Ordinary Linens: A Remembrance of Jody Wallace, 1923-2012

This is, more or less, the eulogy I delivered at my grandmother’s memorial service on Saturday, September 22 at Plymouth Place in La Grange Park, Illinois.

A load of ordinary linens consists of two sheets, two big towels, two to four small towels, four or more pillowcases, and four or five shirts. That makes a large load, which should be set to wash warm and rinse cold, and to which should be added between a third and a half a cup of Calgon, soap, and a half to three quarters of a cup of borax.

When that cycle is finished, the load should be set to run again, this time cold wash, cold rinse, with some diluted Calgon and one half to three quarters of a cup of Borateem. Add one half to two thirds of a cup of Downy to the fabric softener container and fill to the plus sign with water.

If I tell you that this was one of the simpler of my grandmother’s laundry routines (clothing went through three wash cycles; washcloths went through such machinations that I was never entrusted with them), you will think either that she was a domestic goddess or that she was crazy. Those of you who visited her any time in the last twenty years or so would know that the former was not the first descriptor that would come to mind. Her penchant for collecting things — magazines, newsletters, catalogs, recipes, movie reviews, book reviews, lists of foods that people liked or didn’t like, lists of groceries to buy, lists of things to do, lists of lists to make — meant that her house was never tidy and made one think that her lifelong paranoia about candle flames might in fact be a good thing.

But in another sense, she was the most domestically gifted person I have ever met. If domesticity means not orderliness but hospitality, then surely it is her old house at 126 Sunset that should grace the covers of magazines, clutter and all, for it was there that people were received, one and all, as the most cherished of guests.

My grandmother often told me that when she was growing up, her grandmother’s house was the most deathly boring place on earth. She had to go there with some frequency, and, she said, there was nothing to do. I am sure that in that era of “children should be seen and not heard,” she and her brother and cousins were not supposed to be doing anything, but I got the impression from talking to her that they were not even really meant to be seen. She vowed that her house, when she had grandchildren, would never be like that.

And it was not. When my cousins and I were growing up, one could, on any given day at her house, be assured of a meal served primarily on toothpicks (because any small child, my grandmother believed, could be encouraged to try new food if it were served on a toothpick). (And they were fancy plastic colored toothpicks, so one could, for instance, request one’s food entirely on pink toothpicks.) There was the glass topped coffee table, which contained a turtle that moved if you looked at it and that on very rare occasions might be opened up so that you could handle the treasures inside–the plastic model airplanes that Delta used to give to children on its flights, a piece of a clear rock that doubled whatever you put behind it, a desert rose, a figurine from the World’s Fair in Chicago, jeweler’s glasses, a tiny pot with miniscule dried flowers, a piece of fool’s gold that seemed altogether real and a piece of meerschaum that seemed impossibly light, and a dozen or more other objects of great fascination. The basement contained lead pellets that could be hammered flat into coins and then imprinted with letters, and the attic held all the Oz books, a Dutch door perfect for presenting puppet shows, and a pool table.

The house was the site of innumerable games, experiments, entertainments, and disasters. The first pizza my mother ever had was ordered by my grandmother for members of the high school newspaper staff after they’d been hard at work rather late at night on another issue. For my uncle’s winter camping experience with the Boy Scouts, she sewed and quilted sleeping bag underlays of unbleached muslin and two layers of heavy duty aluminum foil by hand. The summer my mother got married, my grandmother and anyone else she could rope into the project, including her cousin, then a PhD student in mathematics at the University of Chicago, painted matchbook covers with flowers to match the napkins for the reception. (There were also a certain number of unauthorized experiments, such as the time I drew on the wall with lipstick and the times my uncle rigged up mood lighting in the kitchen.) Visiting children were afforded an equal measure of amusements — my friend Rachel specifically remembers the game my grandmother designed just to entertain her twins when they came to visit as toddlers, and my friend Caitrin could tell you about the letters my grandmother helped her daughters write to Santa after they moved so he would know where they lived, and the letters she wrote, as Santa, back to them in reply.

So yes, my grandmother was in fact a sort of domestic goddess. She was also sort of crazy. At least, I assume she believed that if she told anyone else she once dealt with a casserole that had gone bad by burying it, dish and all, in the backyard, they would think she was crazy. I did not think this when she told me when I was twenty-seven and living with her. I thought it was genius. Future archaeologists will, I suspect, just be puzzled.

My grandmother once said that she supposed if people were to remember her, she would hope they would remember that “I could be amusing.” I’m sure everyone here remembers that well. I’d like to offer, however, a few other things you might remember from Jody’s life:

  • That it’s almost always a good time for milk and cookies
  • That dumping a bottle of ketchup over someone’s head is, on very rare occasions, an appropriate disciplinary measure
  • That eggs will continue to cook after you take them off the heat
  • That all people — including children — are entitled to bread and roses, too
  • That the smallest gesture has the power not only to make someone’s day but to fix itself — and you — in their memory, as surely as my grandmother and all her gestures are fixed in ours. We remember her housekeeping not because it was good or bad, crazy or sane, but because she did it — because she cared.

9 comments

  1. it was wonderful in delivery, and wonderful to re-read. thank you for helping me remember the good parts

  2. That was lovely, Laura. And warm. And inspiring. And a gesture (now ways small) that I will remember always.

  3. As I read this my washer contained four large round tablecloths, two large (dish) towels, four small dish towls, a couple of washcloths (sorry, Jody), and a tank top I threw in at the last moment. When I heard the bell signalling that it was done, I went back down, diluted some Calgon, searched for half an hour to find Borateem … Well, you get the idea. It was my memorial for your Gram and as a result, the church’s tablecloths probably never will have been so clean. Thank you for this, Laura. Beautiful writing.

  4. I’m so sorry to hear about your grandmother. She was, indeed, a lovely lady, I remember her welcoming me one my one trip to Iowa when we stopped by (at least I’m pretty sure I remember, tho even my long-term memory suffers its losses) — and her house was quite kewl! How interesting to learn, all these years later we share equal, if different, “laundry requirements” that most other people think are quite mad! It’s a lovely portrait, and I’m equally impressed your could present it (I know I would be sobbing by the third paragraph, unable to go on!

  5. Beautiful, funny, intelligent. Traits you must have inherited from your wonderful grandmother. I enjoyed this.

  6. A wonderful eulogy that makes me sad that I never met her.

  7. I had the good fortune to meet Jody a number of years back. I was impressed by Jody’s graciousness and wit, and her interest in a multitude of things from reading to learning to games. (Laura may disagree with me on this, but I don’t think the house was as ill-organized as she implies in her post.) My condolences on Jody’s passing, and my apologies for taking so long to post a comment.

  8. And also my compliments to Laura for such a warm and loving eulogy and memorial blog post, in memory of her grandmother…

    Requiescat in pace.

  9. Gary L. Kennedy

    I was very sad to learn of your Grandmother’s death. I only met her once, at your Father’s memorial service at Cornell, at which time she impressed me as a fine and gracious lady. Please forward my belated condolences to your mother. This year the Class of 1973 celebrates its 40 year reunion; my former room mate, Cliff Lund, and I have discussed returning and calling upon your Mother. Does she still reside in Iowa City. We would also enjoy seeing you once more.

    Very truly yours,

    Gary L. Kennedy

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