A Sign to Remember

This is my second response to feeling inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir about the “secret life” of objects.

This object is not something I’ve owned for long, carrying from house to house. In fact, I only spotted it in July when we brought my mother home from the hospital.

My mother’s basement has shelves, boxes, and tables overflowing with photo albums and photo boxes. She has little interest in them. They were my father’s treasures. He was the family photographer and tried to hold every memory close to his heart and mind. With him now gone, my mother feels burdened by belongings that she never cherished to begin with. Every time I visit, she encourages me to take as much as I want of our family memories.

Before we flew back to Arizona, I decided to give the photo albums another go-around, taking home as many of the most important photographs as I could pack. I plan to scan them and then email them to other family members. While downstairs, I noticed a metal sign resting on the floor, shoved between two boxes.

This mailbox marker is from the 1960s. My father had it made for his mother’s mailbox when she moved near us from Chicago.

This is how it was attached to the mailbox and what Grandma’s mailbox looked like. If you click on this image, you will discover that there is a company (perhaps) still making these using a machine from the forties. The writer of the article says the company is so old school they don’t even have a website.

Grandma was born in Germany in 1893 and immigrated with her family to Illinois when she was two or three years old. When she was in her early 70s, she decided to leave Chicago for the small town atmosphere of Portage, Michigan, a suburb of Kalamazoo. Dad bought a duplex around the corner from our house, rented out one side, and moved Grandma into the other side. I was ten and could now ride my bike to Grandma’s house.

Not that I liked to visit her. I’m not proud of that fact, but it’s true. When Mom or Dad made me pedal down her street the houses all seemed to be watching me.  The nameplate on the mailbox signaled that soon I would be walking in Grandma’s door. I always had either terrified starlings or lake stones in my stomach.

But why? I am not sure, but am trying to figure it out. Grandma was a bit stern, a bit strict, at least more so than my Kalamazoo grandmother who was warm and fun. (Kalamazoo Grandma was 19 years younger than Chicago Grandma). Was it a cultural reflection of Grandma’s semi-German upbringing? I think her father was stern and difficult to know. He might have been domineering and given to punishments. But this is a guess based on my dad’s and uncle’s stories. In old photos, Grandma’s mother looks like a sweetheart–sort of like my maternal grandmother. Was it that I was afraid of my grandmother’s strictness?

If so, that’s odd because my father could be unrelentingly strict. She was an amateur compared with Dad in that way.

I remember Grandma, a talented seamstress and tailor, poking a straight pin in my stomach and warning me that I was getting fat. I wasn’t overweight, although for a period of time my belly protruded a bit. I deeply resented her saying this to me, but she didn’t do it all the time. Would I have held it against her? Maybe, but I think she did it after I already had developed anxiety at visiting her.

Within a year or two, a doctor confirmed that I had “water weight” in my abdomen. Years later I would be diagnosed with lymphedema. Where did I get it? From Grandma who never did get a proper diagnosis. Doctors told her it was caused by congestive heart failure, a disease she developed with age, but the swelling in her legs was visible before she was forty–I can see it in photographs. (I hope you’re seeing the thread here about photographs: they can be important).

Grandma always had a glass bowl of Dum Dum suckers for me to choose from. I didn’t care for those dull little things. Tootsie Pops–or better yet, Slo Pokes–were my lollipops of choice. Did I resent not being offered what I wanted instead of what she wanted to give me? It’s possible that she couldn’t afford Tootsie Pops. The candy was only for us because she couldn’t eat it; she was diabetic. Was I a brat? She seemed to try to make me happy, but her ways were limited and without imagination.

Some of my memories make me wonder if I pitied Grandma. Her age? Her solitary life? Some unexpressed sadness deep within her?

I remember Grandma’s home being so quiet that the clock ticking spooked me like a sudden noise in a horror movie. And still. Every object in the dusty rose living room seemed preternaturally still, the sort of stillness that comes before unexpected movement, as if the contents were waiting for me to leave.

When I left and pedaled as fast as I could down the street, I deeply drew in the outdoor air, thrilled to be headed toward my own street.

Then, all these years later, I saw the heavy metal sign in Mom’s basement and brought it home in my suitcase. The gardener didn’t say anything until I pulled out hammer and picture hangers to hang it on the wall of my study. “You don’t want that there, do you?”  Hahaha, yes, I did, and there it is.

Every day I scan a few of the photos I brought home. The other day I found this one of me kissing Grandma, thanking her for the crocheted afghan she made me for my high school graduation (you can see a bit of the pattern in the photo). Proof that Grandma and I loved each other, even if she made me nervous.


Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing prompt

78 responses to “A Sign to Remember

  1. Lovely – thank you for capturing the ambivalence that surrounds family and love… and the objects we choose to keep.

    • I love the way you put it, Carole. Yes, it’s ambivalence. I didn’t want to hang with family as a kid, and yet now I’ve made them so much a part of my life and my writing life. Thank you!

  2. I’m so happy the sign is hanging in your study, Luanne. It’s nice to surround ourselves with pieces from our past, isn’t it? I love the photo of you and your grandmother. She looks so sweet!

    • She did have a sweetness about her, but also the strictness. She was also very ladylike and liked to be pretty. You can see that even at her age (and sprung for the afternoon from the nursing home that she had moved into the year before), she had taken care to make herself pretty.

  3. Reading your excellent post was a thoughtful way to begin the week, Luanne. I think your Grandma would have really liked this piece. Personally, I’m trying to divest myself of objects (so my children and grandchildren…some distant time in the future…don’t have to dig through too much stuff). Your post, however, made me re-think things a bit. Maybe the “purge-athon” shouldn’t be so relentless?

    • We all are either doing or thinking about doing the Swedish method of “death cleaning.” I am doing more thinking about it because 1) mom is still giving me stuff–she’s a very young-at-82 and healthy mom, too–and 2) the gardener will NOT part with stuff, so I figure why should mine all go if he won’t get rid of the dumbest stuff haha! Definitely take care with your purging because you can’t be sure what will be the most memorable items to your children. It might even be something you think is “nothing.”

  4. I really enjoy your stories and connections between the past and the present.

    Thank you for reading the book, too. I appreciate it. 🙂

  5. Your post reminds me of my “imposed” visits to my Aunt Mary. She was my mother’s oldest sister. She may have been about 6 years older but she was full generation older. Hair pulled in a bun with a long dark dress with an apron on top. Sturdy shoes. Although she had 6 kids of her own, all older than me, she wasn’t really a kid person. Her place was always dark and cold. There were no treats to eat or things to do. I had to sit quietly until my Mom was done with her duty visit. She was always on her deathbed but lived into her 90s, far longer than my mom.

    • Isn’t it amazing how people can be so close in age and yet from different generations? The world affects everyone differently. I can definitely imagine your Aunt Mary! It must have been excruciating to visit as a kid. At least Grandma always liked pretty things. Like fashionable or flashy, but pretty. That did soften her and her environment somewhat.

  6. I imagine seeing that sign again did indeed bring back memories. Funny how an object, or a smell, or a song can transport us back in time so easily.

    • It’s so true. You know how they say smell takes us back the best? It might be true, but I have a hard time finding the memory for smell. I will smell something and it hits me viscerally with a memory, but WHAT memory? So weird.

      • Smell takes me back, but like you, sometimes I don’t remember what it’s associated with specifically, only that I remember it from my childhood. But usually I can recollect it quickly.

        • Oh, you are lucky. I (oops had to stop for a second because Perry was trying to lie on the cat tree with Kana and she was giving him what-for) To be able to recollect it quickly would be so helpful. I want that ability!

  7. You’re killin me with these all-too-familiar evocative posts lately. This was a great read, and I find myself relating to this 100%. I also had a strict grandma and a fun grandma. I loved both, and both loved me, but they were totally different relationships. For one, I could do no right — but she taught me SO MUCH and for the other I could do no wrong — but she taught me SO MUCH.
    Were you a brat? Yes. As was I. Who are we to turn down Dum-Dums because we prefer Tootsie Pops? Some kids only had grandmas with candy stuck all together in glass jars.
    I kinda want one of those signs, not on my mailbox, but on my 1920 bungalow. I think it’d be charming.

    • I never actually turned down a Dum-Dum because a bird in the hand and all that. Plus I wouldn’t have wanted to hurt her feelings. I was big on trying not to hurt people’s feelings, probably because my father was super hypersensitive. But I’m sure I didn’t act enthusiastic hahahaha. Yes, a brat. I was so weird in so many ways.
      Your image of the candy stuck together is PHENOM!
      Isn’t it great that you can now see how much both of your grandmothers taught you? Grandparents are so important. I wish every child could have a bucketful of them.
      That sign would look fabulous on your 1920 bungalow! I love it. I think it’s a great sign, although even Grandma’s name sets off a lot of other thoughts and memories because it carries a lot of baggage. But that’s another story. But I’d love a sign like that that says

  8. What a poignant story. Who knows why one grandmother is beloved and another is not? In my case, I sensed warmth from my father’s mom, and I knew that she loved me. I sensed coolness from my mom’s mom, but I felt close to her when I was an adult. By that time, I was definitely less bratty, and maybe she related better to adults than to kids.

    • Yes, beloved grandma Z then and now. And now this Grandma is also beloved. But by looking at the photo I saw that even as I neared adulthood (I was close to 18 here) I was starting to appreciate her. A good thing because she died 10 months later.

    • It is the afghan in the photo that reminded me. I loved that she made it for me. There were two matching pillows too. It was all she could make any longer as old age had robbed her of her sewing abilities.

  9. Those old “things” sure take us back.

  10. Mmmmm – children are rarely wrong about people – unless they are spoiled little brats which I don’t think you were really. Just a little over confident in your lollipop worth perhaps 🙂 There’s a wee mystery which may reveal little hints as time goes by and you live with that mailbox sign on your wall. Which is very grand btw! Researching family history uncovers emotional trauma induced by charming grandmother…….. Sounds like an ‘Onion’ headline 😀

    • Hahaha, I love that: “a little over confident in your lollipop worth.” Your whole comment made me laugh and laugh. Yes, it does sound like an Onion headline!
      I am starting to wonder if a lot of my anxiety over visiting my grandmother was because she was my father’s mother and he was so overprotective of her AND because I was terrified of old age.

  11. The sign looks great right where it is. Excellent post, Luanne

  12. What a beautiful, rich, heartfelt and evocative piece! Luanne, I can almost feel what it must’ve been like for you as a child with your grandma! And how I remember too from my own grandparents’ house, the clock ticking in the stillness… Re her strictness, and of course that of her own upbringing – were they of Calvinist stock, I wonder? Lutheran? Anyway, a lovely essay – so glad you found that sign which sparked your memories.

    • What lovely comments, Ellie. Thank you so much. I can see why you would guess Calvinist, but Grandma’s family (and I never really understood any of this until I worked on the family history because nobody talked about anything) was small-town Catholic German for generations. Not maybe what you might expect!

  13. Having two very different grandmas, I can identify with your feelings. One was down the street, my father’s mother, the one who was “around” in our lives, and the other was across the country in California (We were in Virginia). She was always “Grandmother,” unlike my father’s mother, whom we affectionately called Nam Nam. However, Grandmother always came through on her namesake’s (my) birthday with a five dollar bill in a birthday card to spend as I wished (glory of all glories in the 50’s) every birthday. Both were at my wedding when I was nineteen; Nam Nam, who was to die the next year of respiratory-tract cancer, gave me excellent advice, “Pick your battles.” Grandmother almost couldn’t attend the wedding because she did not have a white bag to match her white shoes. I saved the day by giving her my white going away handbag and exited the church with white shoes and a clunky brown handbag. Ahhh memories! I miss them both!

    • Rae! You described the difference between your grandmothers so wonderfully! The white bag story alone tells SO much about Grandmother! You giving her your bag to use means that you have followed in the footsteps of Nam Nam, I’ll bet!

  14. This has to be one of my favorites, Luanne…your grandmother was beautiful – but didn’t look too warm and fuzzy. Perhaps that was part of the problem with your sense of foreboding on your bike as you pedaled to her house?
    Regardless, you know she loved you in her own way, and that’s the most important feeling.

    • I didn’t feel warmth from her, it’s true. I also felt sorry for her and was maybe afraid of her age. I was such a dumb kid. Honestly, I don’t think I started to grow up until I was 29. And, yes, never really grew up, but at least matured haha. Yes, she did love me. She was a very simple and extremely complicated woman.

  15. What we say and do to children remains for ever. By coincidence, Jackie has just be given the nameplate of her family home and has fixed it to her new arbour. At ‘Westbrook’ it was attached to an entrance gate. Now it is wired to recycled gates in our West Bed.

  16. A beautiful story inspired by your photograph album. Perhaps it was the eerie stillness in your paternal grandmother’s house that unnerved you most? I love how you represented the complexity of your relationship for us.

    • I do think that the stillness absolutely creeped me out. It was always neat, always clean, nothing even seemed to breathe in there! Thanks so much for your kind comment!

  17. Wow–so much here, Luanne. Sights, sounds, memories. I love reading all the comments, too.
    Perhaps she simply wasn’t comfortable with young children in general, and you assumed it was you.
    Both of my grandmothers died when I was very young. I remember my mother’s mother a little bit, but I don’t remember my father’s mother at all. I’ve talked to my brother a bit about them. He’s twelve years older than me, and he actually lived with my father’s parents in Philadelphia for a year when we moved to Dallas.
    The sign is cool!
    I kind of laughed at the “Jack Armstrongs” though. It sounds like there are a bunch of people all named Jack Armstrong living there. Isn’t it weird that that was a thing?

    • I think you might be on to something. My aunt really “raised” my dad and his brother because, as a single mom, my grandmother worked long hours and had a time-consuming commute. And before that, when they were very young, my great-grandmother helped raise the children. So my grandmother really wasn’t used to children and liked things just so.
      I laughed at the jack Armstrongs, too. I remember reading that name on so many things as a kid and always asking my dad, “Who is Jack Armstrong?” He answered it different ways, but my favorite was that it was a different way to say “John Smith.”

  18. Such poignant reminiscences, Luanne. Lots to work with for a lovely piece about grandmothers. I think I understand your mother’s lack of attachment to stuff but how lucky she is to have you who cherishes it and shares the memories with family members.

    • Ah thanks so much, Susanne! My mother has never been attached to stuff. She loves to get rid of things. After my father died, she couldn’t give his clothes away fast enough! I get that as a way to unburden oneself. I would love to do that with so many things, to the gardener’s chagrin. But I don’t really understand not connecting with the memories. My mother tends not to remember very much at all.

  19. We don’t have mailboxes over here so I find them quite fascinating – and this sign comes with a lot of memories!

    • How do you get your mail? Does it come through a slot in the door or do you have to pick it up at the post office?

      • It comes through a slot in the door – though if something is too big for the slot it either gets left with a neighbour or we go and collect it at the post office.

        • It’s like on Keeping Up Appearances! They used to have those slots in this country. Maybe in New York or Chicago they still do? Not sure. But I would guess not many, if any. Lots of us have group mail boxes where there is a row or a box with many little locked doors.

  20. Luanne, you have succeeded in nudging me to trot out old relics and tell secrets about my naughty behaviour. https://wordsfromanneli.com/2017/11/09/vintage-books-and-glasses/

  21. Aww, children cannot help liking and showing who they like, Luanne. I think it is interesting and revealing how you analyze why? and try to figure this out. . .
    My Mom loved her mother but resented my frail grandmother, my Dad’s mother moving in when I was 3 years old. I guess I understand the lack of privacy, although she had her own room, bathroom and volunteered at a close by hospital. I think her smoking bothered my brothers but my grandmother was quiet and gentle. She saved her bus money from my Mom and bought things for the 3 of us kids. She had colored in cards for Gibson cards. My Mom’s mother was strong and had an indomitable spirit, which I respected. Both grandmas kissed us when we got close to them.
    Thanks for asking and hope you didn’t mind my rambles. . .

  22. What an enjoyable post. Tender, too. I grew to love my grandmother, after fearing her strictness during my early childhood.

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  24. Luanne! I admire the way you plunge headfirst into family emotional landscape. That you recognize you felt anxious is so telling and so helpful to hear. The phrase that stuck out for me was, “Grandma , , , poking a straight pin in my stomach and warning me that I was getting fat.” Maybe you were already anxious at that point, but this is such a telling detail suggesting what kind of person, or at least how she was in her role as grandparent, she might have been that resulted in your feeling anxious in her house. Not to blame her. She may have had her own childhood challenges, difficult life, etc. Your story of her being a seamstress reminded me of my grandmother (mom’s mother) who sewed everything. She had sewed my mom’s ballerina-style ’50s wedding dress, she sewed cotton dresses for me and my sister in the ’60s when my mom was a single parent and money was short, and she always favored me with a semi-sunny disposition. Much later I found out that my experience as her favorite grandchild was not shared by other cousins, notably boy cousins, who she could be quite disagreeable with. That fact made me uncomfortable – I never like overt favoritism by a grandparent or parent – but she had her own childhood distresses, a mother who died when she was young, a father who apparently was a failure in providing for his family (she called him a “failed farmer”), parents who wouldn’t let her go to college because the money for college went to her only sibling, a brother. But to me she was quite nice all my life. Thank you for reminding me of the gifts she gave me and of how much I value fairness toward family members!

    • Oh, wow, she might have had some negative feelings against males because of her experiences? So glad you have happy memories of her but also learned how not to make that one big mistake! My grandma also had difficulties in her life. I think she liked boys best, maybe felt they were less complicated.

  25. You know, my grandma had complications in her life. My favorite story is that she picked up her young family during WW II – my grandpa was in the S. Pacific in the Navy – and she moved her four children from Iowa to Tucson for her health, so the story went. (The family story is that her doctor in Iowa told her a warm climate would help her immensely.) She would say that she got off the train in Tucson and found a house to rent across the street from the U. of A., and she took the house specifically to be sure her children got a college education, which she did not. The story goes she wrote to my grandpa (of the John Philip Sousa story) and told him not to go home to Iowa, to come to Tucson instead. She was spunky and determined!

    But I think the problem with the other cousins (boys) was that she and Grandpa took in my aunt and her four boys when the aunt left her husband, who had mental instability and was abusive, at least emotionally, if not physically. But here were four boys, probably ages 8-16, and my aunt, suddenly part of Grandma’s household at a time when her own children were grown, and it was just too much on both Grandma and Grandpa. (I heard afterward the my Grandpa, who played the organ at home in the evenings for relaxation, stopped playing during this time and never took it up again) My aunt moved out as soon as she could get a job and her own place, but the boys (at the time) were also struggling, which probably made things very difficult. Though, afterward and as adults, the boys all did well. I think Grandma was overwhelmed by the experience, honestly. And she no doubt resented the burden and feeling overwhlmed, which came out in her picking favorites among us. :/

    I hear you saying, “You should write all this down!” – and I am working through a few stacks of family photos, scanning them, and I’ll probably start writing down some of this. Hah! 🙂

    • I’ll be darned. I well remember this comment, Theresa, and I could have sworn I responded. But there is no response here! I’m so sorry. You have a way of sharing full and fascinating stories in one or two paragraphs. When I first read what you wrote here I remember feeling very affected by how having to raise those boys at least in part at their age. I can understand how that would feel. It also shows that so often something we think is unfair about some way that our elders behaved is explainable when we find out more about their lives!
      Listen to me: WRITE IT ALL DOWN!!!!

  26. What an important section for your memoir, Luanne. Nice photo too. She looks happy that you are offering a kiss on her cheek as thanks. The sights and fragrances in the homes of grandparents offer much for writing about them. I was close to all of my grandparents, spent time with them weekly while growing up, and with the exception of my paternal grandfather who died when I was about ten years old, all the others died within eighteen months of each other when I was in my early twenties. Quite a sad time period in my life. My mom has done extensive genealogy work about her Finnish family, and it took her five years to put together a family book for all of us. Quite a gift. Like you did, my mom connected with relatives she had not known. It seems so important to me, although my stepfather has no interest in genealogy whatsoever, apparently like your mom. Looking forward to your memoir getting accepted for publication!

    • I love that your mom did all this work on your family. Do you know how she did it? Did she go to a family history center or did she do it online or by writing to the government bureaus in Finland and the US?

      • She had a family contact who had started some of the work, but she emailed and wrote letters to everyone she found and asked for stories, photos, and information. It is a tremendous gift to my whole family, and it only covers her maternal ancestors.

    • Duh, I wasn’t done, but must have hit POST. What a terrible period when you lost so many grandparents at once! It must have been devastating. I never realized until I was doing genealogy a couple of years ago that my grandfather had lost his father, grandfather (who he was super close to and lived with), and mother within 3 years when he was only 21-24. I thought then how much it must have affected him.
      Hugs to you, Carla. xo

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