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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Grandma Helen

My Grandma Helen was always in control.  Not overtly, but subtly.  She ruled from a silent corner, watching as everyone did just as she wanted, even if they didn’t know it.

I often remember her saying “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but …”  And then she would proceed to tell you the right way to do whatever it is you were doing.

She was clever.  And she was mindlessly obeyed.  Even if we knew what was happening, we all submitted.  Because she was our matriarch.  And we thought she deserved it.

My grandmother has been gone for several years now.  And my mother has had some trouble dealing with her absence.

My family threw my grandfather an 80th birthday party last year, in a small town in East Texas, in an old church event hall.  The building had seen years of wear, and I was charmed by the old wood floors and whitewashed walls.  In the bathroom, behind an old squeaky door with a glass knob, was a white medicine chest.

My mother fell in love with this chest, a white metal and glass pharmacist’s cabinet form the 19th Century.  She thought it would be the perfect place to stash my grandmother’s antique bottle collection.

Like many things that are uncovered after someone’s death, I didn’t know about this collection until just recently.  In a storage shed behind my grandparent’s home is a large cardboard box filled to the top with antique bottles – medicine bottles, Dr. Pepper bottles, tonic bottles – there’s a variety of treasures in there.  My grandpa says my uncle would search for these (instead of toys) when they would tour garage sales, because my grandma used to pay him a nickel for each bottle he could find.

While I agreed that a cabinet like that would be the perfect place to display my grandmother’s antique bottle collection, I also knew how expensive it would be.  So I made a note to look for something at my favorite second-hand shop that would be a good alternative and would make my mother happy.

But my father wasn’t having that.  And neither, apparently, was my grandmother.

My father felt it was his duty (which really meant it was mine and my brother’s duty) to find this exact cabinet for my mother for Christmas.  I told my father I would look, knowing that anything I found would exceed his budget.  My brother searched online for weeks, only to find this hunch correct – the cheapest replica he found was $5,000.  And had to be shipped from New Jersey.

Once again, I tried to convince my father to purchase a china hutch that would be just as beautiful, but much less expensive than the pharmacist’s cabinet he had in mind.  He was not convinced.  In fact, he decided he was going to have to pay the $5,000 and ship the cabinet from Jersey.

My father is a man who refuses to pay more than 50 cents for a Coke, and hasn’t been to the movies since it was called the “picture show,” simply because the prices are too high.  The fact that he was willing to pay so much for this cabinet just to have a special present for my mother was beautiful – a rare gesture from a typically hard man.

One weekend, dangerously close to Christmas, my brother was spending the day at my parent’s house when he was suddenly called back into work for a meeting.  He grumbled at not being informed sooner and dutifully left for the meeting.  Afterward, he sat at home in San Antonio and suddenly had the idea to look in the phone book for an antique store.  He opened the phone book to the exact page and a large illustration caught his eye.

The antique store was downtown, which gave him pause.  That’s a long drive, he thought, and then there’s the trouble with parking … but there was this voice inside his head, urging him.

“Go,” the voice said.

And so he went.

Standing on the curb, he looked up at a huge three-story building.  He’d never really enjoyed shopping, and this task looked daunting.  Three floors of antique crap, he thought.  He hadn’t found one online, what made him think he could find one here?

“Go,” the voice said again.

My brother had the hunch that it was Grandma Helen telling him to go inside.  But he’s not prone to ghost stories, so he shook it off.

But still, he went in.

He searched the first two floors, to no avail.  Once again, he was about to give up, when the sales lady from downstairs appeared behind him.

“You should try the ghost room,” she said.

My brother turned and stared at her.

“The what?”

“The ghost room,” the woman said.  “On the third floor.”

My brother sighed.  “Okay, Grandma,” he said in his head.  “I’m going.”

The cabinet was there, shoved into a back corner, trinkets and books stacked into it.

And it was well within budget.

It needed some care, of course.  My father sanded it down and painted it a gleaming white.  It was missing the glass shelves, which he had cut for it and he added a shiny white knob to the front.  It was an exact match.

He then found a refrigerator box sitting on someone’s curb.  He cut a hole out of the bottom and slipped it over the top of the cabinet.  Then he wrapped it in Christmas paper and put a tag on it that said “Special Delivery, North Pole.”

I revisited the shed behind my grandpa’s house and dug out enough bottles to fill the cabinet.  And when my father removed the wrapping on Christmas day, my mother cried.  And the rest of us cried with her.  (All except my two boys, who were threatened within an inch of their lives, should any balls be kicked or thrown in the general direction of the cabinet.)

I fully believe my grandmother, in her subtle controlling ways, directed my brother to that antique store in downtown San Antonio.  And he believes it too, though he’d be hesitant to admit it.

“I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but …”

Sure, Grandma.  Sure.

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