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Plum Pudding and Scrabble

3 minutes

My children and I were recently speaking about when and how I first began home schooling. The textbook answer is that I started home schooling in the sixth grade, but in its truest sense, home schooling begins long before a workbook or a #3 pencil box is ever opened. And the more I considered the idea of when it all began, the more my memories turned toward two special women who helped shape me.

If you are truly blessed, you will have one grandmother who makes such an impact on your childhood that her influence stays with you forever.

I had two.

Born and raised in Scotland, Jean Clark, my paternal grandmother, had a gift for “grandmothering.” I have always enjoyed cooking, and my grandmother may have been my biggest influence. To this day, I have not met her culinary equal. She could look into a nearly empty refrigerator (or as she called it, an “icebox”) and produce some of the greatest tasting food I’ve ever eaten. (That’s an accomplishment, made even greater when you consider that, as the saying goes, most Scottish cuisine is based on a dare.) Near Christmas, she would bake a plum pudding with quarters in it. My brothers and I would excitedly search our pieces to see who had the most valuable slice.

Whenever she babysat me, which was often, we would play games, like “Go Fish,” or walk down to the lake by her apartment to feed the resident ducks. We also loved to watch “The Price is Right” together. I probably learned more about the price of things watching this show than any other single factor in my youth. I learned to bid properly for items, and that you should not “overbid,” which may have had a profound influence on my career choice.

She had a deep love for Scripture. Born and raised a Protestant, she spent hours a day reading her Bible. It was impossible to know her but miss the fact that she loved her Bible. That makes an impact.

She was stricken with arthritis for much of her life, and in her last few years, she needed help walking. I used to help her walk up the staircase to her bedroom every night, just to make sure she wouldn’t fall. When I got there, she would often hand me a dollar bill for my trouble. “You don’t have to pay me Grammie,” I’d tell her. “I know, but I want to,” she’d tell me. She cared for me when I was little—now I could care for her. This is a beautiful part of family life—the caregiver and the one who is cared for switch roles—and a sadly absent one from much of American life.

Though she lived until she was 89 years old and I was 19, I don’t remember her ever saying a mean word to—or about—anyone. The closest she ever came to it was just before the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, she commented that Lady Diana was “plain.” “But,” she explained, “plain is beautiful.”

St. Teresa of Avila famously prayed, “May God protect me from gloomy saints,” meaning that if one has the faith and a true love of God, there is cause for great joy. Jacqueline Lynch, my maternal grandmother, was the opposite of gloomy. In fact, I have never met a happier person. Perhaps someone should have told my grandmother that she was no longer 17 years old, but no one had the heart to tell her; and if they had, she wouldn’t have taken it seriously anyway.

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I have never met someone who simultaneously shared such a deep joy of games and a profound reverence for the Mass more than she did. She was never too busy to play Monopoly or Scrabble with us, and never too busy to talk about the Catholic Faith with us. She often treated us children like we were more important than adults.

When our family visited her over summer vacation, we would sit in the living room talking to each other, playing games, or watching TV. When she entered the room, she would walk over to each of us, give us a big hug as if she hadn’t seen us in years, smile, and tell each of us how glad she was that we were with her. We could have stayed for three weeks, but she did that routine every single morning of our visit. Perhaps aside from my little children, I have never known someone so glad to see me as my grandmother.

One afternoon when I was about ten years old, I was playing with my cousin’s Western toy gun set. Someone mentioned to me that I shouldn’t be playing with it because it wasn’t mine, so I carefully put the toy down. The next day, my grandmother came home from shopping and handed me a toy gun and holster of my own. She explained that she had bought the toy for me because I was so careful with my cousin’s toy, and had put it back when I thought about the fact that it wasn’t mine. No one should wonder why today I am such an ardent defender of property rights.

Charles Dickens wrote that, after his conversion, no one kept the spirit of Christmas more than Scrooge. I knew someone who did. My grandmother started shopping for the next Christmas in late December. Though she had dozens of grandchildren, when we all visited on Christmas Day, she had gifts laid out for every single one of us with our names by them. Three years before she died, she announced that she had cancer. Possibly thinking that it might take her that year, she put up a Christmas tree, perhaps hoping that she would make it until Christmas. She did survive through that Christmas, but she never wanted to take down the tree. As long as that tree was there, she would make it. That little Christmas tree lasted for three years, and so did she.

It’s hard to draw the line between where home schooling begins and ends. We home-schooling parents are constantly looking for a better textbook, or for better flash cards, or for better software to teach our children. These are all important things that we do as parents. But let’s not overlook an obvious fact—the people in our lives are often able to help them in a way that mere books cannot. May our Lord bless all who have had a beneficial influence on our lives, and may God bless all the grandmothers.

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About John Clark

John Clark
John Clark is a homeschooling father, a speechwriter, an online course developer for Seton Home Study School, and a weekly blogger for The National Catholic Register. His latest book is “How to be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford a Decent Cape.”
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