Goodbye, Gramma

My grandmother died this weekend. Last summer, I wrote a post about her on the occasion of her 99th birthday. I’ve revised and updated it for publication now, but if you want to see the original, here’s the link.

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 died last weekend.

She was 99 years old, born on July 28th, 1913.

Here’s a fashion plate from the winter of 1913, when my Gramma was a bitty baby celebrating her very first Christmas:

Fashion plate illustrating a dress by Jacques Doucet Title: "Le Soir Tombe" (from Wikipedia Commons)

Fashion plate illustrating a dress by Jacques Doucet Title: “Le Soir Tombe” (from Wikipedia Commons)

The youngest of five, she was a second-generation German American who grew up in a New York City tenement with her mother and step-father, surrounded by other Germans and some Irish, and she retained the accent of that time and place to her death.  She talked (too-ahkt) 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 wasn’t an academic — sharp as a tack, but not much for the book-learning.

She worked as a receptionist in various places, including the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. If she earned $10 per week, she always sent $5 home to her mother, who sold crocheted neckties to make ends meet. The rest of her pay 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 in an office, and they would argue about the petty cash. Either way, it was true love.

New York City Midtown from Rockefeller Center, 1936. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

New York City Midtown from Rockefeller Center, 1936. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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’s oldest sister, my Tante Dina, never forgave them and made a point of making my grandmother’s life a misery whenever possible. But Gramma never regretted marrying my grandfather — she never said it in so many words, but he was her one great love.

My grandfather was a successful entrepreneur, back when that really meant something — he had a coffee business that he’d built from scratch, and he 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 told me 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 schnoz.

(From Wikimedia Commons)

(From Wikimedia Commons)

The parties they threw for New Year’s Eve are the stuff of legend, and somewhere there are pictures of drunken middle-aged people making some exceedingly crude hand gestures in their 1950’s-legit rib-high slacks and shirtwaist dresses.

Eventually they moved to a then-rural part of 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 some things just don’t get talked about.

When my mother was ten, my aunt was nineteen, and my Gramma was fifty, my grandfather died, his smoking habit having caught up with him. It was 1963, and it was the year that Gramma’s hair turned white.

She 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, after fifteen years as a widow, she married my grandfather’s nephew, Tante Dina’s son, who was actually a few years older than him. (Old Tante Dina must have been rolling in her grave.) He and my grandfather had been like brothers, and my mother and aunt always called him Uncle Frankie. Gramma said that Grandpa Ernie was her Husband Numero Uno, and Uncle Frankie was her Husband Numero Two-oh. I was at the wedding, sort of — I provide a rather significantly noticeable 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 more than a little bit vain: she wore contact lenses, and before she left the house she would touch up her blush and lipstick, because otherwise she looked “like death warmed over”. She took great pride in not looking her age.

The universal old-lady haircut, as worn by the beautiful Betty White. (Photo by Alan Light)

The universal old-lady haircut, as worn by the beautiful Betty White. (Photo by Alan Light)

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 with the nausea-inducing swaying shocks to doctor appointments, dance classes, Tae Kwon Do lessons. When I had an ear infection in first grade, she stayed home with me, put my head in her lap and petted me until I had cried myself to sleep. When I was older, and missed school because of my terrible teenage menstrual cramps, she would arrive with a bottle of blackberry brandy and give it to me by the tablespoonful. It always 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.” And she was probably right.

Her language got crazier than that, though, in the form of adulterated German words and phrases that have been passed down, almost unrecognizable if you actually speak German. I didn’t have earlobes, they were “ear loffels”. The little bits of meat that fall to the plate when you carve a pot roast? They were “gribbas-grabbas”. Tiny bits of paper were “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”. You can be certain that I will pass on these gems to my little son, exactly as she sang them to me.

(From Wikimedia Commons)

If I was messy, she’d call me a stribblepadder. (Page from Der Struwwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffmann. From Wikimedia Commons)

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. By age 99, she had difficulty walking and hearing, and she required full-time, live-in care. She became cranky in her old age, and I believe that she also succumbed to the family curse of depression. But on her face you could still see her hard-won smile lines, the apple cheeks, and the soft skin that comforted me so much as a child. Up until her final weeks, her hair was still carefully coiffed. Her old, familiar smile still lit up her face, especially when she looked at my son, her great-grandson. Even bedridden and in pain, on our last visit to her only a few weeks before her death, the twinkle returned to her eye as she looked on the tiny person who she had been a part of making.

Gramma with all five grandkids, circa 1982. I'm the little one in front who can't be bothered with looking at the camera. (Thanks to my cousin Chris for providing the photo.)

Gramma with all five grandkids, circa Easter of 1982. I’m the little one in front who can’t be bothered with looking at the camera. (Thanks to my cousin Chrissy, second from the right, for providing the photo.)

This is a love letter to her. To my Gramma. Who saw the events of a century, with all its wondrous and sometimes terrifying changes, and lived through it all with a smile, a Manhattan in her hand and a dirty joke on her lips.

Goodbye, Gramma. I love you.

30 responses to “Goodbye, Gramma

  1. Beautiful story….your family could be America’s story. My dad is 95 and my American hero…if only they made movies about OUR hero’s. Cheers

  2. Reblogged this on aspen54 and commented:
    Soo Sweet!

  3. Thank you for sharing this story, I really enjoyed it 🙂

  4. What a wonderful, loving tribute to your Gramma. Mine is almost 93 and I’m going to visit her this spring in SC. I wish it was tomorrow because you just never know. Hope you’re doing OK.

    • Thanks, Stacie! I’m okay. It’s hard, because I was very close with her, especially when I was younger. But she’d been sick for a long time, and she was awfully unhappy at the end. So I’m sad, but it was definitely time. Give your grandmother lots of hugs and love, you don’t know how many more chances you’ll have.

  5. I’m so sorry for your loss but can only imagine how proud she would be to know that you captured her spirit in such a beautiful way.

  6. Wonderful story, and a life well lived. I am sorry for your loss, but how great to have so many stories to remember and what a blessing that you know them all well enough to pass on.

  7. Sorry for your lose. I enjoyed reading this because it reminds me of my grandmother in some ways. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Just beautiful, thank you.

  9. A verynice tribute

  10. What a wonderful tribute to your grandmother! I’m sorry for your loss, but this entry, I am sure, would make her proud, and it sounds like she lived a full, fulfilling life. I especially like the Genglish you’ve included. I thought it was only my family that made words up! Thank you for sharing.

  11. Your Gramma sounds like she was a wonderful lady, who I’m sure would have shaped your life in so many different ways. Women like that can be hard to find, and are to be treasured for always.

  12. bless you, gramma! So glad she had a wonderful, loving life. =D

  13. Such pride and love in your tale – I feel like I would recognize your gramma if we ever met.

    I adopted one of my favorite sentiments from a card I received when my father died, and you have just demonstrated it: “Those who are loved never truly leave us. They live on in the memories and love of those whose lives they have touched.” Thank you for sharing, Kathy.

  14. I’m very sorry for your loss but, wow, what an amazing life she led. She saw so much change. That’s truly impressive.

  15. Sorry for your loss, she sounds like she was a wonderful Gran. But then, I think all girls have a special bond with their Grandmothers. At least I did, and my Daughter has it with my Mom. All the things that were not okay when I did them, are okay when she does. I had a German grandma too and we have little funny sayings in our house. Almost a double dose of them as my hubby’s forebears were also German. We have a a fondness for rhubarb and for paprika in our goulash (there was some Hungarian in there too.) What a wonderful love letter to her and it made my heart full, and wish I could spend one more day with my Grandma, riding around in her dusty car selling Avon on the back roads of Eastern Oregon. Our with my other one, making hollihock dolls and lingonberry cookies. Thank you and keep writing, please.

  16. Oh, how I’ve missed you! I’m so sorry to hear about your Gramma. My eyes misted reading about her extraordinary life and her scandalous second marriage, but it’s the little things – the German-American hybrid words, the rhymes, the songs – that brought back memories of my German grandmother who was the sole survivor of a bomb shelter blast in World War II. Unlike your Gramma, she didn’t like to talk about her life much; it was complicated and painful. As a result, I don’t have as many stories to remember, but the German flavor that she added to my life remains on the tip of my tongue. This is a wonderful tribute. Your Gramma would have been proud to know how well you remembered her and how much you loved her. I’m back…let’s chat soon.It seems like most of my blogging buds took the summer off or have given up on blogging altogether. Hope the latter is not the case with you. xo MSP

    • Thank you! She was a pretty fantastic lady, and I miss her. I haven’t written lately, but I don’t think that’s permanent — I was so depressed, and my grandmother’s death threw me for a loop. I’m slowly coming back to myself, but it’s hard to get back into the writing groove. I’m not even sure that I know my voice anymore. We’ll see, yes? xoxo

      • You have a wonderful voice and I know your Gramma would want you to use it. You’ll be back when you’re ready. I LOVE your voice! It’s so hard getting over the loss of someone you really, really loved. I was extremely close to my paternal grandmother, and her death was a crushing blow for me. I still can’t look at her photo without tearing up…and she died ten years ago this November. But I met my future husband two weeks later. I suspect she engineered it from beyond the grave.

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