I am embarked on a project at once painful and pleasurable, combing through pages of unidentified people in my deceased mother’s photo albums. My daughter remarked she would never know who they were, the implication being, “when you are gone.” She is right, of course. The pictures are of relatives and friends in my early life, most of them dead except for the cute children, now grandparents.
The most recurring face is that of my maternal grandmother, her determined gaze suggesting unswerving strength. It reflects a long life of challenges successfully met. Basically, she had no childhood. Before she was ten, her second parent died, whereupon she and two brothers were taken in by an uncle. He then was promptly widowed, leaving my grandmother as lady of the house, riding herd on her siblings and several boy cousins. After school, she went directly home to prepare dinner and was, from all accounts, indispensable. By anyone’s definition, it was not a carefree life.
Happiness came her way when she met and married a physician only to have it wrenched away when, in his early 40s, he died of then fatal pernicious anemia. This left my grandmother with two teenage daughters and no visible means of support. Never having worked outside the home, she came up with the idea of taking in boarders. This ultimately proved financially insufficient, forcing her to withdraw my mother and my aunt from high school to seek whatever employment their meager skills could secure.
An earlier interest in politics proved serendipitous. Hours of volunteering at the local Democrat club, before her husband’s death, qualified my grandmother as a desirable candidate when a position, albeit of modest salary, became available. Eventually, she rode in parades in open cars with Democrat aldermen, the image of which, recounted by my mother, anguished my resolutely Republican father.
Through all adversity, she continued to live in the Bronx brownstone she struggled to maintain. But fate handed her a final blow. An underclass moved in, assaulting residents and vandalizing the tidy neighborhood I had visited as a child, with its steps swept clean and window boxes full of red geraniums. Homeowners were eventually driven out. One of the last to leave was my grandmother, conceding defeat only after her bridge partner was knifed.
She came to live with us in New Jersey. It wasn’t what she expected to do, but she adjusted to change, as was her pattern. She missed her friends but spoke little of the Bronx, creating instead a new life with us, babysitting for family friends, taking over in the kitchen (no complaints from my mother) as she had done so long ago, and walking daily even in wintry weather. She relished spirited political debates with my father, delivering one-line zingers to his carefully reasoned arguments.
By today’s reckoning, when college diplomas are common as crabgrass, my grandmother was only minimally educated. Yet she had a healthy appetite for current events, an astonishing vocabulary, and an unfailing memory about history and geography learned in then-excellent public schools. She never encountered a word she could not spell.
Born into an Irish Catholic family, she was not overtly religious, but she never missed Mass. She attended religious instruction in what must have been the forerunner to CCD. Priests were friends and frequent guests in her uncle’s home and, again, when she married. By nature and experience broad-minded, she would be the least surprised, if alive today, by sins of the clergy, recognizing that those who strive to be virtuous do not at all times succeed. Her ire would be directed to the unforgiving censorious.
My grandmother was allergic to pomposity. She had a wry sense of humor and laughed easily. I never saw her cry, even when circumstances of emotional and physical pain justified tears. Perhaps growing up with boys, in an era when boys didn’t cry, extended its influence. She internalized distress, but her expression betrayed her. Her courage registered with me, young as I was.
But I don’t think I routinely paid her much heed, which troubles my conscience. I passed up opportunities to spend time with her in favor of companions whose names and contributions to my life I only vaguely recall. After college, we were separated by many miles, and before I could see her again, she died.
I suppose my grandmother’s story does not rise to the level of heroics. She was an ordinary person, experiencing misfortune. She coped, however, without self-pity or bitterness. She also did it on her own, without a flock of grief counselors or support groups, which makes her survival all the more remarkable. She lived her life with simple dignity. I hope somewhere in our genetic codes, mine and my children’s, her legacy lives on.