Growing Up with Two Grannies
November 5, 2018
Eric Hobson, guest contributor
Grandmothers—we are each issued an unmatched pair at birth. These are important ladies in your life as each contributes about 25% of your DNA; that’s a total of half of your genetics. If you are lucky, grandmothers will live long enough to be a factor in your formative years.
I was fortunate enough to have both grandmothers live during my adolescent years. Both were born in the late 1800s and were college educated (extremely rare in those days). My paternal grandmother, Bess Hobson (photo on left), attended a music conservatory, and my maternal grandmother, Virginia Nichols (photo on right), graduated from Stanford University, with a degree in Romance languages. Both lived with me for many years.
The larger influence came from my maternal grandmother after her husband (my grandfather) died shortly after I was born. She then moved in to help my mother raise me. She was a very proper Victorian lady in all things. I only heard her swear twice in the 15 or so years she was with us. Both times were because of some I said or did.
The second time involved a situation of yard work and trash collection. Mom had hired me and a buddy to clean up the yard. In the course of our chores, we placed some soil and rocks into the trash cans. Trash collection was scheduled on the same day, and the gentleman charged with emptying our cans did not appreciate our efforts as the cans were obviously a bit ‘overweight.’ Being a nice gentleman of Italian ancestry, as were most trash collectors in San Francisco in those days, he proceeded to communicate his displeasure with our behavior. The lesson became somewhat bellicose and was overheard by Grandma Virginia inside the house. She made haste to the breezeway where the trash cans were located and proceeded to chastise the gentleman in Italian and English for his unsavory language (her term) suggesting that his parents might not have been married (Italian being close enough to English that the meaning was fairly easy to translate).
The first time that I heard Grandma Virginia curse was directed at me. Most children go through a stage where they don’t like eating the crusts of bread. I was no exception.
Well, being a bright child and with something of a smart mouth, not always connected to the brain's censor, I got in trouble. Now I don’t mean to suggest that this was the first nor the last time that my mouth got me into trouble as anyone who knows me will confirm. On this occasion, I chose to make my case for not eating the reviled crust of my lunch-time sandwich. The conversation went something like this:
Grandma: “Eat your sandwich”
Me: “I don’t like the crust!”
Grandma: “Think of all the starving children in the world” (this was shortly after WWII and during the Korean conflict)
Me: “Give me their addresses and I’ll send these crusts to them!" (see smart uncensored mouth)
Grandma.: “You DAMN kid!”
Me: “ “ (speechless and shocked)
I didn’t even know my Grandmother knew how to swear.
I knew less about my paternal grandmother, Bess. I believe she attended the music conservatory in San Jose that became the music school part of the University of the Pacific. She was a pianist. My greatest regret is that I could never convince her to play for me.
Her life was very different from that of my other grandmother. I learned that her husband had committed her to a state hospital for ‘involutionary melancholia’ (depression). I assume this was after 1911 and before 1918, which represents the date of birth of her two sons. I recently learned that she had another pregnancy that resulted in the birth of another son in 1908 who died after only two days – sounds to me like post-partum depression.
I have not found in the state records any information about a divorce, so perhaps she and my grandfather had a legal separation and not a divorce. In any case, some time in the thirties they no longer lived as man and wife.
At the end of WWII, my mother, with me in tow, returned to the West Coast from the East Coast where my father had been stationed throughout WWII. Mom made sure that I met and had a relationship with all of my living grandparents.
Grandma Bess supported herself in Redwood City as an office worker for the State of California until she retired in the 1950s. In the mid-50s, she moved into the mother-in-law apartment in Mom’s house. It is during this period that most of my memories emerge—mostly around food.
Once a week, I would go down to Grandma Bess’s apartment for supper. I would always request her carrot salad. It was a simple mixture of grated carrots mixed with raisins and pineapple chunks dressed with a simple mayonaise dressing. I could have made a meal just from that concoction.
Having to live frugally after her divorce, she had always lived in a studio apartment because her salary and later state pension and Social Security were not very generous. Bess’ favorite dessert was butterscotch pudding. Bess found a way to serve single size portions that she could afford (this is long before such things were available). She let me in on her secret – Gerber’s butterscotch pudding baby food. I still, on occasion, get strange looks when I buy a jar or two at Safeway supermarket.
In the late 1950s, Bess moved into a different apartment where she could serve as concierge of the building in exchange for a reduced rent. By this time I was learning to drive and for the next few years I would drive her back to her new apartment after our weekly dinners.
Both Grandmothers lived long lives. I was fortunate to have had their love, wisdom and their hand in helping me live long enough to now be a grandparent X 5.
Eric Hobson is a retired high school teacher and college instructor. He is a disabled Vietnam veteran who writes poetry and lives in Reno with his wife, Eileen, of 50 years.
Here's a recipe for carrot and raisin salad--with mayonaise: