Grandmom Kate: Lessons on Being a Grandmother

Linda A. Dougherty

© Copyright 2022 by Linda A. Dougherty

Photo of grandmom and Linda, 1955.
Photo of grandmom and Linda, 1955..

As I thought about what to write, I pulled this out of the bowels of my computer files and decided to polish it up. In the summer of 2021, I became a first time grandma. It has made me think about my Grandmother and how the greatest gift she gave all of us was her love and sense of fun.

Grandmom was a pillowy woman with twinkling eyes and a smile always decorating her face. My father, her youngest of three children, told me that his memory of his mother while he was growing up was that wherever she was, there was laughter.

I am told she liked to play jokes like the time my dad walked in on a PTA meeting in his home. Lying on the living room rug in the middle of a circle of grinning moms, a middle aged mother had a coat tossed over her face. Someone held up the coat sleeve so my grandmother’s hapless victim had a telescopic view of the ceiling.

Look up and you’ll see stars!” promised Grandmom as she dumped a pitcher of water down the sleeve onto the face of the prone woman. And, the most amazing thing was everyone, even the wet woman, laughed. Nobody ever seemed to get angry with Kate Dunlap. She was too good-natured.

Laughter crowned whichever court my grandmother played jester.

Somehow, nobody ever seemed to stay angry with Kate Dunlap.

As the middle one of her seven grandchildren, I adored my grandmother but I didn’t always trust her best instincts. Nobody was safe from her propensity to play jokes- even four year old me.

One summer day, I sat happily on my grandmother’s padded knee while she pushed her full set of dentures in and out, in and out. I was mesmerized, until the ivory choppers plopped down into my lap without warning.

Jumping down, screaming in terror, I ran out of the house and as far away from my grandmother as my chubby little legs would carry me. Grandma heaved herself up from the chair and followed me outside, standing on the porch, alternately coaxing me to come back inside and laughing. I finally returned and edged suspiciously away from her.

Of course, there was the time when I was about eight and it was time trim the ringlets into a tame short hairstyle. My mother handed Grandmom a pair of scissors. I sat down trustingly.

Snip snip snip… she wielded the scissors with the enthusiasm of a butcher.


My left earlobe throbbed with her last snip. I ran as fast as I could out of that house and far away from Grandmom who seesawed between apologizing with entreaties to return to get the left side of my hair cut and chortling at my indignation. I stood fifty yards away, eyeing her warily. I only returned to the house when assured the wild Barber of Ivyland had surrendered her scissors to my mother who finished the other side of my hair, leaving my other ear untouched.

My Grandmother lived her 13 years of widowhood with her older sister on “I” Street in Philadelphia. Great Aunt Ede was as serious as my grandmother was light-hearted. Aunt Ede’s parakeet pecked at himself in his mirror as he tweeted in his cage tucked next to their old white Frigidaire in the kitchen. Grandmom’s bedroom was filled with dark veneered furniture of another era, cheery chintz prints, and the smell of dried flowers pressed in sachets tucked between her clothes wafted out whenever she opened her bureau drawers. In her closet was her dark coat topped with a prized mink collar. The glassy blank stare of the mink with its little pointy snout always fascinated me. She would splash drops of her favorite fragrance from her Jean Nate bottle behind my ears. She let me touch her fake jewel encrusted brooches and dabble in her face powder.

Whenever I visited, we watched Grandmom’s favorite soap opera on her little black and white TV. I felt comfort as the plasticine-looking Earth began to revolve slowly against a starry background . The trilling organ music voiced over by …” and now, for the next thirty minutes As the World Turns brought to you today by Ivory Soap, ninety-nine and forty four hundredths percent pure. It floats!” made me inexplicably happy.

Grandmom was happy and I was with her.

Soap operas were not all she liked. On summer days, we plucked buttercups from our back lawn. She’d hold them under my chin and told me if yellow reflected under my chin it meant I liked butter. On summer nights, we caught fire flies together- rather, I ran and caught them and brought them back to her in a jar as she sat swatting at the mosquitoes that feasted upon her arms and legs.

They like me because my blood is sweet.”

Books, art, music- Kate loved it all. She sang her old Sunday School songs to me and always there was Gilbert and Sullivan in boisterous acapella. I didn’t know what Pirates of Penzance or H.M.S. Pinafore was, or who Gilbert and Sullivan were, but my grandmother’s glee was all the endorsement I needed. I loved to hear her belt out one song after another.

I’m called little Buttercup- dear little Buttercup,
though I could never tell why.
But still I’m called Buttercup- poor little Buttercup,
Sweet little Buttercup, I!”

Always, the real fun happened when Grandmom came to visit. She was a weaver of stories, a spinner of tales, a family historian all wrapped in one. Until I was maybe six, an overnight visit from Grandmom meant sharing my creaky iron railed twin bed with her ample frame. Her voice lulled me to sleep as she told story after story of this great- great grandparent who came from Scotland, or of her grandfather who fought at Gettysburg or some story about my grandfather who died the year before my parents married. Trying to keep who was who and who did what all straight in my head finally put me to sleep with her gentle voice buzzing in my ear. Later she confessed she deliberately bored me so I wouldn’t twitch around.

If I happened to be the lucky cousin who got to have Grandmom stay at my house that year for Thanksgiving, we snuggled on the sofa all morning and watched the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade strutting down Market Street in Philadelphia.

Look, Linda, there’s Santa Claus waving! Now Christmas is coming.”

Her hands-down favorite Philadelphia tradition was the annual Mummer’s Day Parade. If she was visiting us at that time, together we watched every division strut, play, and caper its’ way down Broad Street. She would tell me her favorite in the Fancy Brigade and I would tell her mine. She got up and minced around our living room in the Mummer’s Strut, teaching me how to pump my arms and strut like a real mummer. String bands were her favorites and we watched the entire parade from start to finish. She loved it all- sequins, silks, feathers, bright colors because at heart she was a party girl and parades were the biggest parties around.

Every one of my five cousins and myself coveted Grandmom. Many times a year, she moved from house to house, staying for a couple of days with each of her three children and their families. Then she’d return to the row home on I Street. Those few days with her were never enough for any of us. Each of us guarded our days with her like gold. We all laid claim to her. I once slammed the phone down on my cousin Scott who called to give the message they were coming over to collect Grandmom.

She read to us, told stories, pushed our swings, listened endlessly to our childish prattle, cheered for us, and introduced us to the sweet glories of peanut brittle and butter mints.

When she was at one of our homes, we always knew what we would find draped over the shower curtain rod- a pair or two of her pink “Snuggies”. Snuggies were half-thigh long cable pink cotton knit panties. Grandmom loved them and was not ashamed to have them draped in our faces for all to see. She talked unabashedly about her Snuggies. Kate Dunlap was not without propriety, but she was above all, real. The sight of the pink underwear was as comforting to me as they were to her. As long as they were hanging over our shower rod, Grandmom was mine.

Life was definitely fun around Grandmom. She made my mom’s struggle to learn to drive at the ripe age of 32 memorable. My father was Mom’s driving instructor. We lived in then-rural Bucks County on a dirt road hemmed in by fields of corn or soy- beans. Our little white stucco house stood in the scattering of houses separated by patches of woods strung along the south side of the road. More cornfields pushed the houses up to the road from behind. Dad wanted my mother to be able to drive. She’d grown up in Southwest Philadelphia with no reason nor need to drive. He’d tried when they were engaged and I often heard the tale of how she’d forgotten to turn the emergency brake off during a lesson, driven down the street with a fire engine chasing them. I was in the back seat as a witness of many a driving lesson.

One night, with my mother at the wheel and my Grandmother stuffed into the back seat of our car next to me, my father decided it was a good time for her to practice backing down our dirt driveway in the dark. Back and forth we yo-yoed as my mother angled to the left….”Rose, pull forward and try again!” then the right. After many failed attempts to back up straight, my father announced, “Stop the car!”

He opened the door, slammed the car door shut, stomped up to the house and opened the door. Grandmom giggled. My eyes got big. The lights went on. He jerked the drapes that covered the picture window facing the driveway. That was it.

LOOK! Ralph shut the curtains!”

Mom pulled forward then eased back, this time perfectly as Grandmom laughed uncontrollably. The car sat beautifully next to our walk. Grandmom lifted herself out and shut the door. Suddenly, gravity mixed with hearty laughter did its’ work.

HA….HA….HA…oh no I can’t hold it anymore!”

That night her freshly washed Snuggies flopped over our shower rod, a testimony to my mother’s driving lesson and my Dad’s impatience.

One plain and simple truth about my grandmother that everyone knew was: she was a lousy cook. My father used to say the only two things his mother could make well were rice pudding and baked beans. Everything else, even simple toast, came out burned. When my mother had to go to the hospital for a couple of days when I was not yet 10, she put me in my Grandmother’s care and dinner in my care. I knew how to cook mashed potatoes and baked chicken without burning either. Her lack of culinary skill never flustered her. I don’t know what my grandfather thought of it when he was at her mercy, but, as in all things, Kate Dunlap accepted her cooking disabilities with a grin.

In all of her life, She had only one nemesis- her cousin Bessie who my father called “a spinster”. Bessie not only never married, but to complete the stereotype, she was a no-nonsense, old-fashioned elementary school teacher with the corners of her mouth always downturned. Dad recounted that this cousin would visit when he was little and she always used her coat to open door knobs in their house. Grandmom was not particular as a housekeeper and Bessie worried about germs from three children lurking on doorknobs. She would tease her fussy cousin.

Bessie, for all your worrying about germs, I am going to live longer than you.”

Bessie died when my grandmother was 74. At Bessie’s funeral, Grandmom’s dress bloomed, a bright pink and white bouquet amidst somber black and navy. People just chuckled. Her decades-long contest was well known in the family. It was the irrepressible Kate. She’d won.

Ironically, Kate joined Cousin Bessie within six months. But, she had won her point….living life is far more fun than worrying about bacteria and viruses.

I was ten when my grandmother died of heart failure in the house on I Street. I was heartbroken, sure God was punishing me for changing my math grade in my final report card from C+ to B-. I knew she’d taken nitroglycerin pills for her heart for years. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. But, she was my favorite person in the whole world and now she was gone. I knew my cousins would miss her as much as I did. I never felt I had to measure up to make her happy.

When I had my last baby, a little girl, and named her Katherine (we call her Katie or Kate) my aunt’s eldest daughter named after her mother, Kathryn (called Kay) told my mom that there are “too many Katies in this family!” She’d named her last of four, the sole girl, Katherine after my grandmother and her younger sister named her only daughter also Katie. One Katie per cousin. Grandmom would have smiled and been pleased.

Catherine Dunlap never fulfilled the promise of her art talent or wrote her stories for publication, but she painted our lives with rich hues of love and wrote her kindness in our hearts. Wherever she went, there was laughter and love.

Now that I have held my first granddaughter (no, not a Katie), I want her to know she is loved for who she is. I want to be silly and laugh with her over small things. I want her to know I am always on her side. I want her to know about her great great grandmother Kate. My grandmother’s legacy is one of love and I hope I have learned her lessons well.


I still work as a special ed aide at a local middle school to keep my humor intact. The biggest new of 2021 is I am a first time grandmother as of July. So much fun to see her grow and change.  It made me once more think of my beloved (paternal) grandmother who died when I was 10 years old and what made her so beloved by all her grandchildren.  This is an overview of her life- a small life by the world's standards, but big on love and most of all- fun!  Our two beloved goldens went over the rainbow bridge this past year within 6 months of each other.  We got another golden retriever who we could hire out to shred whatever people need shredded.  We still have four cats, one is a 21 year old grumpy lady who surprises us with her tenacious grip on life.  I enjoy doing art work and most of my writing of late has been to gift other people with personally written and illustrated books for children of friends.  

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