Lay of the Land: A series of essays on the spirit of Montana
It is hard to write about my grandmother. She is wonderful beyond words and, of course, that is true of all grandmothers. But I would posit that my grandmother is the best.
My grandmother has looked into the face of a hibernating bear. She awoke every morning of every summer of my childhood before 5 a.m. and was down opening up the Driftwood Cafe by 5:30.
The Driftwood Cafe. Only in Heaven I will drink Farmer Brothers coffee again sitting at the counter of the Driftwood. I will put brown gravy on my french fries.
My grandparents built the Driftwood in 1972. It was an aqua steel building right off the highway, about six miles from the east entrance of Glacier National Park. My grandfather built the tables. Picnic tables covered all over in one solid inch of clear finish. Gramma put vinyl tablecloths on them that matched the plastic reed curtains. The place smelled always of coffee and homemade soup and 10 percent bleach solution because, in addition to family, Gramma values clean.
At this point, I realize I could probably spend the next hour creating an imperfect word picture of the Driftwood Cafe in summer, so I will list only the highlights:
The menu was made from construction paper put in plastic sleeves. A woman named Trudi, a dear woman, the mother of one of my best friends, learned calligraphy one summer and volunteered to do the menus. They looked sharp.
There was a jukebox in the corner with a picture of a waterfall on it and when the music was playing a light behind the waterfall moved, making it appear as though water was actually falling.
Under the cash register — where I learned how to count back change — Gramma sold agate jewelry and wooden toothpick holders.
The coat rack was made from horseshoes welded together. Gramma and Grampa got free purple and gold windbreakers from the Olympia Beer distributor. One was always hanging there.
Because Gramma and Grampa also ran a campground, the bathrooms included coin-op showers. Imagine an America not only with campgrounds where ordinary American families would stay with no hint of shame on vacation, but also an America with coin-op showers. This is the America of my girlhood. I once dropped an Atomic Fire Ball candy into the drain of one of the bathroom sinks. It was exactly the same diameter as the drain and plugged it. My friend Jenny was there. Her mom did the calligraphy on the menus.
The radio was always on and it was always tuned to KMON country radio out of Great Falls. We listened to a lot of Oak Ridge Boys. And it was good.
Gramma made almost everything from scratch although I think you already knew that was coming. There were notable exceptions: Pie. Brown gravy. (That comes only from a pouch.) Hash browns. (Those came in frozen slabs of potato shavings.)
When I think of my grandmother, I think of how she looked on her way to the cafe. She always wore a smock and her hair was wet. I think of the way she looked over the grill, behind the counter. I think of the forbidden way it felt to sneak behind there and feel the heat from the frying bacon.
I think of her walking amid the aspens. She knew — and knows — the name of every flower and every mountain and she knows the names the Indians gave the mountains before white people gave them dumber names.
My grandmother is afraid of things that don’t make any sense. Like bats and airplanes. She is not afraid of driving through blizzards, being alone, making a septic system from found objects, making a motorcycle from found objects.
There, in the middle of these memories, is her spoon rest. I love that spoon rest. I don’t remember seeing her ever use it in the summertime. She never cooked at home, only down at the cafe. But I remember finding it on the counter in her kitchen one day. IT WAS BEAUTIFUL. It was a beautiful shock of shiny, plastic color and I loved it. I could not have been more than 6. I am certain the quality of sunlight in northern Montana has changed since 1981. In my memories, the light is always yellow, like someone took a picture of my memory with a Kodak Instamatic and, in fact, someone probably did.
My summer world in 1981 did not include a lot of shiny things. My grandmother was not known to me as someone who valued things of consumer beauty, like this spoon rest. So finding this unusual thing thrilled me. It looked like candy. It was amazing. Although she must have found it odd, Gramma obligingly let me take the spoon rest with me for the rest of the day. I remember playing with it out on the ground near the red Econoline van Gramma drove to clean the rental cabins.
My grandmother gave me her china set some years ago. I cherish it. We eat on it only on Christmas or Thanksgiving and I spend half the meal prep admiring the china and imagining it on Gramma’s table 60 years ago and the other half worrying that we will destroy it and it will be gone forever.
But I never saw my Gramma use that china. I didn’t even know she had it until she gave it to me.
The spoon rest I saw her use every day.
In fact, she was using it three weeks ago when I showed it to my daughter Maggie and asked, “Isn’t it pretty?” And then, with no ceremony at all, Gramma said: “You can have that, Maggie.”
My heart at once burst and dropped. Gramma’s spoon rest in my kitchen! This little treasure from my girlhood. The thing I wanted to steal when I was 6. The thing that forever symbolizes Gramma and food and comfort and love. And it’s going to a 4-year-old?
But there is no arguing. Maggie will get that spoon rest.
When I die.
Jennifer McKee is a Billings native and former newspaper reporter. She lives in Helena with her husband, Jonathan, and two children, Margaret and Cormac.
Editor’s Note: More on this series may be found here.