The Gift of Growing Up in an Extended Family – Grandparents and Their Wisdom

Prudie's Doily

Prudie’s Doily © 2012 Bo Mackison

A grandmother is a little bit parent, a little bit teacher, and a little bit best friend. ~ Author Unknown

My unusual family living arrangement was my childhood blessing and the foundation of my creative lineage.

As an only child for my first nine years, I was privileged to live with three generations of elders. I benefited deeply from my grandparents in-life lessons and their non-judgmental approach to life…and their enduring love for a grandchild that was always underfoot.

We lived in a large house built in the late 1800s, once a doctor’s home and office, converted into a four apartment building. My family lived in two of the apartments.

Prudie, my great-grandmother, lived in the first floor/half-of-the-second floor apartment with my Grandpa and Grandma. My mother, father and I lived on the other half of the second floor and our bedrooms were carved from what was once a third floor attic. The spaces were all mix and match, double staircases, nooks, closets the size of small bedrooms, few doors, no locks.

I wandered freely from adult to adult, and learned by watching and doing whatever they were doing. My grandmother worked as a seamstress and while she filled client’s orders, she also taught me an endless variety of needlework  – sewing, crocheting, embroidery, tatting, knitting, quilting,  I’m told I was stitching yarn with a taped end around sewing cards created from cut out cardboard shapes before I was three! (Imagine that scene in this busy world!)

If God had intended us to follow recipes, He wouldn’t have given us grandmothers.” ~ Linda Henley

Both grandmothers shared their culinary skills – cooking and baking from scratch, pickling and canning. I don’t remember either grandmother ever using a measuring cup or spoon. A scoop? Yes. Scant? Pinch? Open handful? Half handful? Yes. But never a cup or a teaspoon. It was intuitive cooking, knowing what was needed by the feel, the look, the taste.

My grandfather filled in any open spaces with gardening, woodworking, and general maintenance around the apartments. Plus he  was the only one I remember reading to me, his only choice – National Geographic, cover to cover.

It was an endless potpourri of activity. There was no time to even think of being bored.

But the brightest star in the house, in my memory, was my great-grandmother. Prudie’s true gift was that of storyteller and she fervently discussed any subject that came to mind. My mom and grandmother often told me to “go out and play and stop listening to such nonsense,”  but Prudie would wave her hand at them in dismissal.

“Pshaw!” she’d mutter, “she’s no baby.”  Then she would chortle in glee.

Prudie thought children should learn about “real living.” She talked about life, even when the plot wasn’t a Disney story, and often there was no happily ever after. Especially that. Life was adventure, challenging, but there were both struggles and joy. She knew both, and shared both.

She told me about her first marriage, not one of the “made in heaven” varieties. She saw it early on as a frightening challenge but later on in life she considered it a gift.

When Prudie was only nineteen, she’d married a railroad man. It was 1900. My grandmother was born a year later. When her baby was a week shy of her first birthday, Prudie’s husband packed for a trip, saying he’d be gone a fortnight, and then never returned. Family life wasn’t what he’d envisioned.

So Prudie and baby Lillian temporarily moved in with family while my great-grandmother took a mail order practical nursing course. She memorized a medical text and several practical nursing books. Then she worked as a licensed practical nurse until she married her second husband when my grandmother was in high school.

The medical textbooks she studied from, copyright 1900, lined the shelf of her bedside table, a book shelf I thoroughly explored during my childhood. Prudie let me page through the books whenever I wanted, never censoring the content. We would page through her Human Anatomy book as casually as we paged through my Little Golden books, looking at the pictures. The diagram of the body’s circulatory system in red and blue ink was just as interesting, if not more, as The Little Train that Could.

“A child’s curiosity, that’s a good thing,” she’d say. “Children should be exposed to ideas, even ideas that aren’t common. Why not,” she’d say.


Crazy Quilt and Chickens © 2012 Bo Mackison

“Life isn’t common.” ~ Prudence Williams

We discussed women’s rights in detail. (“We women are just as smart, just as good as any man; we can do anything with our minds they can. You remember that. Your world will be a mighty fine world, you wait and see.”)

We discussed education. (“You keep to your studies. That’s your ticket to the big world. No one’s ever gone to college in our family, don’t mean you can’t. You’re gonna stretch your wings. You go to college. Learn whatever it is you want to learn.”)

We discussed relationships. (“Don’t ever stay with someone who doesn’t respect you, who doesn’t treat you mighty fine. There’s no shame in divorce if it’s not a good marriage. No shame at all. You don’t marry unless you marry a man who respects you. That’s more precious than a pile of money.”)

We discussed beauty and art as she arranged garden flowers in vases or copied drawings from the Garden Extension pamphlets onto the backs of envelopes or brown paper bags, then pinned them on the wood frame of the hallway mirror. We kept warm under quilts that she pieced and sewed by hand and she taught me to crochet doilies by the dozens. (“There isn’t any excuse for a home not to have a bit of finery. It makes a person’s heart glad.”)

We discussed the importance of play and friendships and she allowed me to enter the world of her grown-up playtime, if only to serve the cake and pour the coffee. (“If I didn’t have the ladies over to play Pokeno and brag on my cake once a month, I’d grow up a cranky old woman.”) She said this when she was in her early eighties.

The bond that links your true family is not one (only) of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. ~ Richard Bach

I no longer have any interest in crocheting doilies or piecing quilts by hand, but I do remember these nuggets of wisdom freely dispensed by my great-grandmother. Her words found their way into my diary on many occasions. I was enthralled with her dare and swagger.

I learned to value her opinions on women’s equality, education, relationships, and the arts.

I learned to model her love for head-on living.

I’m grateful that she thought it only natural to feed a child’s insatiable curiosity with knowledge and hands-on experience. What a blessing she gave, what a heritage she left.

About Bo Mackison

I'm a photographer, book-artist, traveler, naturalist, and creator of the Contemplative Creatives Journey, An Online Workshop and Community and Desert Wisdom Cards and Workshops. Though often not well known, I find the desert a welcoming place - a healing space. Its mysteries and gifts transformed me several years ago. Since that first encounter, I return again and again to fill my well in what most people think of as a desolate region. I'd love to share my desert discoveries and wisdom with you. Please subscribe to receive my five part mini email course The Gifts of the Desert. It's my gift to you.


  1. Absolutely love this. So beautiful!

  2. Bo, you really must write more about your memories of Prudie. I became absolutely absorbed by your words and as I read remembered my grandmother, who I didn’t see often, but when I did I loved to talk to her. My mother, just as yours, discouraged me from listening to an old woman’s ramblings, but every chance I had, I would sit with her and listen to her stories. She spoke mostly of the old days, of her family, and her life growing up, motherless, in England. My parents told me not to believe a word she said, yet many years later, as I researched my family tree via the internet, I discovered so many people she had named. Grandmother’s, (and in your case, great-grandmothers) are the best. Enjoy being one with your little granddaughter, Bo. I can imagine the happy times you will spend with her. xxx

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