“Grandma Taught Me to See,” Ensign, Aug. 1978, 47
My first clear memory of Grandma is an incident that happened when I was about six. Running barefoot in the back yard, I stepped on a broken bottle. As blood spurted from my foot, Grandma saw me and, picking me up, carried me into the house.
Mother, terrified at the blood dripping to the floor from the gashed foot, cried, “I’ll get a doctor!”
“Fiddlesticks!” Grandma said calmly. “Come here and help me with this boy!”
With Mother’s help she washed my foot quickly in water, despite the hindrance of my screams and sobs. She plastered it with a homemade salve which stopped the bleeding, then bandaged it. My screams had stopped, though my crying continued. “Now, it’ll be all right,” Grandma said, holding me on her knee. “Just think how lucky you are!”
My sniffles ceased as I looked at her in surprise. “If it had been your tongue cut in half you’d be in a purty pickle,” Grandma said.
The horrible vision of my tongue half-severed, dangling from my mouth, quieted me completely and I began to believe that I was indeed a lucky boy.
It was about 1890 when Grandma, a widow with four children, converted to the Church and moved west from Indiana to Salt Lake City. She was a heavy woman, slow moving, but somehow efficient. She wasn’t pretty, but you didn’t mind that. You saw instead the natural wave in her hair when she let it down for the evening combing, a glossly black shawl that fell clear down to her waist. You saw the kind brown eyes that seemed to voice her oft-spoken words, “I know I’m not purty—but purty is as purty does.”
Her philosophy was as homey as she—and as good. “Pewter button!” she’d say. “People ain’t really bad; it’s just that they don’t see things straight sometimes.”
She practiced her philosophy on me one day when I went to the store for a loaf of bread and couldn’t bear to see all the goodies that were displayed without trying some of them. I tore open a bag of orange sticks and held three of them hidden in one hand while I put the exact change Mother had given me for the bread on the counter.
“Now, little boy,” the grocer said not unkindly, “where is the money for the candy?”
Shocked and frightened that I had been found out, I said, “I haven’t got any more money.”
“All right,” the grocer said. “You take the candy home and tell your mother that she owes me five cents for the orange sticks.”
Utterly ashamed, I confessed my sin to Mother. She was at her wit’s end. She had not another cent in the house. “Go tell your Grandma,” she finally said.
I walked back to the little house behind ours where Grandma lived and told her the story.
She looked at me silently for a moment, then said slowly, “The only money I have is tithing, and I never touch that because it’s the Lord’s.”
I began to sob. After gazing steadily at my tear-streaked face, Grandma said, “I think the Lord would want me to borrow five cents of his money to pay for the candy—if he knows that you promise never to take another thing that doesn’t belong to you as long as you live!”
I was so relieved and grateful that I resolved that I too would pay the Lord tithing when I grew up, just as Grandma did.
When I was twelve, Grandma taught me another lesson on seeing things clearly. I was in her little house one Saturday afternoon. Rain was beating down on the roof and splattering great wet drops against the windows. I paced up and down noisily, beating my fist into my baseball mitt. Grandma finally looked up from her sewing and said, “Charlie, why don’t you settle down? The rain’ll stop sometime.”
“This darned rain isn’t ever going to stop!”
“Pewter button!” Grandma said sharply. “There’ll be plenty of days to play ball, and we need the rain.”
I continued my pacing up and down. Finally Grandma said, “Young-un, I want you to open that front door and set down here!”
Unwillingly I did so.
“Smell that dust out in the yard when the rain hits it?” Grandma asked. “Did you ever smell anything so good?”
I took a deep breath, but didn’t answer.
“Look out there and tell me what you see.”
I stared out at the familiar scene: the big willow tree, the hollyhocks along the fence, the yellow, parched grass.
“I don’t see nothin’ different.”
Grandma sighed. “Charlie—sometimes you do try a body’s patience! Can’t you see that rain a-soakin’ into the dry grass and the water a-drippin’ down through the willow tree?”
I still said nothing, and she went on, “Those growing things can’t go to the faucet and get a drink like you can. They have to wait for the rain.”
“They could’a waited another day or two.”
“Would you want them to starve for a drink—just so’s you can play ball?”
She had me where I couldn’t say I would, so I said nothing.
“Of course you wouldn’t,” Grandma answered for me. “And when it stops rainin’, see how nice and clean the air will smell and how good it’ll be to see the garden a-sproutin’ and a-growin’.” She paused and looked at me gravely. “And all because you were unselfish enough not to play ball!”
I laughed in spite of myself and breathed in a great lungful of the wet-earth smell. I realized suddenly that it was nice to be in here with Grandma with the rain beating down on the roof.
“Tomorrow,” Grandma said, “if it’s a nice day, I’ve a notion to go out in the field and see if I can get a mess of dandelion greens.”
Impulsively I said, “I’ll help you.”
She looked at me and smiled.
Years passed. I took a job traveling through Utah and Nevada—mostly desert country, and I saw little beauty in it. I returned home from one of my trips with an Indian blanket for Grandma, who by this time had become almost totally blind.
“How was the trip?” she asked.
“Hot,” I said, “and dry. I can’t understand what the tourists see in this country.”
“Yes, it is a hard country, but it’s got many beautiful things in it to see.”
“Did you look ahead of you far enough to see the mountains?” she asked quietly.
“Too much dust,” I said lightly.
“There’s a sight of dust, all right—but did you see the sun a-shinin’ in that dust, makin’ a sort of hazy lake?” She paused. “Did you see the dust devils a-runnin’ across the desert with the wind a-chasin’ them, a-whirlin’ and a-dancin’ along?”
I watched her face, which seemed alive with her thoughts, and I could see those dust devils.
“Did you ever start across the desert early of a morning,” she went on, “just as the sun is throwin’ a hundred different colors ahead of it—or of an evening when things are coolin’ off and the shadows are makin’ all kinds of castles and towers in the hills around you? But fiddlesticks! Of course you have.”
We were quiet a moment; then I handed her the gift I had brought. “It’s an Indian blanket,” I said. “I hope you like the color.” I realized as soon as the words were out that she probably wouldn’t care what color it was, since she couldn’t see it.
I watched as she took the blanket in her hands and held it in her lap, feeling of its softness for a moment. Then slowly she lifted a corner of the fabric and held it against her cheek. “I like the color, Charlie,” she said softly. “It’s the color of kindness—the color of love.” She rocked gently back and forth in the old-fashioned chair, her hand still stroking the blanket as I left.
When World War II began in December 1941, I was among the first to be inducted. I felt rebellious and angry. I had a good job, I was happy, I didn’t want to leave; but almost before I knew it I was in uniform, had been processed at Fort Douglas, and was ready to go.
I had a few hours to visit my family before taking the train that night, and when I finally went out to the little house to see Grandma, I was shocked at the change in her. I had been so involved with my own affairs during the past few months that I hadn’t noticed how she had aged.
“Your great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, Charlie,” Grandma said. “He did real well. I know you’ll do just as well in this war.”
“But I didn’t make this war! I don’t see why I have to go.”
Grandma looked thoughtful. “Would you want your brothers to go and you stay home safe? Would you feel right about all them other boys a-riskin’ their lives and you a-doin’ nothing?”
She had me again, as usual.
A smile appeared on her wrinkled old face. “It’s just another rainy day, young-un.”
I sat there very quietly.
“Do you remember those rainy days when you wanted to play ball?”
I looked at her for a long time. I saw the black hair with barely a trace of gray, the homely, lovable face with the wrinkles and humor lines around the mouth. Many things went through my mind before I finally said, “I remember, Grandma.”
Her voice was very soft. “Maybe after this rain we can gather another mess of dandelion greens.”
She smiled. “Tomorrow, I’ll knit a pair of wool socks to keep your feet warm when you’re a way off from home.”
Grandma never had the time to finish those socks. A few days later she passed away in her sleep.
I couldn’t attend the funeral. The Army had already shipped me out. But my spirit was with her, my love, and my regrets.
Now, much later, I have a better understanding of what she tried to teach me through those years. She had shown me that eyes are merely the camera that takes the picture, and that it is the heart that develops it and colors it and decides whether the things we see are beautiful or drab, good or bad.
So sometimes when I think a thing is ugly, shabby, or even unbearable, I think of Grandma, and this helps me to face almost anything.
Though nearly blind herself, she had spared no effort to teach me how to see.