I remember, as a child, how my cousins and I used to laugh kindly at our dear grandmother who used to bemoan the changes that had come with time and mostly how she used to only have to pay a nickle for a loaf of bread. She was such a dear little Irish Catholic lady, a roundish, plumpish sort of wee little woman whose wild wirey hair stood up all over the place, and whose blue eyes were the bluest I've ever, to this day, seen. Gorgeous, just gorgeous.
I think of the wonder-filled days when there was a little mom and pop store on nearly every corner in the old fashioned neighborhoods of the time, when everybody knew everybody, neighbors helped neighbors, and looked out for each other, and grandma would send my cousin and I down to the store to get some penny candy from the huge glass front display. Depending on how many cousins were there that day we might each get a nickle or a dime, but when you were there alone, on occasion, you might get a whole quarter! I would positively swoon in front of that glass front counter and a quarter's worth was worth more than winning the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. It was real goods in real time that we could relate to as a huge delight in the context of our own lives. I would go back to grandma's house holding my little brown paper bag full of candies tightly in my fist smiling so hard my face hurt.
My very favorite candy of all-time were those colored sugary dots on rolls of paper. I still dream about those. They really weren't much to eat, but they held a whole world of enchantment for me. And though I never smoked in my life I loved the candy cigarettes, the the red hot jelly coins, and OH, the jawbreakers (...which likely account to almost every tooth in my mouth being filled! Back then they were big on candy and short on good advice on dental care. Who ever heard of flossing for goodness sakes?!). I could just die for some Mary Janes right now, another top of the line favorite (...ditto ditto ditto the above, candy, teeth, etc.), and the Necco wafers that we Catholic girls used to pretend like we were giving communion to one another with, and, oh, WAX LIPS! And LICORICE!!! I never liked black licorice but I loved red of all kinds, especially the long strings of red licorice that looked like spaghetti, and a neighbor's mom used to get us CHOCOLATE LICORICE!!! which I've never heard of again since I was little, and the whole world was full of magic and wonder.
I remember my dear grandpa, who died when I was 6, sitting me up on a big stool to watch him shave. I sat transfixed as he mixed up the big white foamy mug full of soap and used the huge soft bristle brush to cover his face so he could shave. I still feel very nostalgic about those old shaving mugs, and he always wore Old Spice which I still adore on the rare occasion when I sniff it somewhere, increasingly seldom, and I remember grandma making homemade donuts and giving we cousins the "donut holes" to eat which were heavenly, even while grandpa tried to get us to drink buttermilk! Icky poo!
Those were the days. It may be said that it takes a village to raise a child, but then you didn't need one. A whole lineage of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and more lived relatively close to one another, and the neighbors were all like family. No one locked their doors, no one had a lot of money, but we were happy to play in the sandbox, and one of my most glorious memories was going down with grandpa into the coal bin in the basement to get coal for the heater. And he showed me how if you put coal in water, oily rainbows would float on the surface. My grandfather died young, but I think he is responsible for sending me so much magic down from the heavens.
Grandpa was a magic maker. He was also an Irish Catholic old school fireman who was laid off a lot because he was drunk and once fell through a floor in a fire and was burned so badly that he never till the end of his life went without an undershirt at all times, his chest and back were so badly scarred.
Grandpa taught me how to fish and took me down to the public horse stables and I had my first lessons there. I would later go on to fancy stables and winning quite a lot of trophies riding English saddle and jumping five foot fences in fancy equestrian dress, but nothing in my memory is so tender and sweet as going to those old stables in East St. Louis, IL in the late 50's. In 1960 I was in first grade, 6 years old, and grandpa died. Grandma lived until she was 74 in 1977 in September. My eldest, Jennifer, was born in January 1977 and Grandma was so happy. It was her first great grandchild and the only one she would ever know. Seeing Jenny in grandma's arms and seeing the bright pink cheeks of joy on that tiny little wirey haired woman is a sight I will never forget and it makes me feel sad and melancholy. At my grandmother's funeral I cried harder than I ever have in my life. No one's death has affected me as much as hers. I never got over it.
Along with all of the other things I've written, I only felt safe at Grandma's house, or when she spent the night with us. I was a child of long term sexual abuse but my grandmother kept me safe. Even though I was a married woman with a child and no longer being abused, my last vestige of safety, in some sense, disappeared when Grandma died. I have spent the rest of my life trying to find a safe space to rest. It has taken me over 50 years to find it. I have found that safe haven within myself and no one can take it away. I have found a safe haven in a little animal-filled cottage, a tiny one, with gardens, and books, and fibers, and spinning wheels and knitting and crochet and weaving and teaching and writing and now, being a minister.
Now I am about to begin to do pastoral counseling. It is a deep privilege and something I am most serious about. I think one of the first things I will ask people is this... Where was your first safe space, and where do you find it now? Once you know those two things, you will be able to figure out, much more easily, how to work through the best.
And if you're around my age or perhaps older, what was your favorite kind of penny candy? I really want to know.
With love and wishes for safe spaces everywhere...