable business woman. They worked together in the days of the Rural Electrification Project, with him selling appliances to farmers and her doing the genuine work of teaching the wives how to use electricity to lighten their daily load of chores with stoves and refrigerators and electric mixers.

My earliest memory of her was either at her back step, greeting us when we came to visit, or her picking me up when I fell. At her house, I fell often. Some cock-eye carpenter had put an addition onto the house at 351 Main with the floors an inch and a half lower than the main house. There was a little hallway between the kitchen and the living room, with the basement door on one side, that had this 1 1/2-inch lip. I was a toddler, a little unsteady on my feet, but apt to run everywhere I went, and that drop would pitch me forward amid a dead run, and down I would go. I can vividly remember my knees landing and skidding, hands coming down with a heavy slap. It hurt! 

Grammie would pick me up and dust me off and kiss the boo-boos. Then she’d put me down to run off looking for trouble or to play with the wood box. Soon I’d head off toward the kitchen at a dead run, hit that lip that stuck up on the way back, and fall flat, often bumping my forehead on the black-and-white linoleum tiles. My mother would sigh, my father would tsk-tsk, and Grammie would patiently pick me up again. Sometimes she would put an ice cube into a paper towel to put on the forehead bump.

In my younger years, while visiting with her or she with us, or when we lived with her after my parents split when I was almost four, Grammie was there, nearby and watchful. I was a very active child. I skinned knees and elbows, burnt fingers, busted lips, and got stung by the yellow jackets I was taunting. Other times I was quiet, contented to play on the floor or look at a book, but always too early in the morning for my mother. But never too early for Grammie. She was up by six, reading her Bible, doing her crossword puzzle from the evening paper, drinking scalding coffee. I can’t number the hours I spent playing quietly, asking the occasional question, or “helping” her to make bacon and eggs and toast.

As I got older, I could truly help. Early on, I helped by licking a beater or pouring in a half cup of sugar that she had measured. But later I could wash the non-fragile dishes, get ingredients from the fridge, or shimmy the pot back and forth while the popcorn was popping. When my mother was working full time, Grammie was the one there when I walked home from Goodwin school, or she would call me in for lunch as I played the summers away.

Later years she watched my young siblings, too, but she needed a little help when I was home on a weekend or after school while my mother worked at night after she separated from her second husband. Grammie cooked for us in those days, too, and I could really help by then, and still loved to work with her in the kitchen. Perhaps that’s why I still have her Fannie Farmer.

There are so many memories that flood my mind on days like today. Today is her 115th birthday. She’s been gone for nearly 22 years, but the memories are no less vivid and she is no less important in my life now than she was then. She took care of me for many years and spent some of her best days on me. She sat for hours at the beach or at Roger’s Lake while I swam. She waited in her car for untold hours while I shopped at Malloy’s or Ed’s Enterprises on allowance day. I used her old Pinto wagon to learn to drive and to take my driving test. And I never took her for granted, I don’t think. 

I learned to play the gentleman at her encouragement. I opened doors and pulled out chairs. I fixed hinges and oiled latches at her request. For many years we helped each other, too. I’d help her with her groceries and she’d let me borrow her car. And in the cycle of life, the tide turned, and I helped her more than she did me. She lived with me for two years, before my first child was born. When she went into extended care, I took her out to church and to lunch on Sundays. I helped her move, helped her shop, helped her lift things, and even lifted her into bed. 

I think I got a full understanding of our decades long relationship the day she came back from getting the mail with a bloody knee and scraped chin. She had stumbled over that little lip between the street and the driveway. They just can’t make those transitions smooth or even. There has to be that little difference, maybe just an inch and a half. It’ll catch your toe and make you stumble when you are a little unsteady on your feet. I washed her knee and her chin that day, and I dried her tears. I administered band-aides and condolences. I was just repaying a tiny bit of a debt.

And when she was in her last nursing home, I took her out for ice cream and for real coffee. I sneaked her the occasional packet of salt or bag of Canada mints. And when she finally left for home on Groundhog Day, I was at her side one more time to wish her well. And I know she will be there on the back step to greet me when I follow her in a short time.

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