Our ordinary suburban family life changed dramatically when Gom and Aunt Kitty came to visit. My mother, busy with her brood of four, and little household help, should have been nominated for sainthood. She insisted that the butcher at the A&P give her the very best piece of beef. She polished silver, ironed the linen napkins, and changed the beds. My two younger sisters, who gave up their bedroom, got to sleep on the hide-away bed in the den, a rare treat.
My mother set out luggage racks, and located trays, as Gom and Aunt Kitty expected breakfast in bed. The children’s bathroom became the guest bathroom outfitted with the good monogrammed towels. The shrunken bar of Ivory soap was replaced by a perfect oval of French soap that made the bathroom smell like the perfume counters at Saks.
My father’s job was to be sure the lawn was mowed and that everything was in readiness for cocktails. It was a treat to go with him to the liquor store for the “hooch” as there was a gum ball machine outside the store. If we’d been good, he usually doled out the requisite pennies on the condition we spit out our gum before Gom arrived. She thought chewing gum was common. There was nothing worse than being common.
Gom and Aunt Kitty traveled from Cabin Run Farm, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania about two hours from our house in New Jersey. I thought it wonderful that they lived in a house with a name. Cabin Run was not a working farm, though my grandmother had a vegetable garden, and a half dozen Cheviot sheep whose job it was to look scenic in the field across the stream. Gom talked about the work involved in taking care of “the place.” The barn was always under repair. The stream, the actual Cabin Run, had to be dredged every year to create the waterfall and pond. Their scary gardener named Updike, who spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, butchered the roses, but he was the only man they could get. Getting good help was a continual topic of conversation.
While waiting for their arrival my sisters and I cruised up and down our street on our bikes watching for the car. It was 1960. Our grandmother was famous in the neighborhood –first for her terrible grandmother name which she’d been given by a distant cousin, and second, because of her car. The moment my father’s hands were black from arranging the charcoal in the grill, and my mother was diapering my howling baby brother just up from his nap, the sleek dark green Jaguar coupe came around the bend.
Gom, wearing gray flannel pants, and the tweed jacket that she had tailored at Dunhill in New York, drove. Aunt Kitty always wore what I thought of as a fancy dress, even though Jackie, their French poodle traveled on her lap. Jackie, named for Jackie Kennedy, had a matching turquoise leather collar and leash, and never ate dog food, only her very own roast beef. My father once proclaimed after having too much “hooch” that his mother’s dog ate better meat than he did.
My sisters and I hoped for presents, but knew better than to ask. Usually they only brought bottles of wine for our parents, but if they had taken a trip to Europe we might get tiny perfume samples, a postcard of a cathedral, or on very rare occasions, a foreign doll. Kisses were exchanged. Aunt Kitty smelled of Joy, the only perfume she ever wore, and Gom smelled like the leather from the inside of her car.
My sisters were afraid of Gom. They didn’t mind eating TV dinners in the kitchen instead of dining with the grownups. Gom never asked us to sit on her lap to read stories. The conventional grandmother activities –baking cookies, smocking party dresses, or knitting –were not for her. She spoke to us as if were adults, no sing-song voice, no gentle manner. And, she never, ever allowed bare feet.
When I was older I went to “the farm” by myself for visits. Only then did I begin to understand all that my grandmother had accomplished. A rebellious Baltimore debutante, she was the first woman to drive alone from Baltimore to New York. She was widowed in her early forties, and she managed to raise three sons on her own during the Depression. After my father left for college, she sold her house in Baltimore to buy the run down 18th century farm in Pennsylvania, supervising a massive renovation. She recorded this adventure with photographs she developed in her own darkroom. Rather than live alone, she chose to build a new life with my Aunt Kitty at Cabin Run. None of this was easy in the last century.
More than forty years after my grandmother’s death I have a new perspective. Thanks to Gom and Aunt Kitty, I take pride in my own home and garden. I too love monogrammed towels, good soap, and anything French. I admit to having coffee every morning in bed, but never, ever while visiting my own children and grandchildren. I also don’t mind their bare feet, and sometimes, though rarely, I join them.