She raised 8 kids up in Overland, in a two bedroom house that later had two rooms added on. My dad is third of those eight; I've written about some of the others (most recently, probably, Glennon, who took the tree down in my backyard almost a year ago). My grandfather, who died in February 2004, I wrote about just recently.
As a kid, I hated going to their house. So dull. Unless of course I had a chance to go down to the basement and snoop around. Which I did whenever I could, finding such amazing treasures as:
*A dresser, like a 6 or 8 drawer, taller than me dresser, filled with baby food jars filled with buttons. You know you want that.Their garage was about the same--no room to really park a car, unless it was a British convertible or a motorcycle. Stuffed to the gills. Yet she always knew where everything was. Always. She would talk about having a garage sale, and my father would comment that she'd have to rent out Busch Stadium...they moved out of Overland sometime around 1999 and I got passed a bunch of stuff (in lieu of the sale, I suppose). Now she lives in a duplex in St. Peters, too small to really accumulate a bunch more stuff. Plus she slowed down in the last 10 years and didn't make it to as many thrift stores.
*Musical instruments. Lots of them.
*a pool table, hot tub, and dark room. Seriously.
*jars of broken rosaries
*bags of yarn, cardboard barrels filled with fabric
*religious icons, heads carved out of coconuts, kids games from the 1960s, a fridge that still had the locking mechanism that was outlawed, extra sets of dishes (not extra dishes--extra SETS of them), food in the large cans, like the size school cafeterias would purchase.
Because she would go to places like St. Vincent de Paul or Goodwill and knew how to shop. My sisters get some of their talent through genetics, I'm sure. My grandmother rebuilt my first sewing machine and passed a second one along to me later. She would find things and know whether they were worth the time to rehab. Now, she had more stuff saved up than she would ever be able to pass along to anyone--the back bedroom in their house in Overland, the last time I was there, had more lamps than the lighting aisle at Home Depot. She has a bucket of rocks on her back porch (so do I--it seemed like a good idea). She was not quite a hoarder--no stacks of newspaper or bags of kite string or 200 cats--but she was close.
She taught me everything I know about gardening and about laundry. Also quite a bit about sewing, although I've specialized in different areas. She could take measurements and make a dress, without a pattern. Or take a blouse and make an identical one. Or find something at a second hand store--a wool skirt, a tailored shirt, whatever--and alter it to fit your cat if need be. She could get any stain out of any fabric. Tell you what cleaning product was best to use in what situation. What tree to plant, and when. She could crochet a bedspread out of doily thread. She knows St. Louis like the back of her hand (by parish, of course). I'm pretty sure she could tuckpoint a house in a pinch. She couldn't cook worth a damn--I mean, really--but I have fond memories of onion and cucumber salad, strawberries and vanilla ice cream, and, well. Really.
As I get older, I see parts of her personality coming out in me, which sometimes makes me smile. Other times it makes me worry. Not just the basement full of bizarre things (did you know I have a spare sink, a bathtub, 16 boxes of marble tile, an old hi-fi, 18 boxes of yarn, a playpen that fails all safety tests, and a freezer full of deer meat in my basement? Golly I wish I had a dresser full of buttons...). It's the personality flaws that really shouldn't be genetic that worry me, like my tendency to say what I think especially when I shouldn't. A complete lack of filter in the wrong company. I work on these things because I don't want to be that person. I'll take the thrifty eccentric workhorse identity. But I'd like to be a little (or a lot) less confrontational sometimes. Most times.
Yesterday, my mom called and told me Penny was in the hospital with a kidney infection and septicemia. She's nonresponsive and has a "do not resuscitate" order on her chart. She has a broken vertebra from a fall earlier this summer as well. I know when she was in the hospital in May with internal bleeding, some sort of test saw a shadow in her pancreas. That's not good either. When I looked up septicemia, since that sounded not so great, I found that once you have that diagnosis, you have a 50% of it being fatal, no matter who you are. So I'm sure if you're an 82 year old in failing health, well, you know.
She's my last living grandparent; my mom's dad died when I was in high school and her mom died when I was a freshman at SLU. Death usually doesn't bug me--other people's sorrow always affects me more than the death itself. But this time may be the first. The last time she was at my house, she gave me a Mary statue that her grandmother gave her (oldest granddaughter to oldest granddaughter). It's a little thing, but it connects me back to an orphanage in Cape Girardeau, a civil war veteran abandoning his children and running to Texas, to a story, in other words. The last few conversations I've had with Penny have been fruitful, informative, interesting. I could have had a few more. I probably couldn't have had enough.
This week, I'm shoveling out my basement and our plan is to fix some drainage issues in the southwest corner of our yard to dry it out again. It means digging up a lot of the front yard garden Penny planted (without permission--I got home one day and there she was). But I'll replant it all (I know how now) and it will hopefully help the damp wall and floor in that corner of the basement. I think we'll put up a plaque to commemorate the passing of the torch from oldest granddaughter to oldest granddaughter. The Penny Blake Memorial Basement? Not quite the ring I'm looking for, perhaps. But it doesn't have to pretty to be true.