Viola Paulsen was my grandmother. We called her Gramma. Today is her birthday and every year I celebrate it by remembering good things about her.
She was unique, one-of-a-kind. She didn’t care what other people thought of her. She was an artist, a reader, an amateur naturalist, a marksman, a collector and sometimes a hermit. She was totally comfortable in her own wrinkly skin.
It seemed to me that she was always wrinkly, even when I was 9 years old, kneeling backwards on the kitchen chair hanging on to the chair back for dear life as she braided my hair – tight – so tight that I could feel the skin pulling away from my eyes making it hard to close them and my ears moving toward the back of my head. She was fast and efficient, using water from a glass on the table to keep the baby strands tucked in.
She seemed wrinkly, in a happy way, when she told my brother and I to go pick apples on the trees by the sand pit. When we returned my aunt showed us how to put salt on the green ones to bring out the sweetness. Mom warned us, only to eat one.
Once I went to the old soldiers’ home with my gramma. She was dressed in her fresh-pressed Gray Ladies* uniform and told me to bring my piano books. I helped her as she taught a group of elderly people how to create a craft. Then I played ragtime on the organ as her group listened. Later, my mom told me Gramma was older than most of the residents. I was too young then to understand the full implications of that statement. Now I realize an active life is a full life. When she was in her 80s she was mistaken for 65. My gramma was a wrinkle survivor.
Once my brother and I went apple picking with Gramma. We walked the garden path and through the adjacent field of wild flowers (Gramma didn’t believe in weeds). It was a long walk to the row of apple trees that divided one field from another. We each filled a bag as Gramma assured us it was okay. She had gotten the farmer’s permission. Then she said, “Only pick a few. We need to leave some for other people.” We were exhausted when we got back.
Gramma called her place Happy Hollow. I guess it was a little lower than the ridge we drove over to get to it. She owned 40 acres along the highway to Waupaca (where I was born). My brother and I used to sit on the stone posts on either side of the driveway and wave at the people going by. We pulled our fists down from the air in a mock air horn each time a truck went by. Sometimes semi drivers blew their horns for us. That was a good day.
The highway was a busy transportation route. Trucks didn’t always cover their load and sometimes they were overloaded. During harvest season Gramma would walk the highway near her home to see if anything had dropped. Once it was a watermelon “already cut for us.” Another time is was sweet corn. There were always surprises when we went to Gramma’s. Every visit ended with a goody bag to take home.
I’m sure my Gramma Paulsen had problems living alone for so long (my grampa died in 1968), but she never showed it to me. She killed “those dirty crows” with a shotgun, baked bread, used leftovers with mastery, asked for rides into town with confidence and prayed. To me, her wrinkles were her strength.
And now I have wrinkles too.
Happy Birthday Gramma Paulsen – May 12
*Gray Ladies were a branch of the Red Cross.