Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Wee Woman, Despite the Use of Lard

I'm waiting for some potentially life-changing news. Not potentially, it is life-changing news. But that news also takes 6-8 weeks to get. I'm not good at waiting. So I decided to take a Lifelong Learning class at the University of Utah as a time-filler. The class is a writing class called "Five Short Weeks, Five Short Essays" and is focused on writing non-fiction essays of 1000 or less.

Lifelong Learning is a community program. Anyone can sign up, anyone can take a class. You don't have to be accepted to the U., or have a degree. There are literally no requirements except that you can pay for the class. Obviously, this isn't a "for credit" class, so it's up to you if you want to participate and do the homework and reading, or even come to class. You get out of it what you put in.

Like I said, it's a time filler for me so I have something to focus on whilst waiting for my life to change. I've also decided that I'm going to publish the short essays I write on my blog. It gives me a little more incentive to write them, honestly, because I'll feel more accountable if I have someone other than myself to write them for.

Here is the essay from Week One. "A Wee Woman, Despite the Use of Lard"

My British grandmother died when I was twenty-four and she was eighty-seven. The beginning of the end started with a mundane task. Depending on who you talk to, she was either vacuuming or bending to pick up the newspaper when she hurt her back. It turns out vacuuming was part of the real story, but not the whole story. She was trying to move her piano while vacuuming.

My grandmother weighed eighty pounds soaking wet and had osteoporosis. Moving a piano was not something she should be doing. But she was part of the generation that defeated the Nazis and worked in coal mines and survived the Blitz of London, so she'd move a piano to vacuum under it if she damn well pleased. And she did, so she did.

She lived in a little cottage in Centerville, in a community of little cottages that all contained older persons, both single and married, widowed and widower'd. She liked this little cottage, with a sun-filled backyard and a porch; room for her piano and a table eight could sit around.

She had dual-nationality in the US and England, and every year for Christmas she made sausage rolls and jam tarts and Christmas cake. We had poppers that contained paper crowns and little toys - often plastic military men with parachutes - and English trifle she'd converted into being essentially sugar-free for her 5 grandchildren and son who were afflicted with Type 1 Diabetes.

We'd go to her house for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. She's put an entire stick of butter in the mashed potatoes and make her pastry dough with lard. When I was young I'd sleep over at her house during the summer with one of my cousins, Carly or Ranie, and she's make us French toast for breakfast with impossibly crispy and delicious edges. I watched her make it once; she added a quarter stick of butter to the pan and let it sizzle and melt. It always amazed me that she was such a wee woman. Butter is always better when it comes to British cuisine, unless, of course, you can use lard.

She loved the scent of lavender. She and her house always smelled of it. She was meticulous in her housekeeping and grooming. She had thin, whisper grey hair atop her round face. Round silver rimmed glasses guarded her pale eyes. She wore long skirts and cardigans, always light colored pants - like khaki and white - and pastels. She always looked lovely. I don't recall her ever wearing jeans or dark colors except at the funerals of my brothers and cousins.

My grandfather died when I was eight. Two years later my grandmother served a mission for her church. She was always a faithful Mormon, despite the trials life dealt her and being the only Mormon in her English family. After she returned from her mission she moved a series of times, each time moving more northward through the Salt Lake Valley and into Davis County. It became a running joke in our family, that my grandma Mollie would move every three years. Three if we were lucky.

She also had my grandfather moved. He'd chosen a cemetery on the hill in Bountiful because it had a terrific view of the Great Salt Lake. She hated that cemetery, and after she felt an appropriate amount of time had passed, she had him moved to Bountiful City Cemetery where my cousins were buried. And where she is now buried.

She was a delightful woman. Always so giving and caring of those around her. She once brought me a bottle of my (then) favorite perfume, Tommy Girl, during one of my long stints in the hospital when I first lost my kidneys. It was the biggest bottle you could buy and my grandmother was not a rich woman. It didn't matter to her though, she was happy if it made me happy.

After she hurt her back she moved in with my Aunt Lita and Uncle Chuck. It was end of life care, really, but no one spoke outright about that. She died in December. I did the flowers for her funeral. A lot of red roses and eggplant mini calla lilies, Scottish heather and dark purple stock. English holly, the variegated kind like is planted outside Kensington Palace. I'd never done a casket piece before. The flowers were elegant, understated, a little bit like her.

Now I regret that I never spoke to her about England, now that  I'm old enough to appreciate my British heritage. I wish I'd talked to her about living through the Blitz of London, what it was like to immigrate to America as a young mother and wife, the journey on the steamer across the Atlantic and the train across the plains. I wish I'd asked her about her childhood in the English countryside and the familial history behind my middle name.

Now I make Christmas cake for my mother, using my grandmother's recipe. I make it in mid-November, like she says, and put it in the freezer to age. For Boxing Day we honor her with Chinese food, and I make sausage rolls and jam tarts. I use her tart pans and the cookbook of her recipes written in her script. The only thing I change is the lard. 

A few weeks ago I waited for the bus on Thirteenth East, just below Vine. I remembered being in a car with someone, my Aunt Flori maybe, and dropping her off at that bus stop so she could take the bus home. There she sat, so proper with her knees together, feet flat on the cement, purse stiff in her lap and her hands side by side holding the top of it... I miss my grandmother, and the things I never learned from her. But I have her recipes, and that seems like a good place to start.


  1. We (Smith people) should compile a book of all our memories. Maybe together we can all have a more complete history? (although I highly doubt any will be this eloquent!) I love that she left us things we all enjoy. You have her tart pans and cookbooks, I have her crochet hooks and knitting needles and the fancy wooden box she kept by her bedside.

    I was just telling Danny last night about how she is the one who taught me phone manners. "Smith residence." Always so proper. Love this essay. Brings back wonderful happy memories.

  2. Lovely essay. I'm glad that you are using your waiting time wisely and writing. Your grandmother sounds lovely and properly British. Cheers.