News Section: Commentary
The Gift of a Loving Grandmother
This weekend we will bury my maternal grandmother, who recently passed away less than a month before having turned 85. Nana was an instrumental figure in my life – a source of encouragement, wisdom and generosity. In the many condolences I received, I noticed how often the same things were said by people offering comfort in relating their own such loss. A grandmother is many different things in many different cultures, but their unique role in ours perhaps too often goes unappreciated … until it's too late.
My mom's mother, who stood just under 5 feet tall and probably only tipped the scales over 100 for a very short period of her life, was perhaps best described as a woman of grit, a survivor. When I moved away, she would write letters and frequently apologize for any bad grammar at the end. A sickly child who suffered a series of childhood illnesses, she once explained to me that her education had never been given much thought, as her parents hadn't carried much hope she would reach adulthood. What she lacked in formal education, however, was made up for in hard-earned street smarts and wisdom, which she was always generous in dispensing.
Nana married young and set about raising a family with my grandfather, who'd just gotten out of the Army and had begun driving a truck after a brief stint in Minor League Baseball. They were from neighboring coal patches in Pennsylvania of just a few hundred people each, and would go on to raise three children, as she went to work in the garment factories that were still thriving in the area until finally retiring with a small pension in 1990.
|Nana on her wedding day in 1948|
It was only afterward that my grandmother would describe to me the squalid conditions her and her co-workers had endured, especially in the early years. Baking in the summer heat, with just a corner fan to blow about hot air, long hours often spent standing over the sewing machine; a dreary career that left her ridden with arthritis from head to toe.
She'd tell me about her profession only rarely, almost always while I was massaging her sore neck “with those big, strong hands,” or drying the dishes while she'd wash them – the only two chores she ever asked of me. They seemed designed to teach me that there was always much more difficult labor available than the tasks at hand and were usually followed with her frequent pleas that I be a good boy and make something of myself, so that I wouldn’t "end up on dope or in jail, like a lot of these bums around here."
Nana had a way of needling the ones she loved, holding back hard-sought praise when she didn't think we were fulfilling our potential and often salting the wound with a long soliloquy on the trumped-up accomplishments of a familial rival to whom she knew you felt superior. It was Nana's way and as much as it may have creased her flock, it probably coaxed forth extra efforts which helped propel us away from the fate she always feared most: ending up stuck around there – to use one of her favorite phrases – without a pot to piss in.
Aside from her unorthodox motivational speeches, my grandmother's most frequent contribution was her generosity. The woman stretched a buck like it was printed on rubber and never, ever made a show of slipping someone a few bills when things were tight – something she did more often than any of us ever knew collectively.
I remember her going down to her bank and getting a personal loan when I was 16, so that I could buy a 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit for $500 in order to take a second job delivering pizzas. I also remember her insisting that I keep the last $52 payment for good luck. A big kid prone to eating a large breakfast, she would clip coupons and always drop off several boxes of cereal for me to take back to college when I was home visiting on weekends, a contribution she took great pride in, despite my explanations that the dining halls were all-you-can eat. What about if you get hungry when they’re closed – they don’t stay open all night! she’d rationalize.
Of course there were also the meals she’d cook herself, which alone were enough reason to make the visit. As was custom in that time and place, Sunday dinners were always spent at the grandparents’ house. Ours was a master of the local ethnic cuisine, which basically consisted of various ways to prepare fried dough, cabbage, onions, ground beef and potatoes. Pierogies, bleenies, halupkies, haluskie and all of the other Eastern European artery-cloggers common to Schuylkill County were staples. Nana's meals cured everything from a cold to a grudge, because truth be told, nothing could warrant missing one.
Her and my grandfather were major figures in the lives of me and my sisters, often taking us to their house for the weekend when they'd stop by on Friday to get “the order” at the grocery store next to my parent's place. We'd stay up late while they entertained in that homely way common to those who'd come of age in the 40's – two or three couples over on a Saturday night; highballs for the ladies, draft beer for the men, while each swapped stories and Jim Reeves or Patsy Cline crooned in the background. She loved amusement parks and there were trips to Hershey, Dorney, Angela Park and of course nearby Knoebels Grove. An avid roller coaster rider, my grandmother was the only adult who would do the loop-to-loops with us – all the way up until she had an artificial-valve installed, which finally put the brakes on thrill rides.
Something of a medical marvel, she lived twice as long as the expectancy of the valve, which her doctors had warned they could not attempt to replace at the end of its 15-year lifespan, as she was in no condition to withstand another implantation. A bout with cancer and a few serious heart ailments later, she was still in relatively good shape when the great love of her life passed this January, a loss from which she never recovered. In the end, it could probably best be said that it was, in fact, the heart that got her – if only figuratively.
Nana was a strong and willful woman who never threw her hands up in the air. When life went sideways, she rolled up her sleeves instead. Our family was blessed to have her co-captaining the ship. In fact, as much as Pappy liked to present himself as the head of household, we all knew she'd had him on a weekly allowance since they were first married and gave the final word on every big decision – often with a raised voice and emphatic arms.
On rare occasions her disagreement even included a particular ancient vulgarity, which involved putting her thumb on her nose, palm flattened and fingers extended, then sailing it off in a sort of derogatory salute. The five-fingers from the nose, as it was known in our coal-cracker parlance, which seemed akin to a middle finger. A staunch Catholic who never missed mass, I often tried to imagine whether it was something that was ever mentioned in the confessional booth.
As I noted, I've been blessed to hear more than a couple heart-warming stories about special women who have played equally formidable roles in the lives of friends, co-workers and acquaintances over the past week. I'm not sure what will become of the “grandmother” in our high-divorce rate, post-nuclear family culture, where children often scatter when grown and seniors increasingly retire away to warm weather climates. But if it means that more of us will fail to realize the sort of relationship that me, my sisters and cousins were able to enjoy with this truly special woman, I can't help but think we're losing touch with something that represents the best of who we are as a society.
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