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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.