Grandma Knows Best

In uncertain times, Candace Buehner's grandmother would make Jell-O, maybe, but she sure wouldn't whine!

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Grandma Knows Best

In uncertain times, my grandmother would make Jell-O, maybe, but she sure wouldn’t whine!

-Candace Cavanaugh Buehner

You know, there are times when I am profoundly afraid just because of what I have NOT experienced. A Depression? War? Having to raise my own food in my backyard when I have trouble keeping my children’s windowsill cactus plants alive?

jelloThen, I think about Mody. “Mody” was how we referred to my tough-as-nails grandmother, a family sort of nickname that came about after an ancient toddler ancestor inexplicably mangled “Grandma” into apparently, well, “Mody.” Mody was not a person to be trifled with, THAT I knew from early on. First, she was old. Very old. I never knew her without snow-white, perfectly-coiffed hair and very wrinkly hands. Second, she was Catholic. Very Catholic. Mass every day, rain or shine, and a belief that “You should start each morning by saying good morning to God, and you should end your day by saying thank you to Him.” Third, she was a person of other die-hard convictions: always mix sour cream with your cottage cheese, match your shoes to your purse (even when said purse is lavender), make iced tea and Jell-O in different flavors when your granddaughters come to visit – but never, ever, say “Why me?”

Black-and-white photos, grainy movies, and the occasional recollection from my father or my uncle show that my grandmother had a handsome husband who worked hard, drank hard, and died of a heart attack in 1947, leaving Mody alone with two boys, ages 3 and 6, in a time that was not easy for any woman, much less a newly single mother. Mody’s father had made and lost a fortune in the Depression, so when it came time for her to take her lumps again, she did it, getting a job, arranging for child care and raising two boys by herself with no assistance from anyone. Spunkiness? Wherewithal? No, it was survival, plain and simple, that got my grandmother through her days.

What Mody’s story shows me is that we, the famously Troubled Americans of Today, really have nothing on the people who came before us. Divided political factions that have absolute belief in the superiority of their own way of thinking? Try the Civil War. Political corruption? Put “Tammany Hall” in your search engine and get a gander at what was happening in New York in the early 20th century. Social strife due to immigration? My maiden name of Cavanaugh may get me a free beer in Dublin nowadays, but in 1849 when my great-great-grandfather came over from County Wexford, it wasn’t a bragging right.

And parental challenges? Although polio is one of those weird historic illnesses that we now categorize in our minds with “smallpox” or “the plague”, as recently as fifty years ago, polio was horrifyingly real: Your child could go to sleep, and wake up the next morning paralyzed. Not with a bad cold, or flu, or something else you might get if you don’t use enough Purell at Kroger, but unable to breathe without an iron lung.

Thanks to the March of Dimes, we took our sugar-cube vaccines, and our children take their 4-year old shots, and today, thankfully, we just don’t have to think about the horrors of polio. We do, however, worry about a whole host of other things that seem, in our modern minds, equally awful in their own insidious ways: job loss, terrorism, cancer…

I would add to the list but I don’t have to – you know what you fear and/or might be dealing with every day. The bottom line is that we all have crappy lemons right now. It’s up to each of us to make our own lemonade. Mody would.

Candace Cavanaugh Buehner lives and works outside of Detroit, Michigan, where it’s gray, economically depressed, and cold, warranting lemonade spiked with a bit of vodka. Mody would approve.

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