My grandmother had a patent leather purse from JCPenney. It was steel blue and must of had a hundred pockets. She kept a secret world in there; all of which was a mystery to us kids, except one thing was certain - she had candy.
Looking back, it's hard to remember what we loved more; the candy itself or her exasperated reaction to us asking for it. You see, Grandma Flo had one of those perpetually cranky, always slightly put out dispositions, where nearly everything aggravated her. My brother and I gave her endless trouble, constantly calculating how much we could get away with before she told our parents. When we'd push and annoy, she let out an obnoxious sigh, which we found helplessly hilarious. We did things like tickle her feet while she slept, change the TV channel when she wasn't looking (she watched a lot of boring Westerns), and worst of all, begged her for gumdrops.
"I don't HAVE any" she'd protest. Eventually, after multiple exhales and talking under her breath, she'd begrudgingly hand us a Werther's Original or a couple of spice drops, to which we rarely said thank you. I know, we were rotten.
Grandma was poor her entire life. She lived month to month off her Social Security. She had old cars and never owned a home of her own. She moved in with us when we were in upper elementary school to help save money. She’d take us to school and pick us up. I can still see her sitting in her old Dodge with a silk scarf covering her hair. She cooked a lot for our family during those years, and did other things to help around the house. Sometimes when she had a little extra money, she’d even take us out to eat which was a real treat. My brother and I thanked her by mixing all our left over food in our soda drinks at the end of the meal and asking her if she wanted a sip. Again, rotten.
After a few years she moved up to Washington state to live with my aunt Mary. We talked over the phone on occasion, and eventually, at 19, I took a flight up there to visit. Grandma and I were to take a road trip together. My aunt lent us her car, and we took the ferry from Port Angeles into Canada. We spent the night in Victoria, British Columbia. It was a charming city with lots to look at, but by then my grandma’s knees were shot and she had a hard time walking up and down the hilly streets of Victoria.
As a reprieve from the previous days painful sightseeing, we decided to drive up to Butchart Gardens. Now let me just preface by saying that back then this was absolutely not my thing. However, it was something I could do with her that she might enjoy. Grandma loved flowers and birds, and perhaps we could take our time and slowly enjoy the scenery. I had a feeling I’d be excruitiatingly bored, but I paid the admission and through the gate we went.
All I remember was parking, and walking over to the railing, not realizing we were quite elevated from what was below. Looking down into the lustrous valley, I have never seen a more beautiful place in all my life. I promise you, for a split second it felt like the veil between heaven and earth had been torn, and we were standing on the outskirts of eden. Every color flower you could imagine; bushes and trees perfectly sculpted; thin, winding pathways where birds danced on the wind. It was perfection.
We noticed there was a lovely restaurant on the property. It was a high end place, with patio seating that overlooked another area of the garden that eventually led to the lake. I told my grandma I would pay, and she was happy about that. We drank wine and soaked up the majesty. Grandma could be quite charming and fun actually; she told many stories from her past, growing up in Wisconsin and such.
The next day we drove to Vancouver, and stayed overnight at a Ramada Inn. Driving around the city that evening, we spotted a four star hotel with a steakhouse attached. Inside the window we could see white table cloths and velvet backed chairs. I asked her if she’d like to go. Like a child she gleefully accepted, especially after I told her I would pay; after all, she deserved it. The meal cost around $100, and that was 20 years ago. It was the least I could do for her after all the relentless badgering we did as kids. Looking out the tall glass windows, we could see the city lights flickering like fireflies all around us. For a moment we felt rich.
That was one of the last times I saw The Gumdrop Queen. Thinking I had more time, I let the relationship slip away. She passed away some years back, but every time I think of her I see that garden; she’s sitting at that outdoor table with Chardonnay, with brand new knees and a sparkly gown. She’ll be one of my first visits when I get to where she is.
Stories From Wonderland book coming soon!
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