My Grandmother’s Hands

We hear human interest stories all the time about people who can trace their passion directly back to childhood. 

  • There are the altruists who give back by working tirelessly with their charity of choice. So often, their “WHY” is  because as a child, they did without. 
  • Frequently, we enjoy the culinary talents of men or women who became chefs because they have happy memories in the kitchen with a family member.  
  • We read stories of millionaires who fiercely pursued improbable dreams because they grew up in poverty. 
  • Many authors were inspired by books they read and loved as children.
  • Countless singers learned to love music as children in church.

The stories are endless. Our early memories are foundational; they play a role in the adults that we become. Like so many others, I am an educator; this is not a unique career choice, yet I have begun to wonder if I can trace my career back to childhood. I am starting with my grandmother because she is the person with me in my earliest memory.

My grandmother was born in 1878. I was born 70 years later in 1948.  She was 73 and I was three years old when my child’s brain stored this first memory in 1951. In this memory, I re-enact my daily afternoon walk with my grandmother. As a young child, my life was tightly structured. My grandmother was a widow and lived with my mother, and me; we were living in a small, rural area in Pennsylvania while my father was overseas on a military deployment.

I loved my grandmother and she loved me. My mom struggled with parenthood and during those days, I was primarily raised by my grandmother. My grandmother was a gentle soul, nurturing by nature, forgiving, and kind. However, she met anything deemed “unladylike” with displeasure, and there was nothing I hated more than disappointing my grandmother. She grew up in the late 1800s with wealth and standards she referred to as a lady’s “comportment,” all of which seem very far-fetched in today’s world.

“What does ‘comportment’ even mean?” you ask.  It is the way you conduct your life. In my three-year old life, it meant that my hair was brushed and styled each morning. Curls were painstakingly wound around my grandmother’s finger and I was expected to stand still for however long it took. I remember dressing in the morning in what she called a “day dress”. I didn’t have to take a nap, but we had quiet time after lunch each day. She would read, do needle work, darn socks, plan menus, or write letters. 

In the afternoon, every single afternoon except Sunday, I walked hand in hand with my grandmother to the grocer’s general store. In our small country home there was no refrigerator; we had a root cellar for vegetables and an “ice box”.  Now, an ice box is literally a box that held ice in order to keep foods cool.  An ice man came to deliver blocks of ice every few days, the milk man delivered glass bottles of milk and cream to the porch, and grandmother and I went to the grocery to pick up food for the next day’s meals. 

I remember her in the kitchen. She loved being in the kitchen and told me that she had learned her techniques from a cook employed by her family when she was a young girl. I can still remember the smell of her roast chicken, stew, and my favorite, pot roast. Though it was simple food, each evening we changed clothes and dressed for dinner.  My grandmother, mother, and I sat around the dinner table. While at the table, I was expected to know which fork was for which course, to use my napkin, to sit still, and “Children were to be seen and not heard.” during the dinner hour.

After dinner, bath and bedtime stories were a favorite time. We did not have television or even a radio, so books were important. I still have some of the favorite books that I selected time and time again.  How, I wonder, did that little girl sitting on grandmother’s lap become a teacher?

My grandmother’s hands taught me, protected me, held me. I see her hand holding mine, brushing my hair, ironing my dresses, darning my socks, stirring a pot of soup, steadying me as I got into the tub, tucking me in at night. Her hands were a constant in my early life. Teachers are nurturing by nature. When I think about my grandmother’s gentle hands, I can see a clear path to my life as a teacher. Yes, her hands played a pivotal role in forming my life; she taught me how to love a child.

Author: Jennifer C. Walts, Ed.D.

I am a retired educator and School Improvement Specialist.

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