My grandmother was one of the most important people in my life. She was 48 when I was born, which seems so young to me now, but she was of the era when women started looking old by the time they hit 35. She had two sons, and I was not only her first grandchild, but I was a girl. She treasured and adored me and I returned her love with every ounce of my being.
Her home in Sewickely, Pennsylvania was my idea of heaven. It was immaculate, perfectly organized and well-stocked with homemade nut or poppyseed roll, pizzelle (which originated from the Abruzzo region of Italy, where my grandfather – her husband – was born), and all the fixings for elaborate ice cream sundaes.
Being at her home was calming for me. The order she imposed made me feel safe and loved. When I first set up housekeeping, I tried to emulate her. My divorced single mother of three was so busy working multiple jobs, returning to school to earn her Bachelor’s and then Master’s degrees, struggling to make ends meet, dating, and getting us through school that our home was chaotic, messy and usually absent almost any parental oversight.
As I age, I appreciate my grandmother in new ways.
Her parents were poor immigrants from Czechoslovakia, and her world was limited in more ways than I can imagine. She had to drop out of school at age 12 to work as an au pair for the children of wealthy families in the area. It was the only “career” or expression of her intelligence, creativity, ambition, or self worth that she ever had, other than housekeeping and working as a crossing guard. I took high school, college and a year studying abroad for granted, but despite her intelligence, determination, strength and myriad abilities, she saw them as unattainable privileges. It is heartbreaking for me to think of how she must have felt muffled, stifled and unable to fully blossom. When I see these photos of her as a young, beautiful girl, my heart melts and I want to take her under my wing and give her all the opportunities she never had.
Nearly all of us have grandmothers who were thwarted by the world in which they lived. Even if they had wonderful and happy lives, they were often denied education, inheritances of money and or property, and opportunities for personal, creative and professional expression. If my grandmother lived in the world I grew up in, I think she would’ve pursued a big career. As my Dad liked to say, she was “strong, like bull.”
I love thinking of her. She took great pleasure in beating her grandchildren at Chinese Checkers, Monopoly, or Gin Rummy, showing no lenience for our youth, lack of experience, or our tendency to whine. If she’d met my husband, she would’ve adored him, and he would’ve made her laugh, just like Gumdaddy did. She introduced me to Days of Our Lives, and The Guiding Light, which she had followed since its days on the radio. If we were out shopping (an activity for which her endurance was legendary) and one of the soaps was airing, we’d head for the TV department and watch. She loved sweets, and always had a box of something fancy on the high shelves of her bedroom closet. Despite a six-year battle with cancer that she waged alone after her husband died, she never failed to find the energy to make homemade nutroll for me when I visited. She had a bench swing in the backyard and I’d lay my head on her lap as we sang “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and other heartbreakers. She tried to teach me how to knit and crochet countless times, and often had to unravel all my work because I never stayed focused enough to count my stitches. She didn’t really like to dine out because she knew she could make it better at home, and for less money. She loved to laugh. She played poker with girlfriends every week, saved up her winnings and surprised Gumdaddy with their first color TV. Growing up, her family was unable to provide well-fitting shoes so Grandma had horrible, painful problems with her feet and had several surgeries on them over her life.Her hands were so strong that when she held mine, she unwittingly nearly crushed them. We both had the same favorite cake: angel food with chocolate frosting.
Tell me about your grandmother – what do you miss the most about her?
A few links I hope you enjoy:
Here’s what got me started writing this post: the grandmother campaign.
Check out this trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming movie, The Great Gatsby. My grandmother lived in those times, and I wish I could talk with her about them.
NPR is offering the entire soundtrack for The Great Gatsby here. Wow. You won’t recognize Back to Black, and I loved Florence + the Machine’s “Over the Love.”
A great review of a book about the pioneering female journalist of the Victorian age, Nellie Bly.
Need help decoding the last episode of Mad Men? Here’s an article that might help, or if that doesn’t work, here’s another article.
I love coffee, and I love Jerry Seinfeld. Here, I can have both.
I will never stop missing my Grandma.
Wonderful post. Beautifully written. Our grandmothers were in a league of their own. They epitomized grace under pressure and knew that they were the heart of the family. Completely unselfish strong in mind and will.
All the best,
Thank you Mary. Yes, a generation of truly fierce women. I lost my Grandma when I was 22, how lucky you were to have yours so long! Thanks for sharing her story.
My Mimi was the most important person in my life. She was always there with a hug and words of encouragement. When I gave her the book The Greatest Generation I thought she’d love it. However, she didn’t – it didn’t mention the war effort of the women. “We ran this country, and the war effort at home, when the men were away. And when they came back we went back to our housework.” She was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known. I miss her everyday but feel blessed I had her for 46 years.
Thanks for the blog. It’s a beautiful tribute to your beloved grandmother.
Your Mimi was right about what the women at home did to win the war. Thank you for sharing her story.
Nice one, Ligeia. And the family photos! Love that you could scare those up.
I have the same fortissimo feelings for my Oma.
From a life of privilege as a physician’s wife, to a prison camp in Germany for 3+ years, to starting over in America after the war, I have enormous respect for her strength, her vision, and her keen intelligence. A voracious reader of everything from Barron’s to Art in America, she championed of emerging contemporary artists, and as an active member of the League of Women Voters. When I visited her as a teenager, we would huddle on the sofa and watch Washington Week in Review for her, and Wheel of Fortune for me (she was endlessly entertained by my folly). She comforted me the night Reagan won, me slack-jawed and appauled, her insisting that the pendulum would swing back. She championed social justice, supported the NAACP, and was, most of all, the matriarch of our family.
Thanks for this lovely piece, Ligeia. A brilliant way to start the day, with the beacon of our grandmothers before us! xo Rose
Rose – I wish I could’ve met your tiger of a grandmother, Oma. Her story is astounding… maybe you could do an illustrated book about her life?
Thank you for your beautiful tribute and wonderful photos of your Grandmother!
My Mom passed away the month after I turned 7. I was passed around for 2 1/2 years to aunts and uncles until my Grandparents finally got their way and began to raise me!
My Grandma was very organized and was an amazing cook and baker. She was born in 1908 so she was also a roaring 20’s girl and lived through The Great Depression. She was raising 6 children during the depression ad a widow when she met my Grandpa. They married and moved to a small town where they would later raise several grandkids, with me being the last lucky grandkid to live with them. Grandma taught me to cook, bake, sew, clean, and organize. She also taught me a love for language by means of her favorite game Scrabble!
I could go on forever about Grandma Otela, the youngest of 11 children(the eldest was an only boy, Uncle Harlan), but the most important detail about her is her endless love and patience that gave her little orphan granddaughter security and purpose in life.
Tamra, This is such a beautiful message about your Grandmother, I am so moved. Thank you for sharing your story. I wish I’d known her. Your description makes her come alive.