Often, something as odd as a date will bring back memories… as may a post by someone remembering similar times, similar people… DiabeticizMe’s blog post on remembering her grandmother reminded me again that Tuesday was my maternal grandmother’s birthday. Grandma’s been gone just over sixteen years, and I won’t say our relationship was without its rough spots. I will say, though, that I was fortunate to grow up with three generations of my foremothers around me, teaching me, guiding me (sometimes a bit too closely for my likes!), and warping my relationships with my extended family.
The eldest generation was represented by “Nona” (pronounced NAWnuh), my mother’s paternal grandmother. (“Nona” is Ladino for “grandmother”; “Bubbe” (BUBbuh or BUHbee) is its Yiddish counterpart.) At a time when many of my peers did not have living grandparents – or at the very least, not living nearby – I had not just three living grandparents within Sunday-visiting distance (or less!), but also a great-grandmother who visited us regularly. When Nona came to visit, she’d bake all sorts of goodies and didn’t mind if my sister and I wanted to “help”. Even if we just sat and watched, it was quality time. Nona was the sort of cheery “people person” who always attracted a court of people who just wanted to be with her and around her, and Grandma loved entertaining, so every time Nona was in town, the house would be buzzing with guests.
We referenced my grandmothers by where they lived – “Grandma from upstairs” and “Grandma from New York” – my family reserved the Yiddish and Ladino terms for my great-grandparents. For many years, we lived in a two family house with my mother’s parents; in some ways, they were a second set of parents to my sister and me. “Grandma from upstairs” was a would-be social butterfly who had two or three weekly rotating afternoon canasta games, a weekly rotating evening (couples) gin game, and a weekly rotating afternoon mah-jongg game. She went to the beauty parlor on a regular basis. For many years, she was secretary of the Sisterhood of the local Sephardic congregation. But she still had time to keep a neat, clean, Kosher home and have dinner ready for Grandpa every night when he came home from work. When my sister and I were old enough for Mom to go back to work full-time, Grandma was the one with the fifty-item mental checklist she’d make us go through before leaving the house.
Dad’s mom was considerably more independent. You’d think that would have been par for having been widowed with two teenagers – but if one listens to the story, that was the “Johnny-come-lately”. She had already rejected the marriages her parents sought to arrange for her, and married for love instead – outside the social circle in which she was raised. By the time my sister and I were old enough to understand, her much-older second husband was retired, and she was the household breadwinner. She was an argumentative sort and was rarely on speaking terms with all her siblings at the same time, but in some ways, that was because she was so independent. She had strong political and social views, some of which were far from the mainstream.
Mom is currently in that no-man’s-land that affects way too many retirees here in the United States: too many health issues, not enough income to meet them head-on, and limited mobility. She spent her youth hamstrung by her mother and her mother’s mother, gave up a career to become a full-time mother, went back to work only to see her specialization made obsolete by computers and the Digital Age, and figured out a way to manage until her health, and the labor market, made her retire.
I really can’t talk about Mom’s strengths without also talking about some of her aunts. Because Mom’s parents were each the eldest of eight surviving children, their parents’ youngest sisters were more like older sisters to her than like aunts. (I see this in some aspects of my relationship with my stepmother.) She double-dated with Aunt Syke, heir to Nona’s temperament, who is always dancing and sociable and gathering friends. Aunt Caroline, five siblings separated from her oldest sisters, has said she has always felt closer to her eldest niece to than her eldest sisters. And I have to talk about Aunt Belle, the sister next to Grandma, who was a veritable Household Goddess. She didn’t just cook and bake, she sewed, and knitted, and crocheted, and gardened, and canned, and brought up four children, AND held a job outside the home. Mom never learned to can, but she cooks and bakes, knits, and crochets. She used to sew more often, embroider, and do needlepoint – but lately, it’s been a chore for her to thread the needle. One of my favorite “show and tells” when I was little was when Mom would make me a new dress to wear to school…
The living monument built by my foremothers – domestic and job skills, self-sufficiency, independence, and caring – is a part of the living monument built by women the world over. It is bequeathed to us by our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and cousins; we, in turn, leave it to our daughters, granddaughters, and nieces. It is the garment of love in which we envelop the world. And while I have neither daughters nor nieces by blood or marriage, I do, and will, still pick up the thread and the needles, hooks, bobbins, and shuttles to weave my little portion of this garment.
If I can make my piece as strong, as resilient, and as caring as those of my foremothers, then I will have been worthy of their legacy.