Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 1 Jan 2006 09:22:16 -0500

Grandma's Gift


The best gifts that our elders give, at Christmas or anytime, are those that go unseen and unappreciated when we are young. I had to grow up a lot more to know how much a gift from my Grandma King would keep on giving each day I sit down to write.

Mabel Kent King was my family's first writer in a lineage that now extends into its third generation. (My daughter Sarah and one of her cousins are journalists.) The earliest of her diaries date from the 1890s, when she was a rural schoolgirl boarding in town during the week.

Mabel was a rarity for her time, a girl who stayed in classes through high school graduation. Rarer still, she went on to college and became a teacher.

Rarest of all, she didn't marry until almost 30. This wasn't too late for her to deliver nine children. My mother, Virginia, stood in the middle of that lineup.

My grandma-to-be wrote a diary-style weekly letter from the time her first child left home in the 1930s. This continued until a final illness struck in 1970, at age 90.

My mother took over this weekly-diary from 1970 into the 2000s. My sister Anne ghost-wrote the letter in our mom's last years, after her ability to craft beautiful sentences failed her. Anne, a newspaper editor, now keeps the family archives.

As a Christmas letter this year, she sent entries from Grandma in three different Decembers. She wrote the first of those before there was a me. But the event it described had everything to do with there becoming a me.

This from December 1939: "Jim Henderson came this evening to see Virginia. After he left, Frances [the second King daughter] told me to get up and come downstairs quickly to see what Jim had given Virginia. Amazed to find a diamond ring sparkling on her little hand."

Jump ahead now to Christmas 1954. Then 11 years old, I was still only vaguely aware that Grandma King mailed a family letter every week.

We lived a block away from these grandparents, and a block in the other direction from the elder Hendersons. I thought that all families were this close.

Grandma struggled through the Depression, trying to keep her huge family fed. Like many survivors of that era she remained obsessed for life with putting enough food on the table. Her letters about family feasts always listed the full menu.

She wrote that Christmas, after hosting a dinner for 20, "We all had a lovely time with too much food." At the time I still thought everyone ate so much with so many people.

To her dismay, my eating habits had diverged from the family's by 1961. They were at their most extreme then, my first year as a college runner returning home for the holidays.

"I baked a pot of beans and made a kettle of vegetable soup," she wrote. "I am afraid that Joe doesn't like either kind of food."

She reported my runs as faithfully as I recorded them in my diary. Seven miles one day, five the next, then back to her familiar theme:

"Joe eats so very little. I fear that he tries to follow a too-rigid diet."

She would be relieved to know how much this has changed. My diet has rounded out nicely, as so have I.

Grandma lived simply, her life centering on family and food. She never drove a car or boarded a plane. She wrote her diary pages longhand, for a daughter or granddaughter to type.

She wrote in 1939, "Today would have been my mother's 85th birthday, and she has been gone to her heavenly home for 24 years. How many new, strange sights she would witness if she could again visit this terrestrial sphere. Radios, talkies, automobiles, airplanes, etc., would all be new to her. But how many sad and tragic events she has escaped."

I could say the same for Grandma King on the 126th anniversary of her birth and 36 Christmases after she left us. How much she didn't get to see and wouldn't have wanted to witness. How nice too that her words have long outlived her, both on paper and through genetic gift-giving.


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