As a girl, I spent a lot of time with grown-ups. I didn’t have any siblings or cousins close in age or live in a neighborhood with kids around to play with. A lot of weekends I spent at my great-grandmother’s apartment. I went to meetings with my activist parents in the evenings and weekends. I saw kids at the nonsectarian private school I went to and at the occasional brownie meetings, but that was it.
And it was fine by me then, and fine by me now. I got a take on the world that is uniquely my own, and I like that. At a young age I was overly serious, but there are worse things in the world to be.
A huge influence in my life was my great grandmother. She was the daughter of an oil tycoon and then her family lost their money. She got impregnated at age 16 (by a Colorado newspaper editor is our best guess) and then married a man who loved her more than he loved anything and raised her son (my grandfather) as his own. They had a daughter together. Throughout her life she served as head children’s library at the Plaza Library, mastered the art of puff pastry, read thousands of books, was a patron to the arts, and taught a little girl the magic of life. She elevated Midwestern life through tea parties and book clubs and strawberry crepes.
Near the end of her life I had the honor to be her best friend. The luck of the timing benefited me, both of us had lots of free time because she was near the end of her life and I was at the beginning of mine. My mom always told me that she had never seen Muner take to a little kid like she took to me. I am sure part of the reason was my natural or learned tendency to be more comfortable with adults, and I never liked to run around or make much noise. In one of the happiest moments of my life, my great aunt Mousie, after bestowing to me a quilt that she had quilted and her mother, my great-grandmother Muner had pieced, “You know of course that you were her favorite, you were the love of her life.” It stops my breath just thinking of that… and I am sure it is hyperbole – I was Muner’s last love, but luckily for my family, she had had lots of loves, but it still makes me happy.
Here were some of the things Muner gave me:
1. Great literature. I thought she had invented Where the Wild Things Are and The Little Princess. She of course had an upperhand since she was a children’s librarian.
2. The ability to speak to people. She was such a gifted storyteller that she had a room named after her in the old Plaza Library – the Elizabeth Johnson reading room. (That sadly did not make the move to the new library.) And when I was with her she expected me to speak to her friends not as a child but as a person, with stories and jokes and compliments and pleasantries.
3. License to make things special. Everything that Muner did was imbued with a little bit of magic. When a friend came over she put cookies on a plate with a doilie. She ate her cherry ice cream every evening out of pretty porcelain dishes. We got a little something pretty every time we left her apartment to go shopping – special chocolates or a book or a postcard of the Plaza. (For those of you who aren’t native to KC, the Plaza USED to be a neighborhood, with a grocery store and a drug store. Somehow the people survived without an Armani Exchange.) To this day I cannot put food on a table in its packaging without feeling I am letting the side down – I don’t like to see margarine in the tub on the table or syrup in its plastic bottle. We are not savages, after all.
4. Generosity. Muner’s ability to give to other people she loved was important to her. After she died, we realized that most of her silver flatware was gone because she had been slowly giving it to the doorman as tips. Which of course is exactly where we wanted it to go.
5. Stubbornness. This story was before my time, but one very, very blizzardy Christmas eve my grandmother had made cookies for the nuns. My grandfather (Papa) told her that it was too snowy to drive the cookies to the church. She got very mad so started trapzing in the very bad weather down the street. She had made cookies for the nuns, and damnit, the nuns were going to get the cookies. I (and I am sure my husband) see to much of myself in that story for comfort.
This is just a sampling of the influence that Muner had on my life, I am not skilled or patient enough writer to capture it all… and sadly I feel every year the memories fading…
I still have the vibrant sensation of sitting in her bathtub staring up at the Mary Cassatt print on the wall while Muner let me pickle for as long as I wanted and make “soap sculptures” with her Dove and a carrot peeler.
I remember her letting me separate all of her change into her nesting owl tray (what I would give to have that – it is lost to the universe!). She would have me count it all, and I would report back “$8.53”. She would fein looking in her accounting book and say “What a coincidence – that is exactly how much extra money I have this week. Will you please keep that money so that the books balance?”
I remember walking with her to see the Muppet movie and being delighted by how delighted she was by the movie.
I remember going to the library with her and being treated like royalty by all of her friends.
I remember walking down the courtyard of the Jehovah’s witness church next to her apartment building while she walked the straight line.
I remember playing with her delicate angel collection, putting on angel parades.
I remember lying on her creaky bed reading a book in the very very quiet while she napped on the couch.
I remember getting food at the McDonald’s and then afterward her saying “Let’s not forget to visit our friend.”, referring to the bronze statue of the young man eating a hamburger and reading a book. She and I would then have a conversation with the young man, asking him what he was reading.
That is what a life is made of. That’s the stuff.