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Commentary: Grandmother Makes Graduation Special

By Cindy Anderson

Buffalo, NY – A few years ago, my husband graduated with his doctorate in higher education administration. He's a college dean, and professionally, people insist on calling him Doctor Anderson. My 89-year-old grandmother still doesn't understand why he can't write her a prescription. Gram doesn't have much experience with higher education. She left her one-room schoolhouse after eighth grade and became a seamstress, florist, homemaker and, most recently, a shelf stocker at the local supermarket.

At home, Gram is always busy - making Barbie-doll clothes, baking her delicious apple pies, quilting, or designing elaborate Halloween costumes, like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz.

She's good at many things, but I think my Gram's most impressive talent is her ability to create something from nothing. I once saw a dress I liked on TV and asked if Gram would make it for my senior prom. After seeing it only twice, she did. The dress fit perfectly, looked exactly like the one I saw on TV, and no one else at the prom had a dress like mine. When I got married outdoors, Gram crafted a beautiful wildflower basket, making good on her promise to include a dandelion in my bridal bouquet.

As the somewhat less-than-enthusiastic recipient of some of my Gram's experimental gifts - like that necktie made of folded one dollar bills - my husband has always had a cautious appreciation for my Gram's creativity.

A few months before graduation, he casually asked if I thought my Gram would make his doctoral hood - not if she COULD make it, but if she WOULD make it. Clearly, he had been convinced that my Gram could make anything!

When he asked Gram to make the hood and then tried to explain what it was, we realized we might be in trouble. Try describing non-functional, drapey academic regalia over the phone to someone who thinks a doctoral hood is what's attached to the collar of the local MD's raincoat.

Even though she had no idea what she was getting into, she agreed to give it a try.

Because we had no pattern, my husband borrowed a colleague's hood and we took pictures of him wearing it, as he would during graduation. I packed the sample hood and the photos in my suitcase then I went to visit my Gram.

When she saw the hood for the first time, Gram stared at it as if it were one of those exotic Victoria's Secret things that NOBODY knows how to put on - and she couldn't imagine why it was called a hood when it wasn't ever worn to cover a head. When I finally convinced her it was for real, she set to examining the thing seam by seam, guessing at the types of fabric that were used and estimating how much we might need.

Later, we went to buy our dry goods. We needed black cotton for the background, white and burgundy satin, which would identify the college, and baby blue velveteen to signify the field of study. Everything was readily purchased, except the blue velveteen. When Gram described her project to the clerk at the fabric shop, the woman claimed that crafting such a complex item without a pattern could not be done, and informed us that finding commercially-available velveteen in any shade of blue would be more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in an Iowa haystack. That only made Gram more determined to figure it out.

Back at home, Gram carefully arranged the sample hood on her sewing table. Every time she walked by, she would stop to touch or examine or refold that hood as if it held secrets to its creation that could be revealed if only it were handled just so.

The next morning, Gram was already back at her table -- where she was measuring a length of baby blue velveteen! At first I thought we had been visited by magic elves, but what I had forgotten was that my grandmother's basement holds boxes full of things that were saved for a higher purpose. The blue velveteen turned out to be a seldom-worn bathrobe from the 70s. It wasn't a perfect match, but I wondered who would really notice the difference anyway.

I flew home and Gram and I talked regularly on the phone about the progress of "our" hood. Only a month after being told by the sewing-lady expert it couldn't be done and finding the baby blue bathrobe in the basement, the finished hood arrived in an insured box from UPS.

When my husband pulled his hood out of the box, he was stunned - it was truly identical to the original. Even the color of the baby blue velveteen somehow seemed less different than when I had seen it a month before.

Gram couldn't have been prouder, of her own achievement or of his. It didn't even matter that she wasn't able to see him walk across the stage to accept his degree the first time he wore his one-of-a-kind hood. Later that year, we took pictures of them together, he wearing the hood, and she, smoothing the fabric of that old bathrobe, knowing that her lifetime of "figuring things out" had given yet another grandchild something no one else had.

And last week, as he marched in full regalia with all the new graduates at commencement, those at the Canisius College ceremony probably saw my husband grinning, not only because another hectic graduation week was behind him, but because he was the only one wrapped in a doctoral hood with a tag that says: "made expressly for you by Grandma."

Listener-Commentator Cindy Anderson lives in North Buffalo.