Things Grandma Used To Say

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

29 thoughts on “Things Grandma Used To Say

  1. Well, that was a wonderful tribute to your grandmother. I agree, it’s nice when we have special memories of our grandparents that stay with us forever! With the holidays coming, I’m sure her ears were ringing and she was smiling at your story wherever she is!

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  2. Love this J.P. Perfect holiday remembrance. Unfortunately/Fortunately, I had old parents, so my grandparents were pretty much gone by the time I would have been able to start hearing their wisdom. My Grammie on my Mom’s side is just a fleeting glimpse in dribs and drabs.

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    • My sister and I came near the tail end of that part of our generation, so several older cousins would have had many more memories of her. But then again, I may have gotten to spend more time around her than some of the others did because she and my mother spent a fair amount of time together after my parents’ divorce. The grandparents on my father’s side lived far away and we did not see them often, and then I had some step-grandparents who were wonderful folks, but I never spent as much one-on-one time with either of them.

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  3. Your grandmother sounds like a very wise and practical woman. From what you have said, I’m getting a vibe that she also didn’t tolerate a lot of foolishness.

    With your now using your grandmother’s advice, and having some of her thoughts, it reminds me of something my sister has said about our maternal grandmother. My sister observed how she and I are both, as she put it, channeling our grandmother since she passed away in 2018. Channeling loved ones isn’t a bad thing.

    Another old wives tail…the number of fogs in August reveals how many snows you will get during the winter.

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    • I have never heard the one about the fogs as snow predictors. I actually misread that as “frogs” at first, and I have never heard of that either. And it is probably just as accurate as the fog and the calendar.

      Grandma would put up with a fair amount of silliness, but she had her limits. I remember being at the end of the time that daily naps were a thing, and Grandma said it was time for one. I protested that I didn’t have to do that anymore, but she gave me a choice – If I went to sleep it would only be an hour, but if I stayed awake it would be 3 hours. I later realized it wasn’t because I needed a break, but because she did. My mother said she mellowed a lot from the time Mom was a kid. I suspect that is true of almost all of us.

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    • Yes, that generation of folks dealt with a lot, and she was an uncommon combination of good sense, good humor and good food. OK, except for the lime jello packed full of shredded lettuce and carrots. πŸ™‚

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  4. That’s great you remember multiple sayings. I did not have a great grandparent, despite seeing my dad’s parents almost every week after church. They spoke Dutch, and I did not so there was never a relationship. My mothers father had remarried a much younger woman who wanted the original family to just go away, so visits there were tense. I could even pick up on that as a young kid.

    But my mom always reiterated something her mother had said to her, “Just be normal, that’s crazy enough” which apparently is a common Dutch saying.

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  5. That was a wonderful tribute – she sounds like a strong woman. My dad’s parents had both died by the time they got married, and my maternal grandfather who died when I was 12 was such a quiet man that I have little recollection of him other than one of us would have to play checkers with him, (I hated checkers) but my maternal grandmother was a force to behold. A strong Dutch woman, she lived on the farm across the road from ours and was a big influence on my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. She died when I was 37 at age 96. You’re right – you should have at least one influential grandparent in your life. I wonder now with families living so far apart if that still happens as often, because you only absorb those lessons by time spent together.

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    • I have spent my life surrounded by strong women, and any other kind has always seemed kind of bothersome to me. πŸ™‚

      I agree, the way families have disintegrated, there is so much less of that. We lived a 45 minute drive from Grandma but still saw her fairly frequently. My own kids lived 10 minutes away from Marianne’s family and had a great relationship with her Mom growing up. My own mother was an hour away and we did not see her as frequently. It is great when there is local family. Usually, anyhow.

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  6. J.P. it’s interesting reading the comments from people about grounded, down-to-earth grandparents, salt-of-the-earth types. My pain in having older parents, as stated in my entry above, is because I barely knew my grand-parents, and on my Mom’s side, my “Grammie” and Great-Aunt (her sister) were two world class Chicago flappers! I didn’t miss their hard-scrabble farm wisdom, I missed them telling me about seeing Louis Armstrong live in the Edgewater and Aragon! My Dad and Mom, who’s birth years were not that much after your grand-mothers, also had great stories of seeing people like Lionel Hampton in the Howard Avenue clubs in Chicago. (Lionel being a Chicago native and in the Chicago Defender black newspaper newsboy band) That’s the history I’m missing…

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    • My Grandma would have been of the age to take in some of those acts, as she would have been in her 20s during most of the 1920s. But her favorite band was Guy Lombardo, so, yeah. πŸ™‚

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  7. Your comments about weather patterns make me wonder if anyone has ever tracked the Farmer’s Almanac predictions vs. actuals. Further, is there a modern-day “Farmer’s Almanac”, given how much more we know about the weather these days? I will attest to the El Nino/La Nina patterns of the Pacific Ocean. The moisture and temperature patterns forecast for the states immediately to the East are pretty spot-on.

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    • Good question, I have never paid much attention to the Almanac. As for the modern version, they seem to have trouble with 3 days into the future, but maybe longer patterns are more predictable.

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  8. The representative from “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” always makes an appearance on my all-news station in late Fall to give the predictions for the upcoming Winter and often she will crow about her past predictions. They are often correct, so I have to give them some credit. I enjoyed this post JP because I am remembering my grandmother today because it is her birthday – she was born in 1906 and passed away just two months after turning 86 years old. She was a wonderful person, which made up for my grandfather, who was an ogre. I never met my paternal grandparents.

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  9. She was quite a lady! Do you remember that she also listened to her police scanner so she wouldn’t miss out on something? Loved the chaos and the joy of Christmas at her house every year.

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    • Haha, I remember the police scanner now! And yes, how that many people packed so well into that little house at holidays was a sort of Christmas miracle. I think that is the only house I ever knew where the second bedroom was turned into a dining room. πŸ™‚

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