The Afghan My Grandmother Made Me

Nanny Kay’s afghan today

The other evening my husband pulled an old throw out of the closet and settled in for a nap. We haven’t used this afghan in years—it’s a bright variegated blue and white random knit, and although we have a lot of blue in our home, this blanket doesn’t really fit in. The acrylic yarn and coloring looks very 1960s, so a half-century later, it seems dated.

But I’ve kept it around since my childhood. After all, my grandmother made it for me.

My paternal grandmother, my Nanny Kay, had many talents. I’ve written before about her piano playing. My father said she played the violin very well also. She cooked well, and she crocheted. My mother knitted and my other grandmother did needlepoint, but Nanny Kay crocheted.

After my mother died, my father found a box containing a handmade lace tablecloth with a note in my mother’s handwriting on it. The note said Nanny Kay had made the tablecloth as a wedding gift for my parents. Neither my father nor I remembered ever seeing it. The workmanship on the lace was exquisite— tiny crocheted stitches made up each two-inch medallion, and the medallions were tacked together to make a covering large enough for a table for eight. (I thought I took a picture of it after my dad died, but I can’t find the photo.)

Afghan at the foot of my bed at Middlebury, 1976

I don’t remember exactly when Nanny Kay made the blue and white afghan for me, but I think I was about eleven or twelve. I can picture it on my bed when I had a pink bedspread, which was between about 1967 and 1970. And I definitely recall using the afghan in the winters during junior high and high school, when I curled up on my bed to do homework or read. Our Siamese cat would sometimes curl up with me. One time she bit my algebra homework when she decided the paper would make a good toy. Another time she got sick on the afghan, which is why I can so clearly remember her in my room with me.

As I recall, Nanny Kay planned to make these afghans for all her grandchildren, or at least for her granddaughters. I don’t remember my brother having one (the other brother may not have been born yet), but I have a vague recollection of my sister having a pink crib-sized blanket in the same style. My afghan was a Christmas present from Nanny Kay, and I loved it when I got it. I don’t like wool against my skin, but the acrylic yarn was soft and cozy.

Afghan on my bed at Stanford, 1977

Somehow, the blue afghan made it three thousand miles across the nation to my dorm room at Middlebury College. I don’t see pictures of it in my early college years, but it is at the foot of my bed in the last room I had at Middlebury. Then it went three thousand miles back west to Stanford Law School with me also.

Later it moved to Kansas City and spent some time on my daughter’s bed during the winter months, but she never liked it. It was too old-school for her, I think. For the last decade or so, it has lived in the closet, until my husband pulled it out, reviving all the memories I recounted above. It now covers my child-sized rocking chair, awaiting another nap.

What hand-made items do you have from your past?

Jade Earrings and Other Bequests

My husband’s maternal grandmother put tags and notes on many of her possessions, stating who she wanted to get what after her death. Most of her notes bequeathed her property to her daughters or to her four grandchildren, but there were a few things that had my name on them. She lived for several years after my husband and I were married, and we had visited them in Southern California at their lovely home near the beach.

Among the items with my name on them were her Catholic paraphernalia—prayer books and the like. I don’t know why she even owned these. She wasn’t Catholic, and as far as I know, she never attended a Catholic school. But as the only Catholic affiliated with the family at the time of her death, I suppose she thought I would appreciate them. So I took them and put them aside. They were all pre-Vatican II, and of little relevance to a modern Catholic.

Jade earrings from my husband’s grandmother

She also bequeathed me a pair of jade earrings. Once when I visited her home, I think I admired a little jade Buddha figure. From my stray comment, perhaps she deduced that I like jade.

Two pairs of my older jade earrings

I do like jade. In fact, by the time his grandmother died, my husband had given me at least three pairs of jade earrings, and I wore all of them often during my working days.

After his grandmother’s death, I had four pairs.

The earrings she left me are beautiful. I think she acquired them during her travels in Asia. They’re a brighter green than most jade made into jewelry, almost a kelly green. I knew jade could range widely in color, from the traditional dark green to white and black and even lavender and red. Still, this green surprised me when I first saw the earrings—more suitable for St. Patrick’s Day than most jade. (And, indeed, I’ve worn them on many a St. Patrick’s Day.)

The earrings when I received them were clip-ons, because his grandmother did not have pierced ears. I did have pierced ears, and they hurt, so I didn’t wear them. A couple of years later, my husband had them converted into pierced earrings, so I could wear them.

Since then, I have worn them often, when the brighter green suits my clothing more than darker jade would.

Butterfly pins from my husband’s grandmother

In addition to the jade earrings, my husband’s grandmother also left me two butterfly pins of the same color. They are some sort of lacquer on gold, I think; I don’t believe they are jade.

I wish I knew the story behind how she came to acquire these pins. I mean, who wears butterfly pins? Even in the 1950s, who wore butterfly pins? And even if for some reason you wore one pin, why would you ever wear two?

The earrings and pins together

I have only had a couple of occasions when I thought it appropriate to wear these pins. Once I put them on a white dress. And the other time was to a Girl Scout fundraiser, where the invitation said to wear “camping chic.” I wore hiking pants and boots, a sweater set, and my jade earrings and butterflies. No one made any comment, whether out of polite circumspection or disinterest, I couldn’t say.

Someday, I’ll leave all this jewelry to my daughter, who was named after my husband’s grandmother. Then she can wonder when it is appropriate to wear butterfly pins. At least the earrings have already been converted for her to wear with pierced ears.

Do you have items you’ve inherited that you wonder about?

My Great-Grandmother Della Phillips Jones

The great-grandmother I know the least about is my father’s maternal grandmother, Della Phillips Jones. All I ever knew about her growing up was that she had been married before she married my great-grandfather, and her daughter (my grandmother) had a half-sister from Della’s first marriage who was quite a bit older than she was. I had the sense there was some scandal associated with Della, but whether it was simply that she’d been divorced or whether there was more to the story, I never heard.

Della died before I was born, so I never had the opportunity to meet her, or her husband (my great-grandfather) Tucker Jones, who also died before I was born.

I knew that Tucker Jones owned a store in Arnold, Nebraska, during the Depression. My father talked about how Grandpa Tucker gave credit to people who were down on their luck in those years, which caused him his own financial troubles.

My father must have known his grandmother Della, but he didn’t tell me any stories about her. I had the impression he liked Tucker, but might not have liked Della.

My grandmother never told stories about her parents either. I wondered whether she got her musical talent from Della or from Tucker.

I later met my grandmother’s sister, my half-great-aunt Ethel, who lived with her husband in Idaho, not too far from my parents’ vacation home in Coeur d’Alene, when I was in high school. We had a couple of lunches with them. Ethel was quite old when I met her, and she did not tell any stories about her parents. I think Ethel died just a few years after I met her.

And that’s all I knew about this branch of the family. I should have asked my father more about his mother’s parents.

So recently I went searching for what else I could find out about Della. “Jones” is not an easy name to research. But between family genealogy records and what I found online, I’ve pieced together the following:

Della was born on January 25, 1877, to James Martin Phillips and Martha Josephine Stevenson. I could trace Della’s father’s family back through several generations. They had come from Indiana, and from Virginia in generations before that. Her father’s ancestors came to America well before the Revolutionary War—one of her great-great-great-grandfathers, a Joseph Phillips (one of several Josephs) was born in Orange, Virginia, on July 16, 1706. I’d known I had pre-Revolutionary War relatives on my mother’s side (the Hooker family), but I hadn’t known my dad had such long roots in the New World until I researched Della.

Della’s mother, Martha Josephine Stevenson, was also from Indiana. She had six children and died in May 6, 1922, in Chicago.

Della’s first marriage license says she was born in Indiana, but her obituary says she was born in Nebraska. Her first marriage was to Glenn Johnson on April 12, 1898. Glenn was born in Iowa. He was twenty-six, and she was only seventeen. Their daughter Ethel was born in about 1900.

After my father died, I found a copy of Della’s divorce papers from her first marriage. Why my father had them, I have no idea. I don’t know whether his mother gave them to him, or whether they came with some genealogy records that his sister gave him. The papers made it sound like Della had been abused during her first marriage, but I don’t know if that was the truth—from my law school days, I know it was common to make such allegations to provide the cause necessary to get a divorce decree, in the days before no-fault divorces. I didn’t keep the divorce papers, so I don’t remember the date of their divorce.

Della’s second marriage in 1908 to Tucker Lon Jones, produced my grandmother, Kathryn Delores Jones Claudson, born February 12, 1911. Della and Tucker had no other children, though Ethel lived with them until she grew up, according to census records.

I know Tucker was born on June 6, 1881, in Grand Pass, Missouri, in Saline County—the same county my husband’s family is from, though I don’t think my in-laws knew of Tucker or his family at all. Tucker was four years younger than Della—possibly another reason for scandal in those days—he married an older divorcee.

Inside the T.L. Jones Mercantile store in 1914, Arnold, Nebraska

I don’t know how Tucker and Della got to Arnold, Nebraska. They may have moved there when they bought into a mercantile store in 1912. An article I found said that Tucker and Della operated the store in Arnold for twenty-eight years, starting in 1912, when they opened it with two other men. They bought out their partners in 1925 and renamed it the T.L. Jones Mercantile Co. According to the article, the store stopped selling clothing in 1928 and thereafter only sold groceries. At some point, Tucker and Della sold the store, and it was operated by others until 1944.

Della Phillips Jones in 1914

I have only found one picture of Della. It was taken in 1914 inside the T.L. Jones Mercantile Co. store that she and Tucker owned and operated.

Della was one of the witnesses to my grandparents’ marriage on August 30, 1928, in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Tucker Lon Jones in 1914

Tucker Jones died in 1944 in Arnold Nebraska. Della died on December 17, 1955, in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. Plattsmouth is south of Omaha, right where the Platte River joins the Missouri, across the Missouri River from Iowa—a good distance from Arnold. Della was buried in Arnold with Tucker, so I wondered what she was doing in Plattsmouth. Her death certificate answered that question—she was living in the Masonic Home in Plattsmouth at the time of her death. The doctor who signed her death certificate stated he had attended her since 1947, so it appears she moved to Plattsmouth, possibly to the Masonic home, a few years after Tucker’s death.

And those are the only facts I’ve learned about her life and death. I still wish I knew more.

What do you wish you knew about your ancestors?

Random Photos: Going Home Again . . . A Vacation Remembered

My husband and I didn’t take too many summer vacations at my parents’ home when our kids were growing up. We saved our visits for every third Christmas. In addition, my parents visited us once or twice a year in Kansas City, and we sent our kids out to Washington State without us as soon as the airlines would let them fly by themselves.

But I recently pulled out a random envelope of snapshots my father had taken of one summer vacation we did take in Washington State at my parents’ house.

Kids swimming, one with water wings, and the other with attitude

I can’t recall exactly which summer it was. The pictures were taken at the large house my parents had in the Meadow Springs development of Richland, Washington. They owned this home between the summer of 1986 and about 1991. I know this wasn’t our first visit there—we’d visited them at this house over Christmas 1986. My daughter looks to be about three or four in the pictures, with my son about six or seven, so I’m guessing it was the summer of 1988 or 1989, but it could have been 1990.

Nanny Winnie supervising my daughter

The house had a swimming pool, which our kids loved. My daughter couldn’t swim yet, so had to wear water wings. My son could swim, and most likely lorded his wing-less state over his little sister. My mother’s mother, Nanny Winnie, visited that week also, and she loved to swim. She was always happy to supervise afternoons at the pool.

Mitzi doesn’t know whether to bark at my son or the pool skimmer

My parents had a Schnauzer named Mitzi. Mitzi wanted to be a part of the pool parties, particularly when the pool skimmer was operating. The dog could swim, but she couldn’t get herself out of the pool. Later, my younger brother taught Mitzi to paddle to the stairs so she could climb out, but at the time of our visit, she had not yet learned this escape route. One time during our visit that week, I had to dive in after her and pull her to safety. She didn’t seem too grateful, and scrabbled and scratched to get out of my helpful arms.

Husband and son canoeing on the Wenatchee River

On the weekend we were there, when my father wasn’t working, my husband, son, father and I went canoeing on the Wenatchee River. We drove through the lovely mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington, rented canoes from an outfitter, and put in on the river somewhere near Lake Wenatchee. Then we floated downstream through the alpine Wenatchee National Forest for a couple of hours. We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar, then took out where the outfitter had designated and awaited our pick up.

Lunch on the gravel bar

We had two canoes—my husband and son paddled one, and my father and I had the other. This was the first canoe trip I’d been on where I wasn’t in the same boat as my husband. I was used to relying on his skills to get us through any whitewater, but we decided our son needed a strong paddler more than I did. Our son was young enough that his paddling was more for show than power. (As was mine, though I at least had an intellectual understanding of what I should be doing.)

Me with wet shoes, and son

My father was definitely not as competent at paddling as my husband. Still, he and I didn’t have much difficulty until we reached the take-out point. There, even with both Dad and me paddling as hard as we could, we almost didn’t reach shore. I finally had to step out of the boat to pull us out of the current just as we passed the gravel river access road where we were supposed to meet our ride. Dad may have gotten wet also—there is photographic evidence of my wet shoes, but he was taking the pictures, so there’s nothing to verify his actions.

I was happy to find these pictures and to remember that summer vacation back in my birthplace—Washington State, and Richland in particular. In recent years, I’ve only been to Richland for my parents’ funerals in 2014 and 2015. There’s no one left to bury in Richland, and I sometimes wonder if I will ever go home again.

What do you remember of visits to your hometown?

Different Forms of Grieving

I did not plan to write this week about losing my parents—that’s a subject I’ve covered many times in this blog (see here and here for examples). But this week is the third anniversary of my mother’s death, and the topic is on my mind. Three years sounds like a long time. I’ve published two novels and drafted a third in those three years. And yet at times it feels like yesterday.

My parents at their wedding, 1955

I am bothered sometimes because I do not grieve my parents in the same way. My father’s death just six months after Mother’s was a raw wound—sudden, at a time when he still had plans for the future. He was an interesting and interested companion and conversationalist until the day he died. His death made me and my siblings orphans, and it thrust me into becoming the executor of both parents’ estates, which at times was overwhelming even for someone with a law degree. My life changed in the middle of the night when I got the call that he had died, and his passing left a gaping hole in my life.

By contrast, my mother had been declining for years as a result of Alzheimer’s. I had lost her piece by piece for several years—at least since her diagnosis in 2010, and in retrospect as far back as 2007 when I first noticed symptoms of her cognitive decline. In many ways, her death was a relief. And yet my feelings of relief provoked guilt, though my rational self told me that they should not. Her quality of life was poor, and she had been suffering physically as well as mentally.

When my maternal grandmother died in 2003, also from Alzheimer’s, I told my mother I was sorry she’d lost her mother and tried to console her. “I’m all right, Theresa,” Mother said to me. “I’ve already done my grieving.”

My parents in 2005 on one of the cruises they took, after 50 years of marriage

I understand now what she meant. I, too, did much of my grieving for my mother before she died. I remember returning home from one visit to see my parents and bursting into tears as I walked into my kitchen after the flight from Seattle to Kansas City. “I don’t have a mother anymore,” I told myself out loud. At that point, she was no longer capable of sharing her wisdom and experience, of mothering me in any meaningful fashion. Instead, when I was with her, I was her caregiver, as she had been mine in my childhood.

So my parents’ deaths affected me differently, and I have grieved them differently. This week, my realization is that grief comes as it comes, in the form that it takes, with each loss meaning something different. And that is all right.

Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there is “[a] time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” But Ecclesiastes doesn’t promise these times will occur in a linear fashion, just that “[t]here is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.” Eccl. 3:1. (NABRE)

Another thought that comes to mind this week is that the meaning of each loss I have suffered is likely to evolve for me as time passes. But it may take many more years before I can internalize that idea, before I can see the larger patterns of weeping and laughing, of mourning and dancing in my life, and how these patterns have changed over time.

What have different losses meant in your life?

Sleepless in Kansas City

One of the disadvantages I’ve found in getting older is not sleeping as well as I did in my youth. Ever since childhood, I’ve had trouble sleeping during times of stress, but now I hardly ever sleep for eight hours straight. Most nights I wake up once, but some nights I can’t fall asleep, and other nights I wake up around 1:00 or 2:00am and lie awake for an hour or two.

Rarely do my dreams wake me up. In fact, I don’t remember many of my dreams. I used to, but this seems to be another age-related change. Or else most of my dreams now are boring.

I do still dream in color. In the 1940s, most people reported dreaming only in black and white, but now 80% of people say they dream in color. There is some speculation that the shift is related to the development of color television.

My husband read somewhere that monophasic sleep (solid sleep for a single period each night) is actually a modern phenomenon. People used to have biphasic sleep, in which they slept for two periods in a 24-hour day. That, apparently, is where the practice of naps and siestas came from.

Some experiments have found that when people have no regular sleep schedule imposed on them, they gravitate to two four-hour periods of sleep separated by a couple of hours. Many of my nights follow this pattern. Since I learned this factoid, I’ve tried not to worry when I lie awake in bed. After all, I also read somewhere that just lying quietly gives one 80% of the benefit of sleeping (though I doubt that.)

Older generations in my family also had wakeful periods at night. My father went to bed around 8:00pm whenever his schedule permitted. He would often get up again around 10:00 or 11:00, drink some Pepsi and go back to bed. Then he was ready for his next day to start at 5:00am.

My mother, by contrast, liked to stay up reading until 11:00 or so. But she often fell asleep on the couch, until my dad woke her up. In the morning, she would stay in bed well after he was up—or at least that’s what she did once she didn’t have kids to get off to school.

When I visited my paternal grandparents as a small child, my bed was usually the living room couch with a chair placed next to it so I wouldn’t roll off. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night and saw my grandmother sitting in a chair nearby, smoking a cigarette. She sat with one leg tucked up under her, the way I still sit whenever I can do so without opprobrium. I don’t smoke, but I think of her whenever I move around my house in the dark and whenever I curl my feet up in a chair.

My husband’s grandmother also used to walk the halls when she couldn’t sleep. She would move from bed to bed trying to find a restful spot—some nights she spent time in all three bedrooms in their house.

Ereader in night mode

Using an ereader doesn’t help my sleeplessness. I know it’s a bad idea to have that light shining in my face when I’m trying to sleep, but what else is there to do at 2:00am? I use a blue filter to minimize the brightness and I turn on the night mode in my reading apps. With these adjustments to the screen, reading often lulls me back to sleep.

Before I began writing, I used to try to distract myself in the middle of the night by making up stories in my head. Some of the ideas for my novels developed during these nocturnal musings. But now that I’m a writer, that’s work! I still do it sometimes, but since I now want to remember any good plot points I imagine, it’s not as restful as it used to be.

So I read newspaper headlines instead. The Wall Street Journal is delivered to my email inbox shortly after midnight, and The New York Times headlines come in the wee hours of the morning. Trying to focus on economic and international news is usually enough to put me to sleep. If it doesn’t make me mad.

What do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night?

My Grandmother’s Jell-O

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother, my Nanny Winnie. My mother, brother, and I even lived with my grandparents for a few months when I was small. So I know Nanny Winnie cooked for me a lot. But I don’t remember any signature dishes she made. I remember she sometimes prepared something different for my grandfather than for us children, because he was definitely a meat-and-potatoes man, and we were more mac-and-cheese. And I know she didn’t make me eat cooked carrots before I got dessert—she was too nice.

I don’t think Nanny Winnie particularly liked to cook, though like all wives and mothers of her day, she did it. I remember going to the grocery store with her. The store was around the corner from her house in Klamath Falls, Oregon. She didn’t drive, so we walked to the store. When she had selected what she wanted, the grocery later delivered it. I guess that was common practice in the late 1950s—the store certainly never made a big deal about it.

Many years later, in early 1973, after my grandmother’s second husband died, she moved to Richland, Washington, to be close to her daughter (my mother) and her grandchildren. She usually came over to our house for Sunday dinner, and sometimes on other occasions as well. Her apartment became where we celebrated a lot of second-tier holidays. My parents handled Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but Nanny Winnie often did Easter, and she hosted many birthday and graduation dinners as well.

Nanny Winnie was very outgoing and social. She developed her own circle of friends in Richland, mostly other widows, but she also went to many women’s functions with my mother and my mother’s friends. My mother’s circle were women raising families and active in their churches.

Sometimes my mother’s friends were shocked at Nanny Winnie’s more relaxed approach to life—after all, by this time, she was in her late sixties. She lived alone and didn’t have to cook for a crowd except for our occasional family celebrations.

When she went to a potluck, Nanny Winnie took Jell-O (or else baked goods she bought at a store). She often served Jell-O at our family gatherings also. I didn’t mind—I liked Jell-O. In particular, I liked her peach Jell-O with canned sliced peaches in it.

My high-school graduation dinner at Nanny Winnie’s apartment. If you look closely, you can see the dishes of peach Jell-O. Or maybe it was orange.

One time Nanny was invited to go somewhere with a few of my mother’s friends. “I can’t,” she told them. “I have to go home and make my Jell-O.”

My mother’s friends were not impressed with her excuse. “How long does it take to make Jell-O?” they asked. Nanny Winnie’s need for an entire afternoon to make Jell-O became a standing joke in this group, as well as in our family.

Granted, making Jell-O is not difficult. It takes advance planning, because it must be allowed to gel. But otherwise, it is simple. Even with canned fruit thrown in.

Still, now that I am almost of the age when Nanny Winnie shifted into her Jell-O days, I can understand. Any cooking that takes advance planning is an incursion on my life and unlikely to have any long-term impact on anyone. I am much more sympathetic to her excuse than I was forty-five years ago.

Nanny Winnie was born 109 years ago today. I think she’d approve of my limited focus on cooking these days. (Actually, I’ve always had a limited focus on cooking.)

How do you feel about Jell-O? And cooking?