Nobody Sat in Bigmom's Chair
Abigail Thomas recalls her beloved grandmother.
This essay is one of four sponsored by Revel as part of a collaboration with Oldster Magazine for Women’s History Month. The theme is “The Women Who Came Before Us” and the four authors—Abigail Thomas, Naz Riahi, Emily Rubin, and Blaise Allysen Kearsley—will all participate in a virtual reading to be held on the Revel site on Tuesday, March 8th at 7pm EST.
Bigmom lived in an old house on a short road that stopped abruptly at the Atlantic Ocean. It had once been an inn, built back in the middle of the 18th century. There were seven bedrooms on the second floor, the furthest of which was always cold, and if I went in and godforbid had the nerve to sit down, there came a sudden urgent need to get out get out get out, which I did. Immediately. This happened more than once. The house harbored a ghost, a gentleman in a dark blue suit who had been seen occasionally on the stairs, although not by me, and it became obvious that the cold room belonged to him. So yes, the house could be scary, but we loved the ocean and we loved Bigmom. Our family made the trip to Amagansett every summer, to stay with Bigmom and our Aunt Rhoda, who lived with her.
The house could be scary, but we loved the ocean and we loved Bigmom. Our family made the trip to Amagansett every summer, to stay with Bigmom and our Aunt Rhoda, who lived with her.
They always had a dog. The first was Winston, an English bulldog named for Churchill, and he was fussy. He wasn’t interested in walking down the street they lived on, or any other street in Amagansett. He preferred to take his walks on Main Street in East Hampton, one town over. Rhoda’s job was to hold his leash, and carry a roll of pink toilet paper with which to wipe Winston’s behind if necessary. Bigmom’s was to drive her jeep alongside the curb, a companion to Winston’s walk. She slowed when he slowed, stopped when he stopped, resumed when he resumed. Otherwise, he simply sat down and refused to budge. I am trying to picture this now in 2022. Those were the days when the Marmador luncheonette was still in business, light years ago, where we got ice cream cones after the movies. There wasn’t much traffic back then, and fewer parked cars along Main Street, and anyway, that’s the story and I’m inclined to believe it. My dogs boss me around too.
I close my eyes and picture Bigmom’s chair, its seat cushion flattened by years of use. I have a similar chair, with a similar cushion. Nobody but Bigmom sat in her chair, nobody but me sits in mine. Next to her was a little table that held a radio on which she listened to the Brooklyn Dodgers. She told me that after they lost a World Series, the Dodgers fans all said, “Wait till next year,” and for ages I thought that meant the whole stadium stood up at the end of the last game and hollered it together. My radio sits on a windowsill next to my chair, but I don’t listen to ballgames, and anyway I gave up on the Dodgers when they left Brooklyn. I switch between WAMC Public Radio and 92.9 Classic Rock. Which reminds me, Bigmom insisted that it was she who discovered Elvis Presley. I like to declare that I discovered Viggo Mortenson. Sometimes I think I am turning into my own grandmother.
I close my eyes and picture Bigmom’s chair, its seat cushion flattened by years of use. I have a similar chair, with a similar cushion. Nobody but Bigmom sat in her chair, nobody but me sits in mine.
She got up every morning at five, and I followed downstairs on tiptoe lest my sisters wake up. For a little while I had her all to myself. Pasted to the front of her breadbox was a cartoon cut out of the New Yorker. It depicted a little girl sitting at the table looking with disgust at her plate. “It’s broccoli, dear,” says the mother. “Well, I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it,” the child responds. I loved to look at that. Bigmom always percolated her coffee for exactly fourteen minutes, and she poured hers in a big cup, adding evaporated milk and saccharin. She gave me a smaller cup which was mostly milk and sugar. I was fascinated by saccharin, how could anything so tiny sweeten such a big fat cup of coffee, and after a certain amount of begging, she finally allowed me one saccharin per week. I sat in the rocker she kept in her kitchen, and it creaked as I rocked, and the floor creaked under it, and we talked about what I don’t remember, but I remember that she listened. There were geraniums on every kitchen windowsill.
There was always something going on at the back of her stove or in the oven and it always smelled good. Often a delicious smell was meant for the dog: chunks of beef cooking in broth. She made applesauce out of unpeeled granny smiths cut up and simmered in orange juice, not water, and put it through a sieve when they were soft. She cut the crusts off our sandwiches, sliced our morning toast into strips she called “soldiers.” Her recipe for fudge included the line “boil until the bubbles look as though they don’t want to burst.” I still make birthday cakes as she did, with a buttercream icing, and melted bitter chocolate dribbled like a Jackson Pollack all over the top.
I sat in the rocker she kept in her kitchen, and it creaked as I rocked, and the floor creaked under it, and we talked about what I don’t remember, but I remember that she listened.
She spent part of every morning in a room lined floor to ceiling with books, her writing room, and there at her desk she paid bills and she wrote poems. We knew never to disturb her then. I wish I still had those poems. I remember them as short and lighthearted. They were published in women’s magazines under a pen name, but I only remember the first name, which was Ruth. Her real name was Mabel, Mabel Lillian St. John Dawson. Nobody called her Mabel, she was everyone’s Bigmom.
At five o’clock, when the sun was over the yardarm, and we kids were back from the beach, salty and sandy and sunburned, people came for drinks, and whatever delicious thing Bigmom had made, I think I remember scallops wrapped in bacon, but I could be wrong. Interesting people, artists, writers, a dancer, and while they drank their pink gins, ate those scallops, and laughed and told stories, we kids could do as we liked. We drifted unnoticed into the hush of her parlor, and looked at treasures under glass domes, and bronze statues of women with one arm flung into the air, and a Buddha, whose belly when rubbed gave good luck. We touched things we were forbidden to touch. A gold clock that didn’t tell time. A tortoise shell comb, an ivory ball containing infinite number of smaller ivory balls inside, every one carved in a delicate filagree.
She spent part of every morning in a room lined floor to ceiling with books, her writing room, and there at her desk she paid bills and she wrote poems. We knew never to disturb her then. I wish I still had those poems.
Bigmom was born towards the end of the nineteenth century. Old was the right age for a grandmother. It never occurred to me that she had ever been anything else. What I am thinking about now, for the first time, is how at home with herself she was. She didn’t seem to want more than she had, or to exist anywhere other than where she was at any given moment, or to be anyone else. At 80, neither do I.
Bigmom’s rocking chair has been mine for years. The wood was darkened by long use, the upholstery torn, cotton batting coming out. My son Ralph took it apart, sanded and refinished the wood, and put it all back together. I rocked my grandchildren there, as I had once rocked myself. Bigmom died in her sleep. My aunt sold the house. I wrote a poem:
After A Death
We clean up,
We pack books
We give away the evening bags,
A dozen pairs of gloves,
What we want, we take,
I take the portrait
That hung above her bed,
A woman with dark eyes shining,
From every closet, every shelf
We save what we can, curry powder,
Spoons, a radio,
But nobody gets the air,
Nobody gets the silvery haze
She kept in these rooms
Nobody gets the light
“Nobody gets the light” love your last line. I sure hope my light shines as yours does here. Trish McDonald, debut novelist at 77. No Expiration on Dreams!
So beautiful, and thanks for bringing me back to Ammaganset where we used to visit family before there was a towering house on every lot