Center of the Universe
“You’re not the center of the Universe you know.” I was eight. It was Christmas and a hard lesson. My sister had gotten more toys because it’s easier to buy presents for a three your old than and eight year old. It was on the stairs of my gram’s house. I had been moody, uncommunicative, shut down. My son now does a perfect imitation and although it infuriates me, I sometimes smile, knowing what its like to be in that state. “What’s wrong?” they ask, but you cannot honestly say. The mood has simply taken over and consumed you. The Flintstones can sometimes take it away, but Fred always gets in trouble with Wilma, always doing the wrong thing, so sometimes it makes things worse. At Gram’s it was always Bugs Bunny Roadrunner Hour, right after Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Sometimes we only got to watch Wild Kingdom before being called for dinner. Gram would always make me laugh, with her dislike of garlic and wormy applesauce and knew how to coax me out of the mood.
We lived for a while at Gram’s house and we drank powdered milk and I took the bus to school and was given a dime for real milk that we bought from a tiny cooler at the back of the cafeteria. But Senior Kindergarteners had to eat lunch in the classroom.
It was a bad snow winter and so the school was shut for a week and we were snowed in. I built long tunnels, sucking the water from my soaked woolen mittens, and then hid inside, the caverns strangely warm. When the weather got nice again I would swing on the swings of East Garafraxia Township Public School and let a shoe quietly slip off my foot whenever one of the older boys was near. I knew he would pick it up and hand it to me and I would smile at him.
In the summer, I begged my mom to make a dress for me that matched the one my Raggedy Anne doll wore. It took a long, long time. My Gram could make a dress in half an hour, but she was teaching my mom to sew. I had to be patient, but I wasn’t. I wanted to wear it. She finally finished it on a Saturday night. I put it on, along with the white tights. I was so happy. The next day I walked by myself a quarter mile to the church on the corner of the road at the end of my grandparents’ apple orchard. I took Raggedy Anne for comfort. They told me where the Sunday School was in the basement and I sat with the other children in my new dress and white stockings. The teacher talked about God, which scared me a bit. Still does. Later we got cookies and juice and then I walked home by myself.
Gram taught me to quilt when I was ten and would take me to that same Church down the road. All the old ladies would sit in hard wooden chairs around a square of quilt that had been rolled onto two-by-fours on all four sides and clamped in the corners. The frame sat on saw horses. Everyone sat around the frame, two or three to a side to chat and sew, one arm above the quilt, one arm below. I learned to gather ten stitches on the needle before sending it all the way through. When you stitched as far as your arms would go, the quilt would get turned once more on the two-by-four and we would start again. The women drank burnt coffee from the urn and talked about a boy who was shot dead in a hunting accident. My first exposure to the perils of life, nothing I could ever imagine being applied to my own.
My Gram died one December of the flu, too frail to cough. “Let me go,” she begged my aunts. I got the call at work from my dad. Everyone was at my Gram’s house, milling around, aimless. I helped my aunt make sandwiches on hand cut white bread with thick slices of ham and mustard.
At the funeral, I cried and then laughed when the bagpipe started up in the back room of the church behind the alter, like a slowly dying cat, its scream reaching a crescendo until the bagpiper finally appeared and walked down the aisle playing Amazing Grace. He exited the church so the cat could die its slow squealing death.
Amazing Grace played again many years later for my husband and for the thousands that died along with him in the World Trade Center.
Those early years at Gram’s prepared me for what lay ahead. I was not the center of the universe. I could distract my bad moods. I could do what scared me. I could handle death, make ham sandwiches, listen to Amazing Grace again. I learned what it meant to let go.