Saturday, February 21, 2009

Grandma's Secrets: Was She Witch or Wonder?

Grandma's Secrets - A Memory Sketch
by Susan Noyes Anderson

My grandmother lived on the top floor of a red brick house. It looked pretty ordinary from the maple-lined street, but walking through her door meant leaving the familiar behind. Every cushioned step up her gold-carpeted stairway was a step away from everyday life, for my grandma lived in a curious world of her own making.

The smell of herbs commanded the air. Other smells tried to take over sometimes, a lentil and vegetable soup, for example; but it was those herbs that held sway over all the rest. Grandma was big on herbs, and she dried her own. Black cohosh root, comfrey, motherwort, and goldenseal were just a few of the plants that hung, upside-down, in the kitchen or bedroom, suspended from sap-stained strings that stirred gently as we passed through the rooms. Each rustling leaf made its pungent contribution to the botanical odor that was Grandma’s.

My sisters and I thought she was a witch when we were little, not the hex-setting variety, but the kind who had healing powers and talked to animals. The kitchen cupboards held, not food, but small brown bags, square cardboard containers, tiny envelopes and the like, filled with such treasures as twisted roots, tree bark, and odd-smelling powders. A lidless cookie jar, painted with apples and branches, stood alone on the counter, brimming with stale gingersnaps. My siblings and I didn’t eat them, though we did experiment with the contents of her cupboards. In time, it became clear to us that whatever Grandma was, “witch” was probably too easy a name for it, though we couldn’t deny she had more than a nodding acquaintance with the chirping robins that nested in her kitchen window every spring.

At the top of the stairs was the living room. A yellow slant board made its home right in the middle, where Grandma often lay, upside-down, and became a sort of human centerpiece, performing voice exercises whose syllables were so sharp they seemed, almost, to leave nicks as they bounced from wall to wall. “Eh-er-a-eh-ay-i-ee. Eh-er-a-eh-ay-i-ee.” Afterward, throat open and larynx engaged, Grandma would repair the damage with rich, deep tones from her favorite poem, beginning with the words “Oh, wild west wind,” and continuing until the walls resumed their former appearance, filigreed paper and all. Meanwhile, the blood rushing to her head (“good for the circulation”) lent a dash of vivid color to the otherwise muted room, turning her face red as the beets (“good for the bloodstream”) boiling on her stove. It was a marvelous spectacle, much better watched than duplicated.

Probably because of its color, the faded yellow slant board didn’t even look particularly out of place, though much of the decor was quite formal. Everything in that front room had a golden glow to it, intensified by sunlight streaming through the windows, yet still evident when evening closed the drapes. What was the secret of that luminescence? It didn’t come from the old black box that was Grandma’s television, because she never turned it on.

Maybe it was a mysterious combination of simple things: the flaxen threads running through the fabric of her french slipcovers, or the gilded figures of a shepherd and shepherdess that served as lamps. Perhaps the ochre window coverings held the secret, or the goldenrod spilling over the chipped rim of a bisque vase. Were the peaceful nature scenes of her oriental wall hangings responsible for the glow? Was it a reflection of Grandma herself? A personal aura? Whatever the source, the effect was one of warmth, wonder, and not a little magic; and being there, you became part of it.


Black cohosh - for rheumatism
Butcher’s broom - for circulation
Cayenne - for colds and earache
Chamomile - for nervousness and to aid digestion
Comfrey - for skin wounds and irritations
Dandelion - to rid body of excess water
Feverfew - for headache
Ginger - for upset stomach
Ginseng - for vitality
Goldenseal - for inflammation
Motherwort - for female problems
Nicotinic Acid - for dizziness
Peppermint - for stomach cramps
Skullcap - for insomnia
White willow bark - in place of aspirin

There's a little bit of poetic license here, but my Grandma Noyes was a real character, a rare eccentric who was known for performing dramatic readings, doctoring herself and others with herbs and natural concoctions, and dressing with uncommon elegance. She was a rare woman, and I hope this piece does her justice. (Below is a picture of her as a young woman. Her father was George Edward Anderson, a well-known early photographer in LDS church history.)


NBlake said...

I loved this piece on Grandma Noyes. It brought back all the smells and wonderful eccentricity that was grandma. I also remember all the hats... Looking at the picture of grandma when she was young, I found myself really wishing I had known her then. I bet I would have loved having her in my ward.

NBlake said...

Also, just look at the way she is standing. She is just a young girl, but the look on her face, and the body language, cries out, "Look out world; here I come. I'm ready to take you on, and nobody better mess with me."

Sue said...

Yep, she was definitely one of a kind. Remember those Christmas readings she used to give...or were you too young? I can't believe the loooong recitations she would memorize.

VK said...

Sue, I just got your blog address from Melanie when I was saying all I ever see is young peoples blogs and want some more mature writers to view and get ideas from.
I love this particular post because I've been trying to get my father to blog about his ansestors before all the stories are lost. What a colorful lady you have highlighted. Fun.
Vicki Hodgman

em said...

sue, you will delightfully happy to know that later that day i hid the baby spine for that exact reason;-) i just loved the gesture! i'm so glad you're looking out for me:-)

Heather Anderson said...

I LOVE this it gives me a glimpse into some of my husband and children's heritage. She sounds like a fascinating person I would have loved to meet:)

Natalie said...

And I love the picture too.

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