"Lived in Ireland all her life. Came to America to die. And three months later she did. I met her once when I was small, as my father pushed me towards her, the six foot tall giant dressed in Irish black. My only grandmother looked down at me and asked, 'what's her name?', grunted, then turned away. The name Joan wasn't Irish. She was the kind of woman who had her babies in the kitchen, wrapped them in a blanket, put them next to the peat fireplace to keep them warm, then went back out to check on how the potatoes were growing." This is a written memory of my father's sister, my Aunt Joan, my godmother. There is only one black and white photograph of Mary Madden from County Clare at my mother's house.
A Danish sea captain, who transported sugar, his first wife died so he remarried and had a daughter named Mamie. She was one of my grandmother's sisters and lived with my grandmother and mother after Matt and his father both died in the same year. The family story was always that there had been an attempted mutiny on board, which Captain John Petersen prevented. However, we discovered through old newspaper accounts online that it was an actual murder involving two half-brothers, both deck hands, and a mysterious man referred to as Frenchie. The captain's log was supposed to be used in the court martial and the captain was supposed to testify at trial. Unfortunately he died two weeks before, from the stress of the ordeal, which happened off the coast of Barbados. There are a few photographs of him, looking bearded and stern, at my mother's house.
A New York City cop who road a motorcycle, was called Big John by the women in the family, widowed young, my father's father. Joan's father. Irish, Roman Catholic, and lived in Brooklyn. When he retired from the force, he worked part time for Disney in the mail room. He kept his old car impeccably clean, smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and drank strong tea. He thought my mother was too good for his son, but he paid for every small coffin when they lost a baby. He died when I was ten, buried next to his wife and the five infants my parents lost at birth. Somewhere in Long Island. There are a lot of photographs of him. He was a handsome man with a good head of hair. As a child, I always thought he should marry my only other living grandparent, my mother's mother, since they both had white hair and lived in Brooklyn.
My grandmother was wild and religious, made her own clothes and hats, never learned to drive. I married the second time because she was dying and it bothered her that I had a child at twenty, out of wedlock. She wore a red dress and got her hair done, even though the wedding was not in a church. I have a huge black and white photograph of her, my mother, myself, and my daughter, three months old, from that day. My grandmother died four months later, was buried in Jersey City, wearing golden slippers. There are many photographs of her at my mother's house, as well as letters she wrote. She was not one to mince words.
And now, I find myself befuddled to be one of a flurry of grandparents to three boys. Our ragtag group consists of my second husband, a Vietnam vet who was in the U.S. Air Force and translated Albanian, my current husband who is technically not a grandfather by blood but certainly by love, and the German Canadian grandparents who escaped the Nazi regime, who came to America to live. We are there for every birth, every death, every birthday, every school play, donut party, pizza and movie night, hockey game, skateboarding contest, every crisis, every christening, every time we are needed. Over twenty years, we have become an army of grandparents who serve and protect.