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Happy Birthday Gram

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Dec. 18, 2009

I’m sitting here alone on the first floor livingroom of our quiet house warmed by the woodstove. My family is upstairs, all finally asleep after a hectic day filled with birthday parties for my daughter Aimee, who turned 3 today, and even a visit to Santa in the afternoon. Earlier tonight, with colorful, pointed hats on our heads, we devoured a birthday dinner . . . Aimee’s choice of hotdogs and tater tots. I’m not sure where she learned to like them so much; we really don’t serve them here too often. But they reminded me of a meal my grandmother would have served when I was in college after my grandfather passed away. He loathed “store-bought” food of any kind, but with only herself to feed after 1983, hot dogs and tater tots eventually became a staple in Gram’s kitchen.

As tired as I thought I was an hour ago, my mind is racing with memories of Gram right now. At 88 years and 364 days older than Aimee, Clarida Van Dyne will hit a milestone tomorrow. She won’t know, unfortunately, with Alzheimer’s having robbed her, and therefore us, of virtually all of her present-day cognitive skills. Maybe she knows we’re family; it’s hard to tell. Either way, we’ll all be with her tomorrow for a party. My cousins, from the fishing village of Matinicus Island off the coast of Rockland, will come ashore. My brother and sisters will all gather and my mother, who rarely misses a day of visiting Gram at the nursing home, will most assuredly bake some cookies and bring ice cream.

She can’t walk or bathe herself and even her continence has long since left her. But Gram can still eat, as they would say on her dairy farm, like a horse. And ice cream! She loved it when she knew us all, but she seems to cherish it even more now. Long after the other residents of the home have been wheeled back to their rows of identically featureless rooms, my grandmother will still be seated alone at the lunchroom table fiddling with her spoon and little white paper bowl — that still might have one small drop of vanilla clinging to the bottom. Not wasting a single thing has always been primal with her; with all of life’s decisions, except eating, having been removed from her daily routine, it’s as if she is unwittingly savoring all she has left.

I think about Gram dying and I have to honestly say I’m OK with it. When we can make out what she’s saying now, she usually seems to be talking about her parents or one of her 11 brothers and sisters, all but one of whom have already passed away. She deserves to be with them, and my grandfather, when she’s ready.

What I can’t bear to lose, though, is what the woman represents. Born before refrigerators and the Depression, and into a home without running water or electricity, she appreciated everything. My daughter Aimee is beautiful, lovely, sweet and a joy. And she got two more dolls today to add to her collection of 20 or more that she rarely, if ever, touches. Gram shared one doll with all her sisters and never owned an article of clothing her family didn’t sew until she was a married woman. Maybe that’s why now, even with seemingly all memory lost, Gram clings to a ragged stuffed animal that she won’t let out of her sight.

I often tell the stories of working on the farm when I’m speaking in public across North America. Gram called me her little “step saver,” who would always shuttle the kitchen scraps into the compost bucket or run to the henhouse for the morning’s eggs. When I tell people about the basics of organic gardening, I always begin by talking about Gram’s nylon stockings. You see, my grandfather was a deeply religious man and a member of the Pentecostal church. According to that faith, women were supposed to look like women at all times and, accordingly, my grandmother wore a flowery print dress and nylons about 18 hours a day, seven days a week. She could be mucking out behind the cows, or walking through the field with a bale of hay in each hand, and she’d be wearing the dress and the nylons.

By habit and necessity, she would continue to wear the nylons until they could no longer be mended. Inevitably, Gram would catch the threadbare pantyhose on the corner of a chair or counter and look down in disgust. “Oh, these old things,” she’d say and then dribble them off right there in front of me. I knew what this meant, and I didn’t like it much . . . I was to take her limp undergarments to the cow manure pile and fill them full of the driest dung in the pile. Once fully plump, the nylons would then be placed in a rain barrel and I would begin a process of stirring the stockings, several times daily. After a week or so, my grandmother would declare the, shall we say “manure tea,” to be fully steeped. I would then fill a watering can with the tea and walk up and down her rows of vegetables. “Be sure to wet the tops of the leaves and the bottoms of the leaves in good shape,” she would remind me time after time. “Why, Grammy?” I would always protest.

And she always answered the same way. The woman with a sixth-grade education from St. Agatha school in Aroostook County in Maine, who couldn’t afford Miracle-Gro and would not have bought it if she could, told me something the PhD scientists are still struggling to fully comprehend: “The tea invites the good bugs in and makes the bad bugs stay away.”

Gram was, I’m proud to say, a local legend for decades. She braded the best rugs from scraps of old clothes, decorated the best cakes from old family recipes, and sewed prize-winning quilts and dresses from whatever cloth she had stored in an attic box. Her freezer was never without venison, her canning closet was always brimming with fiddleheads, dandelion greens and jars full of other plants that folks today would call weeds. And, yes, Clarida Van Dyne had the best gardens anyone ever saw. At least that’s the way I remember it. I do know for sure that friends, family and farmhands never went away from the table hungry and virtually all that food came out of the ground just outside the kitchen door.

After Gramp died, I didn’t much question Gram’s modified menu. Maybe I was still too young. I helped her keep a garden going, albeit a smaller one. We still enjoyed the spring ritual of rototilling and the fall rite of harvest. If some processed food made its way to my plate, well, at least I was still eating it in her presence.

Sitting here tonight, though, just a minute from my grandmother’s 90th birthday, I can’t help but feeling sad for what my family is losing . . . and what much of the world may have already lost. As I tossed the left-over tater tots into the compost bucket, I thought of all the amazing changes Gram saw in her lifetime, yet feel moments of desperation about the state of the world she’ll soon leave behind.

Did things really get better since Dec. 19, 1919, or did it just seem that way?
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About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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