Urbanna, Va.— As Easter approaches it is time to be grateful for the many blessings of life. One for me is memories of Grandmother Wakefield in the 1940s. She always had good advice to share with me.
She was quite a character, straight out of Merry Olde England, and married to Grandfather, who had come to the U.S. in 1872 from Yorkshire, England. Like many immigrants, through hard work and sacrifice, he did well in America. But Grandmother never lost her habits of frugality or her sense of what was right and what was wrong.
My mother was of another social niche, however, with a bit of French blood coursing through her veins, or so it was explained to me, and did not always see eye to eye with Grandmother. Mother thought one chose a standard of living in life and then lived according to it, with no regard to the amount of money in the bank. She and Grandmother had their share of disagreements.
“What? What? Mays cannot sew a button on a shirt yet?!” I recall Grandmother indignantly asking at the big house one day. I was not quite 4 years old.
It was 1945 and America was just coming out of World War II. Father had invented and helped manufacture infrared signal lights for the U.S. Navy on ships in the Pacific, which had prevented the Japanese from reading our messages. No matter to Grandmother. His daughter could not sew a button on a shirt.
Grandmother marched me back to Grandfather’s den where she stored her sewing supplies on a lower shelf in the bookcase behind the door. She opened a tin filled with a glorious assortment of old shiny buttons that probably dated back to Shakespeare. No matter what treasure one may speak of in life, nothing will ever be more wondrous to me than that tin of buttons.
Choosing a button was the fun part. Then came the hour when I had to sit on a hard-backed chair in the dining room and poke a needle through the button while Grandmother checked my progress.
“Imagine raising a daughter who cannot sew a button on a shirt!” Grandmother clucked, and well within the earshot of Mother. Grandmother did not approve of the modern ways of doing things. Mother told me she never once had visited her kitchen without shaking the teapot to discover if it was ready to pour a cup of tea. It wasn’t.
Grandmother only approved of simple food, such as oatmeal, meat and potatoes. A joint of beef served with Yorkshire pudding was her finest meal. She would never have used wine in her cooking, or have served it at her table. No cocktails were served at her house. No rice either. “Peasant food,” Father would always say at the idea of eating rice, and that prejudice was sure to have come from Grandmother.
Grandmother was of the “Mustn’t Grumble School” as were most Englishmen. One accepted one’s fate in this world and never complained. She also did not approve of frowning, which apparently I did often, especially when given a button to sew on a shirt.
“I knew a young girl whose frown turned like cement on her forehead permanently,” Grandmother said.
She also had something to say about my teddy bear, which accompanied me wherever I went so that I could sniff under his dear ears. “I knew a young girl once who sniffed her teddy bear so much that she got a stomach ache and had to have an operation,” said Grandmother. “When they opened her up, they found a wad of teddy bear fur as big as a grapefruit.”
Other advice from Grandmother was save money, live frugally, only buy what you can afford, and never live beyond your means. Work hard, enjoy simple pleasures, and take good care of your possessions so they will last for many years. Keep a clean house, do your own cooking and housework, and take good care of your children.
I didn’t always follow Grandmother’s advice, but I never forgot it. It’s odd, too, how the older I get in life, the more I treasure her memory.
There are no more teddy bears in my life, and I don’t frown much these days. I eat oatmeal in the morning, sew buttons on shirts, and don’t care for rice. But the most important advice Grandmother ever gave me was . . . don’t live beyond your means.
I wish Congress followed such advice. ©2009