I was out running an errand recently and it began to snow. So, what do you think was my first thought? It was not about whether the roads would get slick or whether the slick roads would make me late. My first thought was “what’s the date?” Why would that be my first thought? Because of my Grandma, of course.
Norah Johnson was born in Nebraska in 1904. She went through the flu of 1918 (which cost her a mother and a sister) and later studied nursing and married a farmer in northwest Ohio. She was a smart, hard working lady who had loads of friends (all of whom called her Johnnie, based on her maiden name. She could do almost anything and had an abundance of common sense. It was not my father, but Grandma Johnnie who taught me how to replace an electrical plug on a lamp or appliance. It was also Grandma Johnnie who would say, every fall, “You know, the date of the first snow says how many big snows we will have this winter.”
I have no idea where she got this – did she read it in a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac one year? Had her mother told her this during her childhood? I never thought to ask. But it was somehow important enough to pass down to me. So that I can know that we will have 14 significant snows this year – because the first one came on the 14th of the month.
I have lived long enough to be pretty sure that there is absolutely nothing to this old wives’ tale. Or is it lore? Or maybe superstition? It is not likely the latter because Grandma Johnnie was not a superstitious lady. And she was surely smart enough to notice that this little rule never really worked. Or maybe it did work, only with a lawyer’s level of nuance and interpretation. “Well, it was 14 snows if we count that one and ignore those other 3 because nothing stuck to the roads on those.” And then again, what is the first snow. Is is the first one to stick? Or is it the first one that blows some little white wisps around on the dry pavement but doesn’t make itself felt in any real way? And what about the fact that I now live over 100 miles south of where she spent most of her life? Do I have to subtract a certain number for the date for each 50 miles we get south of northern Ohio? These are good questions which I was not old enough to formulate when Grandma Johnnie was still alive.
Every year I wonder if I should actually start a chart and keep track of the results. But why? We all know the answer – some years it will work, some it won’t, and both results will be dependent on lots of interpretation of what is or is not a snow. Beyond the component we will call pure, random chance.
Not everything she said was in the way of a silly weather prediction. Some was just advice (from what we used to call Grandma’s lectures.) “If you are at a party and are offered a drink, say thank you and just sip on it for the rest of the time. That way you won’t get drunk and nobody will keep pestering you to have another since you have one already.” There were many years where I found that advice quite useless – wasn’t the whole idea of a party to consume far more drinks than Grandma would have found sensible? I finally discovered that this isn’t actually true after maybe the age of 20 (if was even true then) and that Grandma’s advice was really pretty good. I can nurse a drink for a good long time these days, and I invariably think of Grandma Johnnie when I do.
Some of the things she said were observations that I have found to be spot-on. As my friends and I have gotten older we have all remarked to each other that time seems to go so much faster now than it used to. Grandma Johnnie’s words always come back to me: “Wait ’till you get to my age, Christmas comes twice a year.” Or “When you get to the 4th of July Summer’s practically over.”
And I think my favorite of all of them came after she retired. She lived in a small town and knew almost everyone in the county. She had gone back to work during the War and spent the rest of her working years in the obstetrics wing of the small County hospital, so she had probably been involved in the births of over half of the county’s population by the time she retired. Knowing that many people invariably led to all kinds of things to do, people to see and places to go. She did her own yard work, was active with her church, and spent hours crocheting (particularly when Lawrence Welk was on television.) Late in the day she would shake her head and say “when I get up in the morning I don’t have anything to do and by the time I get to bed it’s only half done.” I got the humor in it when I was a teenager, but did not really understand it at the time. But I do now.
Everyone should be lucky enough to have at least one great grandparent. I don’t mean the kind who is the parent of a grandparent, but a grandparent who is a great human being with whom a kid can form a really special bond. Someone who is kind and funny and who always makes you feel better when you visit. Grandma Johnnie was that person in my life, and I am blessed to have been left with lots of things to remember her by. The little bag of sugary, gummy orange slices in the candy aisle at the store, wintergreen life savers, hot heaping plates of beef and noodles over mashed potatoes and these little sayings I have shared are among them. They have all turned out to be a lifetime supply, for which I am grateful.
Photo credit: Summer, 1965 photograph of the author, his little sister, his Mom and his Grandma Johnnie minutes before leaving the driveway on a trip to California