Lessons Learned: Not My Grandmother’s First Rodeo

I figured out that my grandmother really loved me on a bitter winter’s afternoon in St. Paul, Minnesota when I was 5 years old. Gram doled out hugs at frequent and random intervals, redolent with menthol cigarettes and sweet tea, but in the midst of a three-day, howling blizzard—one of many storms that winter—her love for me was made manifest through the solid physicality of a lag bolt. Two of them, actually.

Gram & Gramps on a Texas sidewalk

Gram & Gramps on a Texas sidewalk

In the gloom of the basement, she rooted around my grandfather’s tool bench, dumping out mason jars filled with odd bits of hardware, searching for a pair of matching lag bolts. Success built on success as she picked up an electric drill, popped in a 3/8-inch drill bit, and went upstairs to the kitchen. With the measured gaze of a practical woman, she chose a spot in the wide, square archway separating the kitchen from the dining room of the house on Minnehaha avenue, and set up her stepladder.

Gram was a Texan which meant she kept up a patter of observations, Texas-style, as she worked. When my skepticism outgrew my discretion, I asked if she knew how to work the drill. She told me this wasn’t her first rodeo, drill-wise. She made two perfect holes in the unmarred (up to that moment), solid mahogany beam, “quicker’n bad news travels”. Minutes later, the lag bolts she had found in the basement were snugly screwed into the mahogany beam. Gram climbed down and stood back, hands on hips, and said she reckoned that would hold fine.

But hold what?

She didn’t answer, went instead to the coat closet and bundled feet-to-head in my grandfather’s snow gear: a set of flannel-lined overalls, a spare pair of huge galoshes that she wore right over her own shoes, an army surplus jacket, woolen scarf wrapped around her face and neck, and a watch cap over her permed hair. Before pulling on a pair of leather gloves, she tied one end of a length of clothesline around her waist and the other end to the door handle. Gram told me to shut the door tight behind her and headed out into the storm. I lost sight of her before she had taken a few lumbering steps off the porch, leaning into the wind.

Heavy snowfall by Tyler Finvold

Heavy Snowfall, Tyler Finvold

When you live on the edge of the Great Plains, or even in a city near enough to feel the effects of the blizzards that roar off the prairies each winter, you grow up hearing stories of people lost in the whiteout caused by a combination of heavy snow and fierce wind. People lost in the short distance between the house and the garage, found frozen solid in a snow mound after the weather passed.

The kitchen clocked ticked the minutes by like heartbeats as I waited near the door, thinking of those stories. At last, I summoned a bit of  her pragmatism, found a pad of paper and pencil on the windowsill near the wall phone, and began writing what I could remember of my grandfather’s recipe for oatmeal. At least I wouldn’t starve if she could not find her way back to the house. I repeated to myself the steps for lighting the gas stove that stood against the opposite wall from where I sat visualizing the procedure.

Engrossed as I was in making plans for breakfast the next morning while my grandmother was frozen in the yard, I nearly missed her muffled pounding at the door. Alive but covered completely in a coating of snow, she stumbled through the doorway hauling an armful of wood and a mess of what, maybe chain? All of which had a thicker accumulation of snow and ice than she did. I was puzzled. She looked like a delighted snowman.

<a href="http://www.public-domain-image.com/nature-landscapes-public-domain-images-pictures/snow-public-domain-images-pictures/snow-covered-swings-waiting-for-spring.jpg.html" title="Snow covered swings waiting for spring">Snow covered swings waiting for spring</a> by C. E. Price

Snow covered swings waiting for spring by C. E. Price

While she peeled off her frozen overcoat, scarf and hat, I ran up to the bathroom and returned to the kitchen with a pile of folded towels. Together, we spread them over the kitchen floor and arranged the stuff she had brought from outside atop the towels. The ice and snow melted in the kitchen’s heat to reveal the board-and-chain swing that usually hung from an arm of the clothesline pole in the back yard. One strong cup of coffee later, we dried the chains and board seat as best we could. Gram went back up the stepladder and I handed her the end of each chain to hook through the lag bolt rings.

If I could not go outside to swing, the swing came inside to me. It was a damn marvel.

I should never have doubted my grandmother’s ability with the drill or anything else she attempted. This was a woman who had, at the same age I was during that blizzard, gone out and picked cotton under a scorching Texas sky to help her mother feed 11 children. She had sewn her own clothes, grown up, married a Yankee, and moved up to Minnesota where her family rarely came to visit, certain as they were that such snowstorms happened every single day. Even in July. She made her own soap in a pot on the stove; the same stove I had pictured myself cooking oatmeal for one. She served beer at Tupperware parties. She always stopped at the Dairy Queen on her way to visit us and picked enough frozen treats to make certain the neighborhood kids got some. She baked lemon meringue pie according to a recipe she kept in her head that has completely spoiled me for ever having a chance in hell at reproducing it. She played The Ranger’s Waltz and King of the Road on the organ and taught her parakeet to swear. When I complained about my sister being horrible, Gram assured me, “all cats look gray at night”, which meant things would be better in the morning. I believed her.

Summertime swing on Minnehaha Ave.

Summertime swing on the house on Minnehaha

Probably she was just as tired of having me cooped up indoors that day as I was of being bored while we waited out the storm. Probably I was on her last nerve, driving her to the brink of insanity. Probably my grandfather, who was a cabinet maker and revered a perfect piece of wood, had come home eventually and about had a heart attack when he saw that pair of lag bolts in the mahogany beam. But I don’t remember that.

What I remember is my grandmother demonstrated that a person could leave home, knowing they’d likely never move back, and things would work out because your home is wherever you are. My grandmother taught me that sometimes shit—which, in her east-Texas accent she called shee-I-tee—is fun and sometimes shit is difficult. That’s just life. Your job is to get down to it, live it and try to have a good time along the way. Then get up the next day and do it again. No matter the weather.

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


  1. Michael Lee Howard-Mayhew

    I am not sure why but this story made me tear up. What an amazing memory that you have with that and so ingenious of her.

  2. You are managing to preserve your family’s history beautifully.

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