On the first page of George’s Marvelous Medicine, author Roald Dahl introduces us to George’s Grandma, as loony an old lady as ever existed. She lectures George that he should be growing down, not up.
“Before it’s too late!” she rants. Her recipe? Eat insects, all manner of small crawly creatures.
I chose the book to read to my six-year-old grandson, Matthew, assured that a Dahl tale could never be boring. Grossed out by Grandma’s suggestion, the two of us laugh and gag.
“Whenever I see a live slug on a piece of lettuce,” she raves, “I gobble it up quick before it crawls away. Delicious.”
I take time to scrutinize the illustration and feel myself recoil: inked in mouth lines with no lips, and creases the size of small ditches along the upper edge. Her nose protrudes well beyond her peninsular chin—the typical fictional, witchy, grandma picture.
I stop reading, the heat rising in my cheeks. I fantasize scorching the image with my fierce gaze when I feel a drumming on my arm. I look down on Matthew seated next to me, his fingers rippling “read on” patterns along my limb.
A frightened George, instructed to take care of his grandmother (give her medicine) while his mother shops, escapes to the kitchen, slams the door behind him, and leans against it in fatigued desperation, the cliff-hanger conclusion of the first chapter.
Matthew looks up. “Another one?”
I shake my head. “Bedtime. More in the morning.”
Matthew falls asleep and I stew. For decades, grandmothers have inhabited children’s literature as caricatures, Little Old Ladies, the Laugh Out Louds of past and present, old crones with crooked noses and rasping, whining voices. It has been taken for granted that we are either over or under weight, hair in a bun or tucked under a kerchief, with constitutions of a horse (unless propped outside death’s door) and we exude either orneriness, like George’s grandma, or unrelenting good spirits. Take your pick.
As the LOL character, the grandmothers contribute love, charm, humor, color and a touch of magic. But don’t be fooled. We still come off as the “other” in the family group, challenged as we are by age, rarely up to date on popular culture and harboring unruly digestive systems that erupt at inopportune moments.
So what bothers me about this profile? For starters, its extended history, its continued existence and the absurd rendition of a really important family member. (See my January 2017 post about the grandmother’s often critical role in the survival of her grandchildren.)
Exhaustion overcomes my fuming. I crawl into bed, skim the rest of the book, and discover a 20th century version of a fairy tale. George concocts a medicine that accidentally shrinks his grandma into nothing—a blank, a zero, a goner. George, Mom, and Dad cluck their tongues for a bit and then? They live happily ever after. My turn to laugh out loud. Time for me to grow into the little old lady that I am, lip creases and all.