Goodbye to Gramma Watchie

What happens as we try to come to terms with our past is that we see our lives as a process of continual disenchantment.  We long for the security provided by the comforting illusions of our youth.  We remember the breathless infatuation of first love; we regret the complications imposed by our mistakes, the compromises of our integrity, the roads not taken.

                            ―Gordon Livingston, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart


Time is the fire in which we burn.

                         ―Malcolm McDowell as Soran in Star Trek: Generations


 Her name was Kathryn Wachhorst, but no one ever called her Kathryn.  The nicknames revealed the age of her friendships:  To her sister and four brothers she was Kate, to nieces, Aunt Kitty.  As a young widow in San Francisco in the 1920s, she rode the stock boom with a crowd of wealthy cronies who called her Pump, after her craving for pumpernickel bread.  To her closest friends, she was Kay.  To me, she was Gramma Watchie. 

After losing her husband in 1920 and most of her money in the crash of ’29, she had gone to live with a widowed friend on a walnut farm by a small lake.  When the war came, she joined my mother, helping to care for a four-year-old as we followed my father from camp to camp.  When he was shipped overseas in 1944, Gramma Watchie remained with us in Pasadena, cooking meals on an old iron stove in the basement of our dingy hotel and carrying them up the creaky elevator to my ailing mother, who soon died of Lupus.  I went back to San Francisco with Gramma Watchie to a one-bedroom apartment, where my father, released from the warfront, slept in the closet.  She held us together while he built a dental practice, commuting to his office in Palo Alto until we bought a house there. 

There was a free-spirited, open-heartedness about Gramma Watchie, befitting a woman who had lived the good life at middle age in the roaring twenties.  But her years with us in Palo Alto were spent cooking, washing, cleaning, and carrying groceries home on the bus.  Except for rare trips to San Francisco, playing poker with her old cronies, her only escapes were cigarettes and evening TV.  She refused household help, spent nothing on herself, fixed thousands of meals, tended sick beds, brightened holidays, gave us a near-normal life, and was taken totally for granted.

My father remarried the summer I left for Stanford, and Gramma Watchie was put to pasture in a small house in Menlo Park.  It was only ten minutes from campus, but my collegiate reveling meant infrequent visits, leaving her a pile of laundry in return for lunch.  My lifelong favorite, her squishy peanut butter and jelly sandwich now had an occasional hair in it.  The house felt tattered and grimy, and the bathroom reeked. 

After graduation, I was obliged to spend six-months on a Coast Guard cutter five hours north.  I returned only once and made a brief stop at her house, staying for lunch when she insisted.  Eating quickly, I announced that I should head back north.  She handed me a brown bag with something even more squishy in it, which I tossed out at the first gas stop.  She had always said goodbye at the door, but this time she followed me out to my car.  I have an indelible image of her in the rear-view mirror, waving with her whole arm over her head from the middle of the empty street until I turned the corner.  It was the last time I saw her.

I rarely live in the present.  So it seems inevitable that a rear-view mirror frames my last image of this selfless woman.  My regrets would seem to confirm Livingston’s view of nostalgia―fleeting images of a past unlived in real time, a world where the rear-view mirror is the only real thing.  Yet we are the sum of our past; the present is all process.  Without the mirror of memory, we are chimera afloat in the moment, connected to nothing.  There is a healing side to nostalgia, like a rush of cool air in the heat of a still summer night, a whole life held in a heartbeat.  The dissonance of the minute-to-minute self dissolves to a harmonic sense of wholeness, of coming Home.  Memory always plays to music. 

Gramma Watchie still waves from the empty street, forever receding, an image of lost origins, of love and sacrifice, inseparable from my larger self.  More than sadness and regret, nostalgia brings a sense of belonging, of transcendence.  Beyond loss, I am at one with the thing lost, completed by it, the ark of its essence, and so more than my transitory self.  Nostalgia is redemptive, revitalizing, sustaining us through passing seasons as we make do with our mortality―the remembrance of roots, of truth, of who we really are.


  1. Wyn, you’re a great writer. Nice to talk with you today.
    I chuckled when I read the line above,”I rarely live in the present.” I have spent three decades attempting to be in this present moment instead of wandering around in the past or the future. And actually, when you’re writing, even if it is about the past, you are in this moment “moment by moment”.
    Look forward (in this moment) to talking with you some more. Judith

  2. Wyn definitely lives in the past, as did a great friend of his, my Uncle TK Allen.

    Although the last view of my grandmother Alice R. Allen was of her in bed just a few days before she died, I instead always seem to remember her waving goodbye to me as I was backing out of 1370 Pitman Avenue. It had a narrow long driveway, so I was mostly looking back to check my trajectory, but with occasional glances forward of her waving to me.

    She too cooked tens of thousands of meals. I calculated it once for her coming to 70,000 or so, to which she replied, “It seems like more.”

    She fed my book habit through the years, and I often think ever so fondly of her.

    Great recollections to be sure, but we shall see our grandmothers again.

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