Everything I know about women, I learned from underneath my grandmother’s kitchen table. An only child to a single mother, I spent more time with Grandma Edna than anyone else. When I was four, maybe five, I’d hide under the round oak table whenever my grandmother had company – which was often. She’d been a widow long before I was born and the other Greek mothers in the neighborhood would visit daily for strong coffee and conversation.
Mrs. Anastas, the most judgmental of my grandmother’s friends, would tsk tsk in the beginning.
“Young man, get from under there.”
“Leave him alone, Christina.”
“It’s not a good thing, Ed.”
“Neither is licking windows. And what? You think my floors unclean?”
Licking windows was a jab at Mrs. Anastas’ own grandson who, unfortunately, never outgrew the habit of putting his mouth in inappropriate places. The latter, well, it was a challenge. Everyone knew that Edna Biros kept the cleanest house in the neighborhood.
During those mid-morning visits, I’d sit under the table – surrounded by flesh-colored stocking clad feet in loafers and other sensible shoes – with an array of building blocks and cars, but it was the conversations taking place overhead that kept my attention. I’d let out an occasional vroom vroom and push a toy car across the linoleum to give the illusion that I wasn’t eavesdropping, but that didn’t fool Grandma Edna.
“Did you hear what we were talking about? About Sean?”
You didn’t lie to Grandma Edna so I simply nodded. They’d been talking about the kid that bagged groceries at the local market – how girly he behaved and how he probably liked other boys. Then, I didn’t know what this meant, but from Mrs. Anastas’ tone, it didn’t sound good. Grandma Edna repeated to me what she’d said to her friends as they sat around the table.
“There’s nothing wrong with being different, Matt. It’s those that are different that people remember. Those that are different change the world.”
When I was older, ten or so, I’d have to walk to my Grandmother’s house after school and remain there until my mother got off from work. On rainy days, she’d meet me outside the school holding her large green umbrella and we’d walk the five blocks home together. There was always a season appropriate snack waiting for me there – tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches in the winter and sugar cookies with lemonade in the spring. I’d outgrown (literally and figuratively) hanging out under the table. Instead, I’d sit at the table with my school books spread out across the wood top, doing my homework and watching Little House on The Prairie and He-Man on the small black and white television that sat atop the kitchen counter.
Once a week, when the homework was done, we’d walk to the end of the block to the red brick ranch on the corner. Mrs. Petras lived alone and couldn’t get around much without assistance. Her children were grown and busy so Grandma Edna would stop by and collect any laundry that needed washing. I never looked forward to those days. Mrs. Petras was nice enough, but her house smelled like peppermint and old lady. My nose would itch the entire time I sat on the plastic-covered furniture, forced to make small talk as my grandmother went around the house collecting dirty clothes and linen.
Grandma Edna’s washing machine was old, loud, but purchased at Woolworths. She swore by anything that came from Woolworths and it didn’t matter that it sounded like a freight train was rolling through the kitchen every time it hit the spin cycle – as long as it got the job done, she wasn’t replacing it. She didn’t own a dryer. She preferred to hang her clothes on a line in the backyard that was no bigger than a postage stamp. I’d sit on the back steps, watching as she stretched on tippy toes to fasten bed sheets with a clothespin. Though she was in better shape than Mrs. Petras, there was the occasional bone popping as she worked and the varicose veins in her legs were blue and angry.
“Why do you bother to do this anyway?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew better. If we’d been in the kitchen, I’d have expected a sharp rap with a wooden spoon. Instead, Grandma Edna stepped back, placed her hands on her ample hips and watched the sheets fanning in the breeze like capes.
“Because you do for those that can’t do for themselves.”
Looking back, I realize that allowing me to play under the table instead of shooing me away to another room was done on purpose – as was dragging me to Mrs. Petras’ once a week. It was her way of imparting lessons. Not by drawn out lectures around the table, but by slow and steady examples. It was around that same table that I confessed to my grandmother the sadness that followed me because I didn’t have a father. It was around that same table that my grandmother, mother, and I filled out my college applications.
I never felt like there was enough I could do to repay her for those lessons, but I tried. After I’d been at my first decent-paying job for a few months, I bought her a new washing machine. The shiny front, bulbous window, and digital screens were out-of-place in the kitchen that still had the yellow cabinets from my youth. I watched as she bent over to inspect the front buttons, adjusting the glasses she’d resisted getting for so long.
“Where’d you get this again?”
The short intake of breath said, Not Woolworths, but it will do.