Tuesday, November 19, 1996
If only world was in hands of grandmas

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mattie Johnson would just like to teach some of the girls to sew.

It is something she can do, and there's nothing wrong with starting small. Even though the problems seem so big. ''You know what I'm saying? Drugs, guns.'' She rolls her eyes.

Her friend Barbara's grown son was murdered - shot last May in front of hundreds of children at a peace rally at Taft High School. And the girls, well, they are having babies, too many babies.

''They don't know anything about babies,'' she says. ''They don't know anything about how to take care of them. It worries me.''

I have found her in the basement of an apartment building in the West End. Following instructions, I go to the side of the building and down a short flight of steps to a metal door.

''Laurel Homes Resident Council'' reads an official-looking sign. A neatly lettered addenda says, ''Grandma's Hands. We are selling in the basement.'' A list of what they're selling - pop, candy, hot dogs, pickles - and their prices, considerably below market, in my opinion.

Another piece of paper, taped to the door, advises, ''KNOCK HARD.'' So I do.

An after-school haven

Luckily, I have arrived before the rush, before school lets out. Therefore, I have the more-or-less undivided attention of Mattie Johnson, head grandma. This is the basement of one of 26 buildings that make up Cincinnati's largest public housing development.

It is warm, neat as a pin and smells of freshly popped popcorn. It feels like my house felt when I got home from school.

A study room is empty right now, waiting for Lottie Thomas, who tutors 25 to 30 kids every afternoon. There's also a recreation room with a television. Next to that is storage for Mattie's creations: aprons, fabric tote bags, stuffed animals.

The aprons are brightly colored with bib tops and big, honest pockets. The handles of the bags are reinforced. Everything is carefully finished, mostly by machine, but with some hand work.

Most items are $2 or $3. It doesn't seem like enough, but I'm not ashamed to say I bought as much as I could carry. It was fine work, and I wish I'd been there for the quilt sale.

Centuries of knowledge

Mattie and her five friends, the rest of the grandma crew, have come to believe that they have some skills to pass along. Among them they've got maybe 400 years of experience. Besides, ''When you're sitting around sewing and cooking, that's when a lot of talking gets done.''

By now, the kids are out of school.

''You come here, handsome, and give me my hug.''

''What did you make? Let me see. Oh, you can draw so good.''

''Where are your gloves?''

''Now, don't you talk smart to me.''

''You got homework?''

Grandmas. A warmth of them. Six. They sell things to raise money because otherwise, ''Every time you need something you have to go ask The Man.'' They are not looking for a handout, but they badly want a new sewing machine. And a freezer.

All summer, they make Dixie Cups, shaved ice flavored with cherry and orange and blueberry syrup. When it's hot, they can't keep up with the demand. By next year, Mattie hopes they'll have earned enough to buy a freezer.

Next to the kitchen is a photo of Mattie. ''I am looking good,'' she laughs, ''don't you think?'' I do. More black than gray in the curls below her black ball cap. Smooth face, laugh lines only. She'll be 70 next month. She says she has reared 20 children, in mostly informal arrangements. She and her late husband, James, had none of their own.

After Hodgkin's disease and colon cancer, ''I'm still here, so I guess God is leaving me to do something for somebody.''

Six old women. They are experts in the art of cooking and sewing and grand masters in the art of hugging and scolding. They can silence a smart mouth at 10 paces and spot a missing button at 20.

Grandmas, every one of them.

They are selling in the basement. And they are giving something you can't buy.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) Monday mornings and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.