Modern invention has banished the spinning wheel, and the same law of progress makes the woman of today a different woman from her grandmother. ~ Susan B. Anthony
My grandmother turned 99 this weekend.
Yes, that’s NINETY-NINE.
Here’s a fashion plate from the winter of 1913, when my Gramma was a bitty baby:
She is a second-generation German American who grew up in a New York City tenement, and she retains the accent to this day. She talks (too-ahks) a little like this fella:
She always told us that she dropped out of high school at sixteen because of the Great Depression, but we suspect that it just provided an excuse. She’s not an academic — smart as you’ll get, but not much for the book-learning.
She worked as a receptionist in various places, and if she earned $10 per week, she always sent $5 home to her mother. The rest provided lunch at automats, subway fare, and the occasional new dress.
Gramma always told us that she met my grandfather when he was working in a basement office, and she would walk by his window every day. She said that he fell in love with her legs, and that one day he went up to meet the rest of her. Later, she revealed that their meeting was much more prosaic — they worked together, and they would argue about the petty cash. It was true love.
They couldn’t get married right away, because for some mysterious reason his family thought she wasn’t good enough for their youngest son. Eventually they just went to City Hall and got married anyway, my Mehrmama and Mehrpapa be damned.
My grandfather was a successful entrepreneur, back when that really meant something — he had a coffee business, and made a whole lot of money selling coffee to big brands like Chock full o’Nuts. They went to swanky parties and rubbed elbows with swanky people. Gramma tells a story of going to a reception for General MacArthur, in which the ice sculpture of the Big Chief’s head was melting and dripped water from his formidable nose.
Eventually they moved to New Jersey, to live the American dream in a big house in the country. They had two daughters, nine years apart. Why the gap? I don’t know. I suspect that there may have been some miscarriages, but nobody ever talks about that.
When my mother was ten, my aunt was nineteen, and my Gramma was fifty, my grandfather died. That was the year that Gramma’s hair turned white.
She has never for one minute stopped missing him.
He left her enough money that she never had to work, and she was able to send their two daughters to college. She wasn’t much for book-learning, except when it came to her daughters.
She complicated our family tree considerably when she married my grandfather’s nephew, who was actually a few years older than him. They had been like brothers, and my mother and aunt always called him Uncle. Gramma said he was her Husband Numero Two-oh. I was at the wedding, sort of — I provide a baby bump under my mother’s late 1970’s party dress.
By the time I came along, Gramma was already old, or at least I thought she was — she was sixty-six. My earliest memories of her are of a woman in her seventies, who looked fifteen years younger, with snowy white hair which was kept meticulously coiffed. She was a bit vain: she wore contact lenses, and before she left the house she would put on blush and lipstick, because otherwise she looked “like death warmed over”. She took great pride in not looking her age.
After my parents split up, when I was four, Gramma took care of me and my brother several days a week. She would drive us in her horrible tan Oldsmobile to doctor appointments, dance classes, tae kwon do lessons. When I had an ear infection in first grade, she stayed home with me, putting my head in her lap (with a cloth under the infected ear to let it drain) and petting me until I slept. When I was older, and missed school because of my terrible menstrual cramps, she would arrive with a bottle of blackberry brandy and give it to me by the tablespoonful. It helped.
Like many older people, she had her own language. If I was getting ahead of myself, she’d tell me to “keep your shirt on”. If I was taking too long, I was “as slow as molasses”. If I didn’t want to eat something that she put in front of me, I “just don’t know what’s good”. She always said, “If it wasn’t for me, you kids would shrivel up and blow away.”
Her language gets crazier than that, though. Adulterated German words and phrases that have been passed down, almost unrecognizably German. I don’t have earlobes, they’re “ear loffels”. The little bits of meat that fall to the plate when you carve a pot roast? They’re “gribbas-grabbas”. Tiny bits of paper are “schnipples”. Babies in our family are regaled with rhymes that start, “Gehbten tallah, geh auf deh Mart” and “Hop so lang kein mush mir gesse”.
Her second husband, my mother’s ‘Uncle’ and my Poppop, died when I was twelve. Gramma never married again.
She was vibrant and active for a long time, but eventually age and illness caught up with her. At 99, she has difficulty walking and hearing, and she requires full-time, live-in care. She has become cranky in her old age, and I believe that she has also succumbed to the family curse of depression. But on her face you can still see her hard-won smile lines, the apple cheeks, and the soft skin that comforted me so much as a child. Her hair is still white and coiffed. Her old, familiar smile still lights up her face, especially when she looks at my son, her great-grandson. She says that she’s fully intending to see her hundredth birthday, and I’m confident that she’s strong and stubborn enough to see it through.
She’ll never read this. She won’t touch computers, and if I told her that I write a blog she wouldn’t even know what I was talking about. Never the less, this is a love letter to her. To my Gramma. Who has seen the events of a century, and lived through it all with a smile, a Manhattan in her hand and a dirty joke on her lips.
Happy birthday, Gramma.