From the 1800s through the 1950s, many families heated their homes with coal.
As a little girl in the late 1960s, my grandmother's stove was still an old pot belly with a heavy cast iron door that I would open with curiosity. Inside was where she used to put the coal, or so I imagined.
Grandma Z was a strong woman. One of the greatest family fears would be to cross her ornery path. She was kind and loving until one crossed the thin line dividing the path of kind and loving from harsh and disappointed. From my child perspective, it didn't take much.
Once while visiting Grandma, Dad was driving us on 13th East. I was sitting in the backseat with Grandma. We stopped at a sign, when we looked to a little girl standing on a porch, who stuck her tongue out. She had no idea whom she'd offended.
Grandma made my dad turn back, so in her old age waddle, blinking eyes, and pointer finger shake, she could discipline the child. If I could have disappeared into the trunk, I would have, but I watched from the safety of the car, my grandmother reproving a stranger's child. I'm not sure how Grandma would have processed the past week's marches where women donned pussy-hats to protest the new president's rhetoric. Neither am I sure how she would have processed the language and actions of 21st century politics.
So, it is with delight, when my second cousin who is a family history buff, sends me a newspaper article from the 1950s, about my grandmother, I am intrigued. You go girl, I think when I see she petitioned the city council over the use of coal. The city had recently changed their environmental laws in an effort to clean up the winter air. My grandmother's timing was off, and she had just purchased her two tons of coal, when coal burning was banned. In her well-earned tendency to be frugal, having left all in Switzerland, after her brother worked as a painter to support their passage on a shipped that crossed the Atlantic during WWI, after having lived through the depression when payment for her husband's masonry might have been a chicken (for which she was grateful to have), Grandma couldn't endure the waste of two tons of coal.
The article falls short on information (the city council passed it on to another council), and I'm left to wonder if she used her coal or not. History and experience with those twitching eyes and wagging finger tell me she did.
Recently, after gathering with three of my cousins for lunch, after visiting our childhoods together, I got a different glimpse of my grandmother. I'd seen her as mean and recalled an experience of watching her haul my cousin (in company), across the backyard by her braid after she must have done something very naughty. My cousin didn't remember the incident and in contrast to my own memories, recalled a grandmother who was kind and loving. I could however, recall one favorite incident of sitting on the couch while she read to me. I started to wonder if I was selecting certain incidences and allowing those harsher moments to form an unfair judgement of a woman who dearly loved her family.
After reading her city council petition, I'm even rethinking the incident on the porch with the little girl...maybe reproving that child with sharpness was just what the disrespectful child needed.
Perhaps Grandmother, a hawk against injustice and social faux pas, had she lived in a different time, may even have joined the women's protest march, but never, never would she have knitted or worn a pussy hat.
In Peggy Noonan's January 20 WSJ commentary on the inauguration, she writes, There are many ways to show your respect for people and events, and one is to present yourself with elegance and dignity. True, but she missed a chance to make an even greater point: There are many ways to show your dis-respect for people and events, and one is to present yourself with elegance and dignity.