“Don’t judge me” I said as I mucked my way through the kitchen. “Don’t tell me what you’re doing because I’m dying to know” replied my uber curious and impatient husband. Taking out the box of gluten free table crackers and smearing butter across them I returned back to write this. My grandmother, Ruth, used to love to put butter on saltine crackers, add some peanut butter sometimes, and share this with us for a snack. Growing up next door to her, we spent a lot of time with her patience and her peculiarities. For the grandchildren she had, and would proudly name them all and count them, we always knew we were loved by her. For my mother and my aunt, they did not experience her love or her pride in them growing up. These were some of her peculiarities.
Born into an immigrant family of sixteen children, she grew up in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley in California. When the early 1900’s version of the plague hit America, it took her Father and two siblings with it. Recalling these memories, she would talk of her sister Elsa and show her picture to us. Meeting my grandfather in bible school would take her to Washington state, away from her family. With no prying eyes and no family to help her, she was left to survive my alcoholic grandfather’s violent and abusive behavior, and try to keep her five children out of harms way, often unsuccessfully. Until he died, she was subject to his violent mood swings and unpredictable and twisted behavior. We never know what truly makes up a person’s psyche or how one survives, but often these experiences make or break a person, and sometimes the pieces don’t fit evenly.
My brother and I spent time with Grandma, often over food. She indulged in the craze of pre-made food from the Schwan Man delivery truck. We would make home-made sodas, feast on their frozen pizzas and enjoy ice cream bars galore. Perhaps it was from living in a depression, or living with a man who refused to let her have any money, but she loved to order food as much as make it. At Christmas she would make her famous Mississippi Mud, a goey contortion of cookies, chocolate and god knows what but it was delicious. Or her marshmallow rolls, some form of melted chocolate and marshmallows that she froze and would slice into pieces. But most importantly, the Santa Lucia cake and the bownots. Santa Lucia, a holiday celebrated in Sweden and other parts of Europe, was a holiday that she, my mother and I started celebrating. These traditions would often unite us. It was sometimes her behavior that would divide us all.
When I was fifteen, troubled would have been a good way to describe it. Living with her was a relief, until I found out she had read my diary and told my aunt the contents. Privacy wasn’t her strong point. If you didn’t answer the phone, she would come over and knock on the door, or the windows. She would knock on my mother’s window at night calling out “There’s a good movie on channel twelve,” knowing that she was in there with her new husband. She couldn’t keep a secret, ever. She would tell untruths or assumptions about people that were often hurtful. No one ever knew why.
After the death of my grandfather, her finances concerned all of her children. She sent thousands of dollars to the Jim and Tammy Fay’s and other televangelists. Even when her children would tell her that widows were to be cared for by God and she didn’t need to send money, she would sent it anyway. She ordered constantly from mail-order catalogs, skin-care companies, and magazine subscriptions, hoping to win the big contests or just give the things away. When we discovered her ‘jewel’ collection, a safe full of faux gemstones with no value, concerns gave way to realities. She had spent all of the money from the estate. She had long ago sold the car, thankfully, because her idea of stopping involved driving fifty miles an hour and slamming on the brakes. And while she still had social security, she seemed to be bouncing checks every month. My aunt finally took over her checkbook, discovering that she was still writing checks to televangelists. She bought a $2000 vacuum cleaner with a ‘lifetime guarantee’, that lay broken and useless. And she owed mail-order companies and local department stores.
Owing money wasn’t her only problem. The trailer that she owned needed repair. Because she was now in debt, she couldn’t afford her own groceries. My uncle started bringing her groceries every week. My mother would bring her meals from the restaurant she worked at. My other uncle had done so much work on the trailer and repairing and replacing things, they began to wonder if the trailer would hold up for her lifetime. They arranged for a non-profit to do the repairs on the condition they would own the trailer after her death. Soon they discovered she was no longer cooking, or eating, unless it was carnation instant breakfast or a meal from the restaurant. They knew they no longer had a choice. Her last few months before her stroke was in an assisted living facility, a nice facility nearby to everyone, but she was unhappy with that decision. But when she woke up calling the nurses by her dead sister’s names, their medical expertise gave her a few more months of her grandchildren by her bedside. A blockage to an artery, long undiagnosed and permanent brain damage, possibly accounting for some of the unusual behavior, but permanent enough for a death sentence. They knew it was her time to go when she told them that Jesus had visited her and it was soon after that she was gone.
It would be easy to remember only the bad parts. But I believe that you can’t always explain someone’s life or their behaviors based on their experiences. Like the fact that we would shake our heads at some of her behaviors. But some of them were straight out of love. When my mother’s husband convinced her to sell our family home and we moved to another house, he abandoned a lot of our belongings. My grandmother rescued my Little House on the Prairie books and toys out of the garbage and the rain. She didn’t think it was right that he left them out. And she knew how much they meant to me. I look back at all the letters she wrote me. As she grew older her handwriting became more difficult to read, her letters were often the same: what my cousins were doing, how proud she was, what movie she watched on channel twelve. Her love often involved food. Pictures of us, eating fruit leather when dehydrating was the new craze. Or pictures of me with the Santa Lucia cake. None of us can get the bowknot recipe right, because she probably left out a few ingredients, not purposefully, just forgot to tell us. When my mother ‘snubbed’ me and told me to ask my Grandmother for her pastry recipe, it’s still the one I use today. You could ask Grandma to show you how to make anything. She loved to show you. When she bought a hat weaver, she made everyone hats for Christmas. We watched Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, over, and over, and over, and over again at her house. Every weekend. She loved making snacks. Saltines with butter. Sometimes with peanut butter. Patience is needed. The butter needs to be soft. Saltines break apart easily. She was patient. And often kind. There are many pieces that make up a person. It’s the pieces of kindness that can stay with you for a lifetime.
2 thoughts on “Butter on Saltines”
Thanks Jen. Yes, I have a few mixed bags in my family too. Thanks for reading.
This is beautiful writing, Jennie. My grandmother was also a bit of a mixed bag. She was truly awful to my mother but I have very happy memories of her that I cherish. Your essay made me think of her. Thank you for sharing.