Writer’s Workshop: Brunch at Grandma’s

This is another mashup, with the regular Writer’s Workshop combining with Wednesdays for my Wife, because Mary suggested this.


Grandma Holton and I, circa 1972 (Photo: Fabulous Auntie Jill)

I talk about Grandma Holton a lot here, mostly because she was such a great person and loved me, and, when Mary joined the family, her as well. She was just that kind of person. After Dad died, Mom considered moving us to California, but decided not to, because she didn’t want to leave Grandma. And I’m happy she felt that way.

Once, Grandma invited Mary and me over for brunch. When we got to her apartment, she and her sister Florence invited us back to the dining room, where she had laid out a spread, complete with ham steak, eggs, coffee cake, hash browns, toast, coffee, and, because she knew Mary liked tomatoes, sliced tomatoes. Now, Grandma and Florence were older women, and many years before Grandma had terrible ulcers and had three-quarters of her stomach removed, so neither of them ate too much. However, there must have been enough food for a battalion there. When I say there were sliced tomatoes, I think Grandma had bought the two biggest tomatoes at the store and sliced both of them. The ham steak was the size I used to buy for Mom and the three of us boys, and there was enough coffee cake to put a person into hypoglycemic shock.

Grandma said, “You two get started, I have to get the coffee. And remember, I don’t want any leftovers!”

Mary poked me after the two ladies had gone into the kitchen. “I’ll work on the tomatoes, you work on the ham.” She knew by then that, when Grandma was cooking and asked if you wanted more, you didn’t say, “No thank you, Grandma, I’m full,” you said “I surrender!”

About an hour later, we finished, and had done a good job of not leaving any leftovers. I was feeling a little bloated, and I’m sure Mary was as well. That’s when Grandma said, “Johnny, I have one egg left. Can I hard-boil it for you?”

I love hard-boiled eggs, and Grandma was the only person I knew who could (or would) make them, but I was stuffed. “Grandma, really, I’m stuffed…”

“Please, Johnny, I have one egg left, and we won’t eat it. Won’t you have it?”

How could I refuse? “Sure, I’d love it.”

She went to the kitchen and put the egg on to boil and came back, and we sat and talked and had a wonderful time. All of a sudden, out in the kitchen, we hear


It startled all of us, even Grandma, who was quite hard of hearing. She sprang from her chair and trotted out to the kitchen. A minute later, we hear her cackling, and she came back into the room with the pieces of the egg.

“I’m sorry, John, but we were having such a good time talking I completely forgot about your egg!”

It’s memories like this that make me realize how much I miss her. They don’t make ’em like Grandma anymore.

Wednesdays for Mary: Grandma Holton

Mary asked me to tell one story about my grandmother, Kathryn Holton, Kate to most, Grandma to us. So you’re going to get three. (I wish I had a picture of her; I’m sure there’s one in the house, but for the life of me I couldn’t say where it is.)

For as long as I knew her, Grandma couldn’t hear very well, although from the way she was able to carry on a conversation, you’d never know it. Either she had developed an excellent ability to read lips, or she could hear some voices but not others. All I know is, I never had any problems talking to her, and as far as I could tell no one in the family did, either.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t a few instances when she wasn’t quite sure what she heard. The summer after Dad died, my Uncle Tom (Grandma’s son and Mom’s brother-in-law) invited us to visit his farm in Ohio. Mom had just learned to drive the car Dad had bought a few months before he died, and this was to be her first major road trip. She and Grandma sat in the front seat, with the three of us in the back, trying not to get in trouble.

Mom felt pretty comfortable about halfway across Indiana on the toll road, and decided to chat with Grandma. “Abby [a woman she worked with] is going to Spain.”

Grandma gasped. “My God, how terrible, Bunny! Were there any indications?”

This confused Mom. “Of what, Kate?”

“That she was going insane!”

Mom loved that story.

Grandma lived with her sister Florence most of the time I knew them. Florence could hear better than Grandma could, but she couldn’t see very well, so Grandma was the eyes and Florence was the ears. Any time I called Grandma, this is how it usually started. And, unless I’m mistaken, this is the way it went with just about everyone else.

After about ten rings, Florence would answer the phone. It would take her a minute to wrestle the receiver into position (the cord was always twisted tightly, even when you tried untwisting it), and occasionally she would drop it; meanwhile, you could hear the television BLASTING in the background. Eventually, she’d manage to get the phone to her ear. She spoke in a feeble voice. “H-hello?”

“Hi Florence, it’s John! How are you?”

“O-oh, hello, John! I’m fine, how are you?” We’d chat for several minutes, then she’d say, “We-Well, I’ll get your grandmother. I’m sure you’d like to talk to her.” She’d then wrestle the receiver down onto the table to tell Grandma I was on the phone.

Florence was a heavy woman who had broken her leg years before (while coming to watch us one day when Dad was in the hospital, she slipped on the ice and fell, something my mother never let us forget), and wore, for lack of a better term, “old lady” shoes, heavy tie shoes with a short heel. They had no carpeting in the hall where the phone was, so when she went to the dining room where the TV was, you could hear her walking.






“Kathryn? Kathryn?”


“John’s on the phone.”





Oh!” Grandma was pretty spry for her age, and I’d soon hear her in the hall. Clump clump clump clump…

By far, this is my favorite Grandma story. I’m certain I don’t have all the details right, but this is the way Mom remembered it.

For the tenth anniversary of Dad’s death, Grandma had a Mass said for him. (We’re Catholics, that’s what we do.) Mom called me at the dorm at Loyola, and made it clear that attendance was not optional. It was at 6 PM at St. Ignatius, our old parish, which was just a couple of blocks from the campus, so it wasn’t a big deal, and I wanted to be there for Grandma, anyway (not to mention avoid the wrath of my mother; we’re Irish, that’s what we do).

I got to church at quarter to six, and Mom, Tex, and Jim and Kip were there waiting. (Pat was one and a half, so I don’t think he was there.) Mass was in the chapel, which had a tile floor and possibly the best acoustics on the North Side of Chicago (this will be important later). We all got seated and waited for Grandma and Florence to arrive.

That afternoon, Mom had asked Grandma if she wanted them to pick her and Florence up, but Grandma said they would be out for the afternoon and would meet us at the church. At about ten to six, Mom started worrying, because they hadn’t arrived. The longer we waited, the more worried Mom became. Finally, when my mother was ready to have a nervous breakdown, in walked Grandma and Florence, bundled up in fur coats and hats against the January cold. Kisses and “hello”s were exchanged. Understand, what Grandma considered a whisper was more a stage whisper, and the acoustics, as I mentioned, were excellent. The other people there (who were just there for the Mass) gave her dirty looks and a few shushed her, but she just ignored them (or, more likely, couldn’t hear them) and she and Florence climbed into the pew next to us, with Grandma sitting beside Mom.

The celebrant of the Mass came out to make last-minute preparations (light the candles, bring out the wine and water cruets, etc.). Grandma waited until he left the altar area and whispered (again, acoustics), “Oh, not this guy! He’s crazy!” Then, she turned to her sister, who was getting in a little nap before Mass. “Florence! Florence!”


“Have you got your keys?””

“W-wait, I’ll check.” Florence opened her purse, which was empty save for her wallet and keys. She pulled out her keychain. “Right here, Kathryn!” She shakes them.

“Good. Keep them in your hand.”

The celebrant came out and started Mass. He was a little more quiet and paused more frequently than most other priests would (especially with dinner on the table in the rectory), but said a very nice Mass. After Communion, he cleaned his chalice and the other vessels he had used, then walked over to the presider’s chair, sat down with his palms upraised, closed his eyes, and meditated on the Sacred Mysteries that had just taken place.

For a couple of minutes, no one made a sound. Then Grandma turned to Mom and (stage) whispered “See, Bunny, I told you he was nuts.” (Remember the acoustics.)

Surprisingly, the celebrant didn’t hear it, or at least acted like he didn’t. A couple of years later, Mom said she couldn’t say enough nice things about him. Evidently, he visited them often when Florence was sick and they couldn’t make it to church.

But, that was Grandma. She loved everyone, even if she thought you were nuts. Unless you were a politician. But that’s a story for another day.

Happy Bastille Day! (#blogboost)

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today is the 225th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, beginning the French Revolution. It is a day roughly akin to Independence Day in the United States.

It is also Grandma Holton’s 114th birthday. She’s been gone over twenty years but she lives on in the hearts of everyone who came in contact with her. Grandma was that kind of a person: she loved everyone, and everyone loved her. She had a heart big enough to do that. When my dad died, my mother considered moving us to California, but Grandma was such a part of her life that she abandoned that idea. When Mom started dating the man who would become her second husband, Grandma looked on him as a son. He died in June 1992, and she died a couple of months later. My uncle said that his death broke her heart.

She was a blessing to Mary, who came into our family and was overwhelmed by the number of people she had to meet and to know. Grandma made her feel at home. She did that with all of our wives.

As far as I know, the only people she hated were politicians. Party affiliation meant nothing to her. To her, they were all “boobs.” After her sister died, Grandma went to live with her son in Ohio. In poor shape because of her osteoporosis and deaf as a doorpost, she spent most of her waking hours in front of a small TV in her room, wearing headphones so she could hear. She particularly liked the Chicago news, which they received several times a day courtesy of WGN on cable. My uncle said that she would sit there and listen to the stories, interjecting her opinions (“Oh, you’re a boob!”).

There are wonderful, funny stories about her and her sister, and it would take far more words than you could read to tell them. Here is my favorite Grandma Holton story. In fact, it’s everyone’s favorite Grandma Holton story.

On my father’s tenth anniversary (January 25, 1977), Grandma had a Mass said for him, and my mother let it be known that we were expected to be there. It was a weekday night, and since it was January, it was colder than a snowman’s rear end, and because it was Chicago, the wind was blowing at about 20 miles an hour straight into your face regardless of which direction you were facing. I was living at Loyola University at the time, and the Mass was in the chapel of St. Ignatius Church, about two blocks away.

I was the last of our family to arrive, earning me dirty looks from my mother, and my brothers and I sat in a pew close to the back. Mom was seated several rows in front of us. Understand, now, this is one of the old-fashioned churches, where portions of the walls were made of marble, the floor was solid concrete with a colorful mosaic pattern, and the ceiling was twenty feet high. In short, the acoustics were very good. So it wasn’t difficult to hear everything that was said.

It got to about two minutes to six, and Grandma and her sister Florence arrived, in fur coats and hats, having walked the four blocks from their home. From the moment she walked in, Grandma was talking in a loud stage whisper, telling Mom that they enjoyed walking to the church, despite the weather, and there would have been no reason for her to have picked them up.

The celebrant walked out and was making final arrangements before vesting and coming out to say the Mass. Grandma saw him and turned to my mother. “Oh, no, not this guy,” she said. “He’s out of his mind. All this meditation and spirituality stuff.” If Father heard, he said nothing, and a moment later, he came out and began the Mass.

A few minutes later, after a brief homily, he was busy preparing the bread and wine for consecration. Grandma leaned over to her sister, Florence, who was snoring quietly. “Florence! FLORENCE!” she said in her stage whisper.

Florence’s head snapped up. “Wh-wha-what?”

“Have you got your keys?”

“I’ll check.” Florence opened her purse and began rooting through the contents, of which there were many. Several minutes of this later, she produced her key ring. “I have them, Kathryn.”

“Keep them in your pocket.”

The rest of the Mass went without incident. The bread and wine were consecrated, Communion was distributed, and Father cleaned the vessels and set them aside. He then walked to the celebrant’s chair, sat down, placed his arms on the armrests with his palms facing upwards, and closed his eyes. It was quiet in the chapel.

Then, out of the quiet, Grandma leaned over to my mother. “See, I told you he was nuts.”

A postscript to the story: Grandma became very fond of the priest when she got to know him better. He would come to their house with Communion several times a week when Florence was too ill to walk to church anymore.

Anyway, Happy Bastille Day, and Happy Birthday, Grandma!