Grannies in the Wainscot

“In all their time as such close neighbors they never exchanged a word.”

Bring up the topic of neighbor, and one story comes to my mind.

Grannies in the Wainscot, as short story—an essay of remembrance—is included in the sublime collection Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee. If it seems strange to have written a memoir of one’s life at age 23, as did Lee, his tender recall of the story of two enemy grannies is even stranger.

The setting could not be more romantic, with or without Laurie Lee’s lush prose. An old seventeenth century Cotswold manor house, had, by the late nineteenth century become a sagging but picturesque relic, and subdivided into three living quarters for poorer, less exalted folk. In the pre-war years of his childhood, young Lee and his family inhabited one section, while the other two parts of the home were each dominated by an old crone.

‘Granny Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed much of my early days. With their sickle bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair, they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike.’

There is nothing lovable in this description of the two old ladies, and yet, with Lee’s gift for nostalgic writing, you feel you recognize this pair, and a curious warble of affection begins to play.

Laurie Lee, poet

‘They communicated to each other by means of boots and brooms—jumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as ‘Er-Down-Under’ and ‘Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint’.

Yes, a stranger pair of neighbors you never did ‘hear the like of’ as my grandmother would have said. And speaking of my grandma Josie, she knew how to wield a broom with a fair bit of precision. I can also remember her little ‘war’ going on for years with the old neighbor lady in the back of the property.

So perhaps such stories of neighbors resonates a bit with all our memories. Lee’s recounting of the old beech tree I found particularly beautiful.

‘“Me dad planted that tree,” [Granny Trill] said absently, pointing out through the old cracked window.

‘The great beech filled at least half the sky and shook shadows all over the house. Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels. I had thought such trees to be as old as the earth; I never dreamed that a man could make them. Yet it was Granny Trill’s dad who had planted this tree, who had thrust in the seed with his finger. How old must he have been to leave such a mark? Think of Granny’s age, and add his on top, and you were back at the beginning of the world.’

The poignant part of Lee’s recounting, comes, of course, at the end.

One day Granny Trill stumbled and broke her hip.

illustration by John Ward

“She went to bed then forever.”

Granny Wallon came a’crowing… “her’s going you mark my words.”

But Granny Trill’s death knell was Granny Wallon’s, too. In the oddest, most neighborly act between the two rival crones in the decades they had lived next to each other without speaking, Granny Wallon soon went, too.

‘Granny Wallon had triumphed, she had buried her rival, and now there was no more to do. From then on she faded and diminished daily, kept to her house and would not be seen. The wine fires sank and died in the kitchen, as did the sweet fires of obsession….there was nothing, in fact, to keep her alive. No cause, no bite, no fury. Er-Down-Under had joined Er-Up-Atop, having lived closer than anyone knew.’

Wild and Free

What I really wanted was a pair of Nancy Sinatra go go boots

“What I really wanted was a pair of Nancy Sinatra go-go boots.”

When you are in the third grade, earnestly drawing pictures of horses, lost in dreams of riding with wild horses over the open plain, punctuated by dramatic moments of having your life saved by a wild stallion (who fiercely tramples a rattler poised to strike you)  and subsequently writing all of these dreamed-of adventures into stories with titles like ‘Wild and Free’; you have no idea you are fulfilling a stereotype.

In the third grade, you have no concern for stereotypes. You don’t know what the word means, and it wouldn’t matter if you did. You are just free to Be.

You are one of the vast numbers of little girls who did not excel at math, but that was fine–English was far more interesting at the time. You were squeamish in science, when it came to the dreaded Dissections of small, helpless creatures; but that was okay, too. The obnoxious and smelly David M. excelled in cutting apart dead things and you definitely didn’t want to be like him.

I did manage to avoid the ‘playing with Barbies’ phase, or dolls in general. I was never attracted to Barbie. Her life was so plastic. It had nothing to do with rounding up strays in Big Sky country.

In the third grade, life of home, school, and Grandma’s kitchen is small, but the possibilities are vast. In the third grade, you are Wild and Free.

It is only later that you find you have traveled on well-trodden paths where other eager children have passed before you. It is even possible those youthful, trampling feet were clad in similar Saddle shoes of two-toned leather thrust upon us by our well-meaning mothers. (I hated those shoes, and wanted to dispose of them much as my stallion savior disposed of the venomous snake.)

Yet the universe was out there, waiting. I say that because  a.) I am highly imaginative, and b.) ‘Stereotypes’ is actually a daunting topic about narrow, constrained pathways that we suddenly find ourselves in to the glee of marketing analysts everywhere. A sort of ‘help I’m trending and I can’t stop’ dilemma.

I am not referring to damaging stereotypes that come from people’s minds and prejudices, but those that have to do with genetics, inherited traits and Preconceptions that grow up into Misconceptions which further translate into Missed Opportunities. I have some half-baked kindergarten physics ideas that universal laws are somehow involved. I don’t know…like giant laundry chutes that sort us into efficient loads, a quantum compartmentalization, if you will. (okay, so I failed more than Dissections in Science Class)

If you would like to read a real and useful discussion about stereotypes, read here. (article by Art Markman) In his blog, he makes this comment:

‘We suggested that having a negative stereotype puts you in a defensive motivational mode. You are prepared for negative outcomes…’

Wow is that true. I learned to sew in spite of my mother, who always insisted that my older sister took after Grandma (both of them excellent seamstresses) while I, on the other hand, took after mom, who hated to sew. She even accused it of giving her a Nervous Breakdown In Home Economics Class. Apparently she was struggling to sew on a zipper with the teacher watching and had a complete meltdown. Thus, when she came to visit me one day after I was newly married and saw me (rather furtively) sewing up curtains for my kitchen, she was indignant. “I was not supposed to like sewing because SHE didn’t like sewing.”

Therefore, while I did learn to sew with a fair amount of proficiency laced with anxiety and a sense of looming failure, I was never confident that I actually ‘knew’ what I was doing, because somehow, in the universal view of fate-like conduits and laundry chutes, I wasn’t supposed to be sewing at all. (side note: the curtains turned out really pretty; very Laura Ashley and the quintessential cottage sprig of the ’80’s but as google analytics will tell you we’re all more Downton Abbey chic now).

Even now, as I type this blog entry–a fifty plus baby boomer with all the latest devices and gadgetry (‘Not Without My Garlic Press!!’), Facebook likes and ‘friends’, personalized ring tones, Instagram posts of…wait for it…latte crema perfection, my own etsy store where I can compete with 45 million other people trying to sell a necklace and yes, multiple pinterest pins–I am aware that I am a stereotype of the brave new world. Marketers know what sort of advertisements to thrust into my view and that I will, most likely, click on the link that leads me to the Anthropologie lace cardigan and leather riding boots that look too young for me.

It’s alright, really. In my heart I’m a carefree third grader with dreams and stories, and the universe yet to discover. In my heart I’m still wild and free. Oh, but did I mention that I just received my AARP card in the mail? The one that touts ‘Real Possibilities’? I didn’t even ask for it. It’s wonderful how these things work. They Just Knew. The laundry chute journey into quantum conformity continues!

Just to show a tiny whisper of the freedom my heart longs for, I’m going to start a new pinterest board with nothing but pictures of wild horses. It will thrill me to look at them. Just like yesterday and my starstruck third-graderness.

Wild Horses

I wanted one in every color

So follow me on pinterest (genusrosa) and join me as we click and drag together! The universe will be pleased.