Thursday, November 21, 1996
Readers lend helping hand to grandmas

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Any way I try to tell you about this, it's going to sound like another one of those small-town, nice-guy stories. My most devoted critic, Marty, already has called to say he thinks I made the whole thing up. Or at least exaggerated. And that he's sick and tired of sob stories.

First of all, Marty, I did not make anything up. The Enquirer has a very special place for reporters and columnists who fib to readers. It is called the door.

Second, I did not exaggerate the women who have decided to be the surrogate grandmas for the kids of the West End. They just sound too good to be true.

This is not my fault. It is theirs.

Shocking response

I just described as best I could six elderly women who have a practical plan to improve the lives of the kids in their neighborhood. A happier idea, I can't imagine. So if you're sobbing, Marty, maybe you should consult a professional.

Also, these women did not ask for a thing from anybody.

They just told me that they'd like to teach some of the young neighborhood girls to sew. And perhaps some of life's lessons as well. As Mattie Johnson, grandma-in-chief, says, ''When you're sitting around sewing and cooking, a lot of talking gets done.''

Anyway, they've been making and selling aprons and pillows and snacks to raise money for a new sewing machine. Then their next project was going to be coming up with enough for a freezer. Their plans now are on a fast track.

As for me, I feel like Ivan Steinberg on sale day. I am overstocked with freezers and refrigerators. The first call came in at 6 a.m. Tuesday, and the phone kept ringing until I had offers of 23 sewing machines and 19 freezers. Money and offers of help arrived by mail and fax.

I banged on the door of the Laurel Homes Resident Council, where Mattie and her friends greet the after-school crowd with food, hugs, praise and the occasional sharp word. They call themselves Grandma's Hands.

Emma Jones, Lorene Ramey and Mattie look a little shell-shocked when they open the door. Joe Hale, president of the Cinergy Foundation, just left. He measured the kitchen, took a tour and promised a brand new freezer and sewing machine with a table.

We look at each other, then do a little dance around the hot dog and pickle counter. I only wish Marty could have been peeking in the window. It would have ruined his whole week.

So now, Mattie, what do I do with the rest of the appliances? She said they'd have room for three portable sewing machines, but asked me to find good homes for the others.

I told her that a lot of you have called asking if there's anything else they need. Fabric, thread and yarn, she says promptly. Maybe a quilting frame.

They are in the lower level of the apartment building at 595 Derrick Turnbow Ave. They open at 11 a.m. and close around 5. They'd love to see you.

Grand philanthropists

Grandma's Hands now is the official benefactor of two other local agencies. Surplus sewing machines are being referred to Jewish Family Service, 1710 Section Road in Roselawn. It helps two or three families a month relocate here from the former Soviet Union. So far, more than 1,500 people have been resettled. (Telephone: 351-3680.)

Most immigrants arrive with a few clothes and not much more. Many are skilled tailors and seamstresses, so the machines can help them dress their families and maybe even with employment.

Storehouse Ministries will distribute the gift freezers. Located in Covington, Storehouse is a United Way & Community Chest agency that finds furniture and appliances for needy families throughout Greater Cincinnati. Harmon Pfaff at 431-0500 will arrange for pickup.

So, to summarize, without exaggeration: The grandmas have a chance to teach what they know - a few centuries of homemaking, mothering and common sense. Some impoverished people will be able to buy food in bulk and freeze it. Some newcomers will be able to reclaim an old skill that will help them with a new life in a new country.

This is not my fault. It is yours.

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