Mary asked me to tell one story about my grandmother, Kathryn Holton, Kate to most, Grandma to us. So you’re going to get three. (I wish I had a picture of her; I’m sure there’s one in the house, but for the life of me I couldn’t say where it is.)
For as long as I knew her, Grandma couldn’t hear very well, although from the way she was able to carry on a conversation, you’d never know it. Either she had developed an excellent ability to read lips, or she could hear some voices but not others. All I know is, I never had any problems talking to her, and as far as I could tell no one in the family did, either.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t a few instances when she wasn’t quite sure what she heard. The summer after Dad died, my Uncle Tom (Grandma’s son and Mom’s brother-in-law) invited us to visit his farm in Ohio. Mom had just learned to drive the car Dad had bought a few months before he died, and this was to be her first major road trip. She and Grandma sat in the front seat, with the three of us in the back, trying not to get in trouble.
Mom felt pretty comfortable about halfway across Indiana on the toll road, and decided to chat with Grandma. “Abby [a woman she worked with] is going to Spain.”
Grandma gasped. “My God, how terrible, Bunny! Were there any indications?”
This confused Mom. “Of what, Kate?”
“That she was going insane!”
Mom loved that story.
Grandma lived with her sister Florence most of the time I knew them. Florence could hear better than Grandma could, but she couldn’t see very well, so Grandma was the eyes and Florence was the ears. Any time I called Grandma, this is how it usually started. And, unless I’m mistaken, this is the way it went with just about everyone else.
After about ten rings, Florence would answer the phone. It would take her a minute to wrestle the receiver into position (the cord was always twisted tightly, even when you tried untwisting it), and occasionally she would drop it; meanwhile, you could hear the television BLASTING in the background. Eventually, she’d manage to get the phone to her ear. She spoke in a feeble voice. “H-hello?”
“Hi Florence, it’s John! How are you?”
“O-oh, hello, John! I’m fine, how are you?” We’d chat for several minutes, then she’d say, “We-Well, I’ll get your grandmother. I’m sure you’d like to talk to her.” She’d then wrestle the receiver down onto the table to tell Grandma I was on the phone.
Florence was a heavy woman who had broken her leg years before (while coming to watch us one day when Dad was in the hospital, she slipped on the ice and fell, something my mother never let us forget), and wore, for lack of a better term, “old lady” shoes, heavy tie shoes with a short heel. They had no carpeting in the hall where the phone was, so when she went to the dining room where the TV was, you could hear her walking.
“John’s on the phone.”
“Oh!” Grandma was pretty spry for her age, and I’d soon hear her in the hall. Clump clump clump clump…
By far, this is my favorite Grandma story. I’m certain I don’t have all the details right, but this is the way Mom remembered it.
For the tenth anniversary of Dad’s death, Grandma had a Mass said for him. (We’re Catholics, that’s what we do.) Mom called me at the dorm at Loyola, and made it clear that attendance was not optional. It was at 6 PM at St. Ignatius, our old parish, which was just a couple of blocks from the campus, so it wasn’t a big deal, and I wanted to be there for Grandma, anyway (not to mention avoid the wrath of my mother; we’re Irish, that’s what we do).
I got to church at quarter to six, and Mom, Tex, and Jim and Kip were there waiting. (Pat was one and a half, so I don’t think he was there.) Mass was in the chapel, which had a tile floor and possibly the best acoustics on the North Side of Chicago (this will be important later). We all got seated and waited for Grandma and Florence to arrive.
That afternoon, Mom had asked Grandma if she wanted them to pick her and Florence up, but Grandma said they would be out for the afternoon and would meet us at the church. At about ten to six, Mom started worrying, because they hadn’t arrived. The longer we waited, the more worried Mom became. Finally, when my mother was ready to have a nervous breakdown, in walked Grandma and Florence, bundled up in fur coats and hats against the January cold. Kisses and “hello”s were exchanged. Understand, what Grandma considered a whisper was more a stage whisper, and the acoustics, as I mentioned, were excellent. The other people there (who were just there for the Mass) gave her dirty looks and a few shushed her, but she just ignored them (or, more likely, couldn’t hear them) and she and Florence climbed into the pew next to us, with Grandma sitting beside Mom.
The celebrant of the Mass came out to make last-minute preparations (light the candles, bring out the wine and water cruets, etc.). Grandma waited until he left the altar area and whispered (again, acoustics), “Oh, not this guy! He’s crazy!” Then, she turned to her sister, who was getting in a little nap before Mass. “Florence! Florence!”
“Have you got your keys?””
“W-wait, I’ll check.” Florence opened her purse, which was empty save for her wallet and keys. She pulled out her keychain. “Right here, Kathryn!” She shakes them.
“Good. Keep them in your hand.”
The celebrant came out and started Mass. He was a little more quiet and paused more frequently than most other priests would (especially with dinner on the table in the rectory), but said a very nice Mass. After Communion, he cleaned his chalice and the other vessels he had used, then walked over to the presider’s chair, sat down with his palms upraised, closed his eyes, and meditated on the Sacred Mysteries that had just taken place.
For a couple of minutes, no one made a sound. Then Grandma turned to Mom and (stage) whispered “See, Bunny, I told you he was nuts.” (Remember the acoustics.)
Surprisingly, the celebrant didn’t hear it, or at least acted like he didn’t. A couple of years later, Mom said she couldn’t say enough nice things about him. Evidently, he visited them often when Florence was sick and they couldn’t make it to church.
But, that was Grandma. She loved everyone, even if she thought you were nuts. Unless you were a politician. But that’s a story for another day.
from The Sound of One Hand Typing