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The Nice Grandmas

IT WAS AN OLDER BUILDING ON GRAND AND SARATOGA, three levels of charming studio apartments, full of original woodwork. The landlady showed me an L-shaped corner unit, with a Murphy bed in the living room, a built-in

china cabinet in the dining area, a large dressing room, and a bathroom with a claw-foot tub. The rent was $250, within my student budget. There were storage lockers, a laundry, and a security door. It was just right for a

single person, and in April 1985, I was newly single.

Everything about it was perfect. Except that I had three children under

the age of eight.

It’s not that the landlady told me that children weren’t allowed. The

apartments were too small for kids, but I couldn’t afford more and I certainly

wasn’t going to ask. Besides, my children would only be there on days when I didn’t have classes. The rest of the time they were with their dad and his new wife in the suburbs. Even if I’d been able to afford more, I didn’t want to rattle around in an apartment large enough to remind me how alone I was when they were gone. With the sofa, double Murphy bed, and a cot to sleep on, I’d make this work.

So I took the apartment, saying nothing about my three kids.The building was filled with little old ladies, one to a studio. Gert lived one floor down, Margie lived upstairs, and Audrey’s apartment was next door to Gert’s. At first, when the kids came to visit on weekends and a couple of overnights during the week, I urged them to be quiet, though it was difficult for three little kids to thump and bump their way up two flights of squeaky stairs, wrestle like bear cubs, and chase each other up and down the hall without making any noise.

Betty’s apartment was just across the hall. She and I would chat at the

mailboxes in the entry, and sometimes I’d help her with her groceries and

laundry when we met on the stairs. She’d worked as a nurse, had never been married, and her only family was a niece in Iowa. Before long, the noise the kids made brought her to her door with a box of vanilla wafers. Soon she had crayons and coloring books on her coffee table, and the kids were spending the afternoon in her apartment, sucking on banana popsicles and watching cartoons.

Now at the mailboxes she was asking when “our kids” were coming to

visit, and they would knock on Betty’s door the minute they dropped their

overnight bags on the floor. Then she offered to look after them while I went to class. With their lunches in the refrigerator, the kids went back and forth between Betty’s apartment and mine, through our open front doors.

On warm summer evenings Betty and her friends, wearing snap-front

housecoats and white tennis shoes, took their folding aluminum lawn chairs outside and sat on the lawn in front of the building in a semicircle, talking, eating popcorn, and drinking iced tea. The kids would play under the enormous pine tree in the yard, and take handfuls of popcorn that they

shoved into their mouths and washed down with cherry Kool-Aid. Candy

dishes began to appear on each of our neighbor’s coffee tables, and as

soon as the kids burst through the security door, they worked the building

as if it were Halloween. Now they were telling everyone about the “nice


But Betty was the grandma we bonded with. Crayon drawings of superheroes were stuck to Betty’s refrigerator. We ran her errands, picked up

milk and eggs at the grocery store on the corner of Grand and Fairview,

dusted her living room, and lugged baskets of her clean laundry up from the basement. At Christmas we baked her cookies and gave her a white knitted shawl, which she wore whenever the kids came to visit. She became their third grandma, and they became her grandkids.

We stayed for two years, until I graduated from St. Kate’s, got a job, and found an apartment across the river in Minneapolis with enough bedrooms

for all of us. For a while, we stopped by on warm summer evenings to see the nice grandmas and visit with Betty. But she became sick and frail and unable to live on her own, and one day she moved to a home in Iowa to live near her only niece. We never saw her again.

After thirty years, we still talk about Betty and the nice grandmas, mostly how a single mom with three children found an extended family in a Grand Avenue apartment building, where we weren’t supposed to belong in the first place.

Story: MARY VIRGINIA WINSTEAD is a Twin Cities–based writer. She earned her BA in English from St. Catherine University, and her MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. Her memoir, Back to Mississippi: A Personal Journal Through the Events that Changed America in 1964, won the 2003 Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction. She lives in Apple Valley.

Photo: Making “Bohemian lace” is a tradition and craft handed down through generations of women living in New Ulm, Minnesota, as shown in this Flip Schulke photo from 1975. Mrs. Francis Zeug, right foreground, is working on the lace. The thread is stored in small wooden bobbins called “knipples” in German. The bobbins were bought from Germany, since the craft is slowly dying out. Courtesy of U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES.


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