Reading to Grandma

When I was a little girl, my grandmother and I did something together almost every week. We walked in the woods, cooked, pressed flowers, and explored all the secret places she knew, which, in the eyes of a child, were countless.

But my fondest memory of the childhood times with my grandmother were the hours she spent reading to me.

I read Braille, and I was always into books as a kid. But in those pre-computer days, if you wanted to read a book that the library didn’t have, you had to have someone transcribe it into Braille for you, and this usually took a long time.

Starting when I was maybe eight or nine, Grandma read most of the “Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was a terrific, expressive, and enthusiastic reader, and we both loved the stories. We could spend whole afternoons getting lost in the books, only stopping for sandwiches and a cold drink or a Klondike bar.

That summer, we read about an apple dish with onions that one of the characters really liked, and we thought we’d try making it ourselves. What we came up with was apples and onions fried in butter and brown sugar, with a handful of raisins. We called it “Farmer Boy Favorite”.

Living in upstate New York, our village had two apple orchards and a big apple festival every fall. As part of the festival, there was a cooking contest. Just for fun, we entered our concoction in the “Other” category (you know, the one for anyone who didn’t bake an apple pie).

On the day of the festival, we brought our entry to the local fairgrounds. There were so many beautiful dishes, and here was our simple little crock, full of a combination of ingredients as far from apple pie as you could possibly get.

We weren’t expecting anything, so we left for lunch and other adventures. Four hours later, we came back to pick up our dish and go home.

When we got to the table where all the entries had been arranged, a woman bustled up to us. “Oh, we’ve been looking all over for you! Your Farmer Boy Favorite was first place, and we need your pictures for the newspaper.”

I don’t know who was more surprised, my Grandma and me, or the respectable dowagers who had gotten used to winning every year with the same “Other” apple recipes.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We got years of laughter sharing the story and a few Thanksgivings out of “Farmer Boy Favorite”.

When I went off to college, Grandma would come up to visit often, especially if I was singing or playing in a concert. My senior piano recital was on the night of a blizzard. I complained about having to walk across the campus in heels and an evening gown, but she drove the four hours plus, turned around after the concert (which started at eight in the evening, like all the other “good” concerts at the school) and drove right back home. “I’ve got animals to take care of,” she explained, meaning her horse, her dog, and her cats.

My Grandma will turn ninety-seven this February, and last April, she moved to a “senior living center”. She’s lost most of her vision now, so she can no longer read or play Scrabble (another one of our favorite activities together).

I’ve tried many times to start reading to her, and I always begin with good intentions. Yesterday was no exception. We started “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for maybe the seventh time, not because she’s loved it so much she wants to go through it again, but because I’ve waited too long between visits. I can’t remember where we left off, and she can’t remember the characters or what happened in the last chapter.

Yesterday, we made it through Chapter Two. She didn’t fall asleep, and I didn’t make too many pronunciation mistakes (probably because I’ve practiced this stretch of pages so many times already). And again, I said I’d like to try and read the whole series to her.

Later that night, Ted and I went to a bookstore, and I learned that the last Harry Potter book will be out in July. If National Braille Press, the company that’s done the last six books in the series repeats its performance this time around, I’ll get this book in Braille just about the same time everyone is standing in huge lines at the bookstore to buy it in print (except it’ll be dropped discreetly on my porch in a big cardboard box, no pushing, no shoving, and no camping out starting at 4 A.M. required!).

I told Grandma I couldn’t come next Sunday because we had company coming. But this morning, I got to thinking; Grandma did things for me when they were inconvenient, and those are the things I remember most. Granted, her memory isn’t what it used to be (just ask her what she had for lunch a few minutes ago), but she lives in the present, just like the rest of us.

She knows when I come to visit her. She enjoys being greeted by my guide dog, Ecko. And she loves asking me to spell characters’ names, or laughs at improbable descriptions. “He did what?!” Many times have I heard that while reading the Potter books!

Besides, I’m the only one who can do this for her. I have aunts that could, or cousins that might, but they don’t have the shared history of reading together that Grandma and I do. In yesterday’s post, I talked about always wanting to say “I’m glad I did”, not “I wish I had”. What applies to one aspect of my life (music) has to apply to all aspects.

Yes, we have company Sunday. But there are six other days in the week. I’ll just have to set aside a different day and an hour or two, pull my chair close, open to Chapter Three, and begin …

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6 Comments on “Reading to Grandma”

  1. ombudsben Says:

    My wife loves the Harry Potter books.

    This is a very lovely description of your connection with your grandmother, Halfnotes.

    I’m puzzled by something, and hope you don’t mind my asking. Perhaps I have you confused with someone else, but I thought you had written about doing a lot of running, and something about climbing a fence. (It sounded like cross country, to me–which I ran, in high school.) I had wondered if your vision loss was recent. But if you read Braille as a child, I’d assume it wasn’t. Is your vision loss partial? Pardon me if this is intrusive.

    Again, this was a lovely description, and a welcome reminder of the connections that really matter in life.

  2. halfnotes Says:

    Ombudsben,

    Maybe that was me running and climbing fences … sure wouldn’t surprise me! I am totally blind and have been blind since birth. But my family had the (excellent) opinion that I should learn to do as much for myself by myself as I could, and only then ask for help. They believed that, as a blind person living in a “sighted” world, I was the minority and had to make some adjustments to fit in to the “usual” way of things, not the other way around (i.e., seeing things as if, because I was blind, the world owed me special treatment).

    Of course, there are certain areas where special accommodations apply: Braille numbers on elevator buttons aren’t all that big a deal to install, and the Library of Congress program of Braille and recorded books and magazines has helped millions of people. This says nothing of access to public areas for guide dogs.

    I think all parents, whether their kids are disabled or not, should instill this sense of self-reliance and responsibility in their kids. It seems if we all took a bit more responsibility and didn’t always try to make excuses for ourselves, there would be fewer problems in the world and more people willing to step outside themselves a little bit to help solve them.

    And no, that question isn’t intrusive. When you have a blog, you accept that people, who start out as total strangers, are going to read it. The whole point of my blog is to remind myself of important lessons and, if possible, have one person learn one lesson for their own life from it. So ask away!

  3. ombudsben Says:

    I have several ways of getting from Alameda to my job in SF; half the time or more I take a ferry, but a couple days a week (when my wife is dropping our dogs off at Happyhound daycare–which they love, and they’re fully exercised at days’ end, too) she drops me off at the Oakland BART station.

    This morning I took the BART train, which was packed, so I stood near a seat with 2 women by the door, one of whom had a baby. I watched out of the corner of my eye, as the tyke was moderately active, so I noticed whether non-Mom reacted maternally or neutrally or annoyed by the disturbances.

    BART involves going through the Tube, under the bay, and it’s pressurized. So it’s a bit like riding a plane, where your ears need to pop. I wondered how tyke would deal with that.

    Mom was smart to give her a pacifier so she naturally adjusted the pressure on her eardrums, but she got a little demonstrative. (Non-Mom checked in, but never once made a gootchy-goo type move.)

    And it reminded me of an article I once read about mothers’ brains. Babies’ brains are obviously growing quickly, but Moms’ gray matter also gets re-mapped, becoming more sensitive, attune to the slightest nuance, connecting emotionally. Which makes sense, naturally, as nature can’t equip the little ones to have rational discourses on Descartes quite yet.

    So I was already thinking of how amazingly elastic our brains are, when I read this comment of yours. And I have to say that braille always impresses me. I mean, I get it. I see how it works. But when I put my fingers on the bumps and imagine learning letters and words it feels like Mount Everest to me. Of course it helps to learn when young–I wish I had learned a foreign language when young, as my own gray matter was particularly resistant to German grammar in both jr high and college.

    So I’d imagine it’s as natural as breathing to you now, your fingers probably skip across the words, most of which must be familiar to you. But I still think it’s as cool as the written language or alphabet itself. And the elasticity and adjustability of our minds is so amazing. I’d imagine your hearing is quite acute, which doubtless helps your music.

    I love how science is revealing more about the workings of our brains too us.

    It’s an exasperating time to be alive, when I see the extinctions, pollution, overpopulation and global warming issues, yet it’s also an amazing time to be alive, with the strides we’re making in science and in understanding our bodies and minds.

    Kudos to your folks for challenging you, when you were little, too!

  4. Grandma Says:

    Hello Daughter Halfnote! I do believe your Grandmother truly instilled a passion for the written word in your heart. Remember that even though she is living in the moment, all the words shared between your hearts are still inbedded in her memory like pebbles on beach. You can pick up any one at any time and it will tell an entire story.

  5. halfnotes Says:

    Ombudsben,

    You’d probably think it was cool to learn that a recent study found that those who were completely blind had “rewired” brains so that the visual cortex was stimulated during Braille reading.

  6. halfnotes Says:

    Grandma,

    Looking forward to Chapter Three sometime this weekend.


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