Princesses Need Jewels

Princesses Need Jewels

From Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul

Princesses Need Jewels

All I can say about life is, oh God, enjoy it.

Bob Newhart

My grandmother’s washstand, a small dresser used years ago to hold a china pitcher and basin for washing, is the first thing you see when you enter my front door. Whether because its austere lines seem in disharmony with the delicate curving legs of the wing chair across from it or because its golden hues clash with the deep tones of the intricately carved wardrobe looming beside it, the stand seems an oaken mismatch in the midst of overpowering mahogany. I planned it that way. I wanted it to stand out and whisper, “Notice me.” For preserved within its layers of polish and simply cut lines are memories of my grandmother. And I like to think that the warmth of those memories emanates from her washstand to greet those who cross my threshold.

My grandmother wasn’t an easy woman to know. Maybe it was because smiling didn’t come easy to her. The lack of an upturn at the corners of her lips made the lines etched around her mouth more pronounced and consequently, she often wore a stern look.

My mother once told me that a hard life gave my grandmother her look of sternness. I learned the story of the high hopes my grandparents had when they immigrated from Iowa to Canada early in the 1920s to raise wheat on the windy plains of Manitoba. And how those hopes were smashed by an endless cycle of blight, locusts and bitter cold that forced them to return to Iowa, only to discover more hardship in the wake of the Depression. “She took in wash and scrubbed out the dirt from other people’s laundry to help feed her five children, and then helplessly watched my brother Howard die before his twelfth birthday,” my mother said. “She earned her lines.”

Despite her stern demeanor, I knew my grandmother loved me. And it was never made clearer to me than one summer day in 1957 when I was eight. Having been left behind while my family went on an errand, my cousin Joyce and I helped our grandma make chocolate-chip cookies. Eating the batter was an indulged treat at Grandma’s, and since there were two youngsters gorging on dough, the cookie sheet remained bare. Finally, Grandma shooed us out of the kitchen to make a batch for the oven, and Joyce and I went in search of something to do.

“Let’s play dress-up,” suggested my cousin, spying white sheets hanging to dry in the Iowa sun. “We can be Greek princesses.” Pulling the sheets off the clothesline, we draped them around our bodies and, giggling happily, vainly tried to regally walk while the dragging bottoms of our “gowns” twisted around our ankles. Suddenly, Grandma shouted from the open window, “Girls, come here!”

I was sure we were in trouble. As we slowly tripped up the porch stairs, I imagined the worst possible punishment— being forced to go down into Grandma’s dark cellar to rewash the sheets in her wringer washing machine. The thought of it made my knees turn to jelly. With its low ceiling, dark corners and earthen ledge extending above clammy stone walls, I was sure that cellar was a haven for huge, hairy spiders and long-legged bugs with spindly antennae. Being sent down to the cellar to get a jar of her homemade apple butter was hard enough, but I could do that in one quick dash. Washing sheets would take a long time—long enough for “things” to fall in my hair and wiggle up my socks.

When we opened the screen door, I shivered with fright. But Grandma wasn’t standing by the cellar. Instead, she sat beside the open cabinet of her washstand, rummaging through boxes and pulling out a treasure of brightly colored scarves, bangly bracelets, huge amber brooches and ropes of necklaces.

“Princesses need jewels,” my grandmother said, dispelling my fears and erasing the deeply etched lines of sternness around her mouth with a smile that filled the room.

I will never forget that day when my grandma put aside her work and laughingly played dress-up with her granddaughters. Covered in lipstick and rouge and bedecked in treasures from Grandma’s boxes, I felt wickedly beautiful and ever so loved.

Now, more than forty years later and nineteen years after her death, I still see her face when I touch the satiny finish of her oak washstand. But I don’t see the face of the stern woman whose mouth is etched with the hard lines of life that is preserved in our family album. Instead, I see a woman whose face is softened by a smile and laughter on a day of dress-up magic. And maybe one day, when I have granddaughters of my own who come to visit, they will walk in the front door and notice my grandmother’s washstand. Together we will turn the brass key, and I will pass on the warmth of my memories. Then we will play with the treasures I have collected over the years and stored in the cabinet, and my granddaughters will make their own memories of magic at Grandma’s.

Kris Hamm Ross

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