Friday, January 27, 2012

Grandma's Secrets: Was She Witch or Wonder?

This piece is from February of 2009, before I had any readers.
Hope you enjoy it!

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 replicated.

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 curtains. 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.)

Eva Anderson Noyes



Gail said...

I would have enjoyed knowing this special lady.

Terra said...

Wow, what a story itchin to be told!

Pondside said...

There must be more - especially now that you have all these readers who are anxious to read whatever you write. There is, of course, a big story here - I just know it - and i hope you'll share more of it.

jen said...

I love that she was Aanderson Noyes and you are Noyes Anderson. Kinda cool!

Trina said...

I found your blog through Mormon Moms Who Blog. Thanks for sharing. My own mom had a touch of similar eccentricity and was the sweetest lady I ever knew. She was always cooking something strange and her fridge was filled with things most of us were afraid to taste. She used black cohosh for menopause if I recall. She also ate licorice root and ate apricot pits. She could read peoples eyes and tell them if they were drinking enough water or eating too much sugar and she could muscle test us to see if we were being honest- and it worked!!!

She may have done some different things but she lived for 15 years with a brain tumor that was inoperable and was supposed to take her within 3 months. She definitely knew things we didn't and inspired everyone around her.

Thanks for helping me think of my own beautiful mom today.

Anna M said...

You had me at dried her own herbs. This is fascinating and charming. I would love to read the whole book of your childhood.

Brian Miller said...

that is pretty cool...she sounds like quite the interesting lady...

Karen S. said...

Your grandmother was a lovely lady! I too have so many memories of my grandmother, almost everyday, from something cooking in the kitchen to the grapes on vines, and silly things like sweet pickles, so many things link to my one special grandma, even more than from my own parents...why is that? This was just a very precious story, thanks!

Eva Gallant said...

Great story and great photos!

Grandma Honey said...

I use many of the same herbs your Grandma did. I also can see a bit of Carly in you see it too?

Darlene said...

Oh Sue, you did such a beautiful post, painting in words such a great picture of Eva Anderson Noyes. She, of course, was my mother in law and was truly one of a kind. She had no children of her own, but loved her adopted son, my former husband, with a fierce, single minded intensity, being absolutely certain that he could do no wrong. Someday I truly hope that you will tell the story of your father's adoption. I'm sure everyone would love to hear about that.

I really did love Eva and she loved me very well in return. I will never forget her attending my second wedding along with her former husband's second wife. In fact they came in the same car. She was just that kind of person. She held no ill will toward anyone, even the woman who finally snagged her husband.

Your description of her home was so visual that I could remember every part of it and I relived some of the experiences I had with her as I was reading your words. I can also remember how frusrated you kids were whenever you would go to the refrigerator to get something to snack on. Nothing but super health food. It ran in her family as her mother was the same way. I guess it is no wonder that she lived to the ripe old age of 95, or was it 96, I'm not sure. She had the loveliest skin ever, no wrinkles. I wish I had listened to why I should do all the things she did, like brushing her skin all over until it was red every day. I remember whenever she would make an egg for breakfast,she would rub the egg white all over her face. Too late for me, but maybe you'd better try it.

I could go on and on, but I'm sure you remember everything as well as I do and you did bring out the highlights. Thanks for this.

Jenny said...

She was definitely a wonder! You take after her!

Cherie said...

She sounds really interesting and definately a rare, eccentric person. I bet it was fun to visit her :-D
She is absolutely beautiful too - that old picture is amazing.

anitamombanita said...

How cool was she!? I love the photo!

Vicki/Jake said...

Wow Sue, you need to let us know more now. She sounds like someone I could have hung out with! Isn't it fun to go back and remember...

Farmer's Wyfe said...

What a fun story...felt like I was right there. Sounds like fun people go way back in your family. I love people who have unique ways about them. Your Grandma sounded like a neat person. I always love coming to your blog: you help to clear my mind and see things clearly again, simply, yet deeply.

Splendid Little Stars said...

Your grandma was quite a quirky character! in a good way. because I think herbs and healing are fascinating! The photo of her is wonderful!
I agree with Pondside that there must be more to tell!

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