When David was eight years old, his grandparents could be found at opposite ends of the state. His dad’s parents lived amid the Allegany Mountains near Flintstone, Maryland, just east of Cumberland, and his mom’s parents lived across the Chesapeake Bay, near Ridgley. Teeter knew he resided in between, at the center, in the suburbs of Washington, DC.
In this memoir, Teeter describes the contributions these four grandparents made in his life as a young baby boomer. In Grandparents Four Good, he narrates how his grandparents’ animals, holiday meals, informal teaching, and essential identity helped weave his developing consciousness into the American story. He tells how the paradoxes in the lives of the grandparents highlight the complex texture of that larger national tale. One grandfather supported Roosevelt, the other didn’t. One grandmother remained yoked to an old established patriarchy; the other moved with freedom enough to unleash a vast energy in community service.
Grandparents Four Good presents four personal portraits, but it also illustrates the positive power of grandparental influence on a young character. The biographical and historical detail shows grandparents creating the future by simply living and reverencing the past.
My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, once surprised her class with a peculiar question. It wasn’t the usual schoolroom interrogation, “How many syllables does it have?” or “Nine times eight for the last time is how much?” No, she asked us, “How many of you have four living grandparents?” Because my classmates and I had already learned that teachers didn’t often ask personal questions, some of us maybe hesitated for a second. I most likely did. Though easily answered, the question caught us off guard. What is she getting at? Is she trying to trick us? But before we could fully formulate those vague suspicions to ourselves, many us found ourselves signaling in the traditional classroom way. Her low-pressure query sent our hands flying aloft, mine among them.
And she continued, asking the remainder of the class, “How many of you have three living grandparents?” Another clutch of energetic hands waved. Among the affirming groups she’d seen most of us respond; yet she didn’t stop. “Two grandparents?” Fewer hands went up this time. “One grandparent?” Amazed, I saw a lone hand gesture in pitiful reply. Maybe Mrs. Reynolds had seen all of us answer by then, so she didn’t ask about zero grandparents. Or maybe she didn’t have the heart. She finished the exercise with an odd remark. “Those of you with four living grandparents don’t know how lucky you are.”
The unusual observation concentrated my weak eight-year-old attention. At that age I harbored a vague sense that I was lucky, and my teacher in her probing had confirmed that feeling for me. Still, I suspected I hadn’t understood her motives for asking the question or her final intimation of good fortune. Her mysterious conclusion caused me to remember that day, meanwhile having forgotten almost everything else about the 1956-1957 school year in Greenbelt, Maryland, except that nine times eight is seventy-two. Even that operation seems grander now in its fundamental simplicity than my classmates and I then allowed.
At that age I knew that my grandparents could be found at opposite ends of the state, on farms. My dad’s parents lived amid the Allegany Mountains near Flintstone, Maryland, just east of Cumberland, and my mom’s parents across the Chesapeake Bay, near Ridgley. I knew that I resided in between, at the center, in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I could go in either direction, east or west, in order to reach one set of grandparents or the other. Of course my parents, two brothers, and two sisters would come along too. At that time we went as an incomplete family. My three unborn siblings had not yet appeared, but even without them, the family made intermittent trips to those outer grandparent bounds, to the sandy flatlands near the ocean, where the sun rose each day, or to the ancient eroded mountains, where it disappeared.
Grandparents, I knew, would welcome us at anytime. When we approached the home place where my Dad grew up, the road began to dip and wind, high and low, up to and often through the dizzy edge of carsickness. His mother, Gramaul, we called her, might have to silence the big, thick-necked dog that often threatened at our approach. When he maneuvered around to the side-porch by the driveway to begin barking, she would yell, “King! Hush!” The obedient mastiff would then droop, step back, and then tilt his black nose up into the air for the purpose of inspecting us, allowing our escape past the screen door to safety. Two sniffs from him and we’d be sitting in Gramaul‘s kitchen, invited by her “Come on in.” Grandpap might be found in the living room smoking his pipe. His deep “hello” was slanted in the second syllable at a slightly higher pitch than the first, where more of the goodwill seemed to lodge. Larger effusions he let wait for later consideration. More reflective exchanges required special conditions, slackness and rigor at once. Before too long, Gramaul would be saying, “Sit up and eat.”
Going in the other direction to eastern Maryland required another special blend of gasoline and Dramamine. Even so, some of my younger brothers and sisters might be clutching their retching cans before we reached the threshold of Grammy‘s back porch. There, the drift of enlivening aromas spurred resurrection. The essences in her cupboards presaged a link to an enchantment beyond ordinary places. The waft of spices had seemingly combined on their own initiative for the purpose of healing the exposed gut of the trip. Freer in her emotions than our mountain kin, Gammy Crouse came to us with a big smile, a cheering laugh, and often an embarrassing kiss. Bop-Bop, beside her, did the same but substituted a poke, tickle or pinch for the kiss. His daughter Lois, my mother, got the kiss too. Their greetings brimmed full like a pot bubbling over.
This convenient geographical balance appealed to my developing third-grade grasp of the world. The clear symmetry added to my latent sense that due proportion reigned in some fundamental way, as did the fact that I had an older brother by a year and a younger brother by a year. My two younger sisters, being babies, didn’t disturb the rightness of the arrangement. By the time my two brothers and I could remember much of anything at all, we knew each grandparent home to be a haven of palpable familiarity yet charged with the attraction of strangeness. At each place we anticipated wild possibility and outdoorsy discovery in a land green with secrets. Both farms offered oases set apart from the world’s brick-and-mortar indifference. At both places people cared.
The fact that all my grandparents were of German-American ancestry didn’t register with me in a big way until history became a subject in school, sometime in early adolescence. Much earlier, I had come to know that my dad had fought in Germany during World War II toward the defeat of the evil Hitler. Through overhearing remarks in casual conversation, supplemented by a scattershot of TV shows, I knew that Hitler had thumped the world like a great dragon and had only recently been put down. As a result, I’d come to attach a burgeoning feeling of pride for my father‘s part in the operation.
Once when I was five years old, just after we’d temporarily moved to the country, Dad came downstairs wearing his old army uniform, including the hat, with his deer rifle in hand. From the front porch he took silent aim into the distant cornrows. He neither fired the gun nor said much to the family, just smiled at our quiet, wide eyes. His action seemed to say, “Ha! I was a soldier once, deadly and grim. I can play with the nightmare now.” Yet, there was more to his display, I knew, if I could see it. Typical of little kids who know more than they can tell, I must have tried to dredge the thoughts up at the time and failed. Looking back, I think my father was indicating to us, “Yes, I wanted to be home when I wore these clothes in faraway places. Now I am home, just as I’d wished.”