"My life is better now than it ever was.
I just wish I was able to enjoy it more."
My grandmother finds it amusing when people go on about "the good old days." Whenever I visit with her she'll laugh about it and if she's in the mood she'll bring out her memory book. She's eighty-eight years old and still remembers everything so clearly. I was the one who always listened and I still do. A life such as her intrigues me beyond anything else I've ever read or heard about.
"You need to appreciate your mom and dad.
They've done a lot for you."
Everyone tells you that, but when I was young and my grandmother went on about such things I didn't understand the context. What seemed like a typical patented statement meant more when it came from my grandmother. She had parents at one time. There is a picture of her with them on her table. She is a little girl making a funny face. Her mother and father are standing behind her looking stern and serious for the camera. Her little brother is next to her. He is smiling. The picture was taken in the early 1920s.
My grandmother's parents were immigrants who came to America from Norway. Her father was a photographer and was able to set up his own shop in New York City. Their last name was Steen. People advised her father to change his name. "It sounds Jewish and no one wants to do business with Jews," was what he was told. He changed his name to Olsen, which made the name of his business catchy because his first name was Ole. His business was doing very well. Unlike many immigrants, Ole struck gold. He made so much money that he was able to afford an extended trip back to Norway to visit family and contribute financially. The thing was, he never came back.
Ole Olsen left his wife and two young children in New York and disappeared. Letters went unanswered until Mrs. Olsen received a postcard from her husband's cousin. Ole had met another woman and wasn't coming back. So, Mrs. Olsen left her children in the care of her sister, who was also living in New York and went after her husband. She returned to America an emotional wreck and was eventually placed in an asylum.
"The Great Depression was only hard on people like us."
My grandmother's aunt was not what you might call "good people." She did not care for becoming the caretaker for her sister's children. Once my grandmother turned fifteen she was told she had to make her own way. She was also told she would have to take care of her brother. A fifteen year old girl and her little brother out trying to earn their way to survival during The Great Depression. She cleaned houses for the wealthy. While people in tattered rags were selling bruised apples in the streets, the people whose houses she cleaned were drinking champagne and eating caviar. Ten hours of housecleaning and they would give her a shiny quarter and send her on her way. She often slept in the streets because they would not grant her a place to sleep. My grandmother still has issues with rich people.
"Do you know why I have so much faith in God's plan for us all?"
I pretend to be a religious person when I am around my grandmother. Otherwise I will receive a lecture. She always smiles when she lectures, though. Amongst my grandmother's possessions is a small Bible. It has a bullet hole through the center of it. Her brother, you see, was killed at the Battle of Midway. The bullet that killed him went through the Bible in his breast pocket first. This means something to my grandmother. It was a message from her God telling her that He had reasons for taking her little brother and that it was part of His plan. Never argue this with her. It is the foundation of her faith.
"Desperation can make you do crazy things.
Sometimes you have to do them, though."
My grandmother got married soon after her brother was killed. She got married to a man she barely knew but had money and a home. It seemed like the right thing to do for an orphan who no longer had any family. She conceived a child with her first husband, but would later divorce him, despite the stigma attached to divorce in those days. Her husband was mentally ill. There are details about him I know about that his son and grandchildren do not know. It is safe to say that he was not a well man. Not long after the divorce, he crashed completely. My grandmother did not see him for over a decade and when she finally saw him again he was a homeless bum living in the streets begging for change. Once when I was little I gave him a quarter. I didn't know who he was.
"We all make a lot of mistakes in our lives.
You earn forgiveness for them if you really want forgiveness."
My uncle eventually earned commendations for military service in Korea, became an engineer, spent ten years as Ronald McDonald, successfully launched his own business and retired in style. Before all that happened he struggled to survive. Not long after her divorce, my grandmother married again. This time she married a much older man who doted on her. He was an immigrant from Sweden. George was a glass blower who came to America because he had been told he could become quite wealthy there with his artistic talents. They put him to work twelve hours a day in a glass factory. They ripped the artist out of him and made him a worker. He was angry most of the time and drank heavily, cursing his vanished dreams every chance he got. He was my grandfather.
They had one daughter together. My grandfather was not only angry, he was a very "old-fashioned" disciplinarian and traditionalist. The child my grandmother had from her first marriage was not welcome in their home. His very existence was wrong according to my grandfather. Divorce was wrong and my grandmother was wrong for marrying and having a child with someone such as my uncle's father. My uncle was sent to live on his great aunt's farm on Long Island. This was the same woman who had abandoned my grandmother years before. She made my uncle work day and night to earn his keep. He never had a childhood, although he is having one now.
"Do you know why you are my favorite grandchild?"
I used to think my grandmother told all her grandchildren that, but then I learned there was a reason for it. I was conceived out of wedlock when my mother was nineteen. My father was in college studying to become an engineer. My grandfather threw my mother out of the house and they had to get married. My father's college studies were thrown into chaos. He had to start going part time and working as a machinist full time. This put me at the center of a rather enormous storm.
My mother had been in nursing school and had to drop out. My parents moved to a one room apartment. My mother's father refused to help them and forbid my grandmother from helping. "They put themselves in this mess and they will live with it." My grandmother, who was not even allowed to visit, snuck over while my grandfather was working. He refused to even see his grandson. When I was two years old my mother and grandmother worked out a little plot. My mother brought me to my grandparents' apartment and I gave my grandfather a present. It was a brush, the kind you use to brush lint off a jacket. When I presented it to my grandfather he melted and smiled and brushed my little Christmas outfit with it. My grandmother took a picture but it disappeared. Several months later my grandfather died, mostly of complications from his alcoholism. My grandmother found the picture of me with him and the brush in his wallet. She gave it to me as a gift on my wedding day. It was the greatest present I ever received.
"A child should never suffer for what adults have done."
The storm had two sides to it. My mother and I were also disowned by my paternal grandparents. My father's mother was the kind of domineering spouse you read about in horror novels. My mother was evil because she had derailed my father's promising career and life. My father's mother refused to see me at first and for the rest of her life never gave me a birthday or Christmas present. I got presents that said they were from her every Christmas and every birthday. I never knew the truth until years later. My maternal grandmother was buying me gifts and putting my paternal grandmother's name on them.
When my maternal grandfather died I was two years old. My grandmother took two jobs. She worked as a nurses' aide at the hospital and became the superintendent of her apartment building. She still likes to show people the certificate she has on her wall. "Can you believe I have a license to repair boilers?" She never married again. She told everyone that she had her fill of men and had never been lucky with them. Her life had been chaos for decades and she was finally able to settle down into the role she believed she was best at, being a grandmother.
"The most important thing to do is to make peace with people before you die."
It took a long time, but my grandmother was finally able to make peace with my uncle. To abandon one's child in favor of a second husband was not an easy thing to overcome. For years I felt the tension between them until one day the tension broke. I've never been sure why, but I've been told it happened after my grandmother finally told my uncle the story of his father.
"Always listen to your dreams."
My grandmother always meant two things by that statement. She meant that we need to follow our dreams and never give up on hoping they will succeed. She also spoke of the other kinds of dreams.
Late in the 1970s my mother convinced my grandmother to move up to Massachusetts to be closer to us. She was getting older and her apartment had been robbed twice in one year. Twice a year my grandmother would take a bus back to New York City to put flowers on my grandfather's grave. One night he came to her in a dream and told her to stop coming to his grave. She hasn't been back since. I'm the only person I know who listens to his dreams the way that she does. I learned how to listen to dreams from her.
She continues to this day. She sends out two hundred Christmas cards every year. She counts the number she gets back. There is always someone who has passed away and she needs to take them off the list.
A surprise birthday party was held for her in New York for her 70th birthday. Over a hundred people came. Fifty showed up for her 80th birthday party in North Carolina, where she lives now. Some travelled from as far away as Oregon, Hawaii and Japan. Often I wonder how one person can inspire such love and devotion amongst the people she has known. The children and grandchildren of people she was friends with continue to write and call. No one ever turns her away.
"My doctor says I'm a tough old bird.
I'm really not all that tough.
I'm just grandma."
And she makes a damned fine chicken gravy.