A portrait of my grandmother Wilma Rohde is long overdue here, considering I’ve posted pictures of people as far back as her parents (father here, mother here) and paternal grandparents (here, here, and here). But I don’t have lots of photos of my mother’s mother by herself, and I only came into possession of this photo fairly recently, and then I couldn’t lay my hands on it for a while because I’ve collected so many boxes and envelopes of photos that I didn’t know where to look for it. Wilma was born in Ohio on March 23, 1914, one full springtime ahead of the Baltimore boy — John Lewis Dowell Jr., born on June 27, 1914 — that she would eventually grow up and marry, after her parents moved their family to Baltimore in the late teens or early 1920s. There is no date on this photograph, but if we accept the high likelihood of it being a high school portrait, and further surmise that Wilma would be around 18 years old at that point, we might do worse than date this moment to the spring of 1932.
Wilma and John Lewis or “Billie and Lewie” as they called each other, married on August 24, 1935. My mother came along 10 months later, followed by Jack in 1940 and Cindy in 1943. Cindy died of cancer in 1964 at age 21.
We’ve already said the word ‘springtime’ twice — thrice, now — which is fitting. Grandma, or Nana as we began calling her late in her life when my sister’s children became old enough to know who she was, loved everything about springtime, especially flowers and especially hummingbirds, and made a point of getting outside and staying fit. She took a walk every day, as far as I know, all her adult life, and when my brother and I visited my grandparents as young boys, I recall that she was in the habit of swimming genteel laps in an outdoor public pool. She was very graceful in her movements, which were small and fluid, and in her speech, which was edged with incipient laughter and always reminded me of the measured, maple-y dialect of southern gentlewomen, though she was a transplanted Buckeye raised mostly in Pikesville on the outskirts of Baltimore.
Incongruously, she smoked cigarettes — long ones, as I recall, what smokers call “100s”. At several points while I was still living at home, Gramma came out west and stayed for a long while with us, and it was a source of torment for me that she would light up at the dinner table after she was finished with her dainty portion but while I was still eating. I suffered the baleful exhaust winding around me as I hurried to gobble down my seconds.
Wilma delighted in word wit, both in other people and of her own creation. She celebrated and perpetuated spoonerisms and phrases and idioms deliberately mangled, such as the word “glow” (pronounced like prow), which her daughter Cindy came up with as a term for glasses, as in “have you seen my glow?” Her young son, who knew where she kept the potato chips, once asked her if he could have “something good in the bag in the top shelf of the cupboard.” She liked the way that sounded, and so it became a thing in the family to use that phrase as an answer to the question of what was for dinner, only it was spoken quickly almost as a blurred, single word. “Sumpmgoodinabaginthetopshelfofthecupboard.” My own mother used this phrase as a defense against presupper nagging, and I always imagined some nondescript brown bag with a chicken dinner in it up in the kitchen cabinet, until she recently told me where the phrase had originated. But I always knew that it was part of Gramma’s store of inscrutible sayings.
Though he grew to become a great sourpuss over the course of their married years, this love of verbal cartwheeling was something she shared with her husband, J.L., whom I knew as Grampa. They would utter the mock complaint, “What do you think this is, anyhow, or something?” which has no real content; the clever fusion of two idioms into one obscures the fact — at least aurally — that the content is missing. Gramma and my mother would get into snorting hysterics over stuff like that. Another absurd question she loved was “do you take a lunch to school or do you ride the bus?” And one time at the dinner table my mom and Jack and Cindy nearly fell out of their chairs laughing when Wilma started telling her children about the Sidehill Gouger, a creature that ran around the side of a round hill and had shorter legs on the uphill side than on the downhill side. It turns out that the Sidehill Gouger is real — that is to say, it’s a Native American legend. I don’t know how Gramma came across it, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that she loved the idea, remembered it, and delighted her children with it.
Gramma lived on the opposite coast, not over the river and through the woods, and it seemed normal to me that she was far away and I seldom saw her. She wrote me letters throughout my life, always in blue ink in her lovely cursive handwriting. They were filled with daily knick-knacky stuff, her going out for her walk, celebrations of my cousins’ birthdays, how the weather was. I read each one once and put it aside, only discarding them many years later. I didn’t properly know how to value them at the time, and wrote back infrequently. But I see now that each one was a long-distance kiss carefully and lovingly formed, appended with the postage requirement of the day — 8 cents, 10 cents, 16 cents, 32 cents.
After her husband died in 2001, Wilma came west for her final years. I don’t believe she loved it here, but it gave her and my mother a chance to spend time together. She died on March 5, 2009. She was the first person I ever saw reposing in a coffin. My mother and I went to pay last respects at the funeral home in Issaquah before her body was sent back east to be buried beside J.L.’s.
When I was very small, I apparently would have nothing to do with “French toast”, so it was presented to me as “Gramma toast” and I ate it contentedly. I remember calling it that for many years, unaware that there was another name for it that I had rejected. Or maybe it was my older sister who had rejected it. In any case, I only started calling French toast French toast after that name from the outside world collided enough times with our homespun label.
There was also “tickly tea”, which was boiled water with milk and a tablespoon of sugar. All my life I’ve made this for myself late in the night when sleep flew me. This soporific I also understood to have somehow come from Gramma. I don’t recall if there was a single event when I or my sister or my little brother could not sleep, and whether or not Gramma was visiting at the time, or whether mom told me later that Gramma made it for us or for herself as a child, but I remember discovering that there was something called “teakettle tea”, which was very similar. It’s difficult to search for teakettle tea on the internet without pulling up tons of teapots, but I found a few references to “teakettle tea (hot water with two or three tablespoons of cream to the cup)”, and “hot water and cream”. The fact that “tickly tea” sounds like a bastardization, if I may use so rough a word, of “teakettle tea” makes me grin with the suspicion that my grandmother’s mischievous sleight of tongue was at work there. – mdf
A full-resolution version of this image is here.
Image Archive ID:
About the physical photograph:
8X10 tinted photo in cardboard studio frame
Written on back:
Various handwritten numbers