My grandmother smelled like mothballs. An old fashioned scent–probably unrecognizable to most people of today. But Grandma’s closets bore evidence of heavy mothproofing. Grandma ruled over her kitchen…but she relaxed in her easy chair which was near the “moth ball” closet and positioned at the front second floor window from which she could see all the goings-on below. From this comfy chair each afternoon, she would watch for her granddaughter as the young girl walked home from school in her green uniform, knowing that the girl would be bounding up the stairs shortly to embrace this loving woman in her plain housedress and apron.
Slow, slurping sounds would indicate that she was enjoying her favorite lemon candies…or “sour balls.” I wonder if they’re still made today. Though she would extend her pinkie daintily when drinking her afternoon coffee or eating a grapefruit, Grandma was known to relieve an itchy back with the edge of a steak knife.
At the age of fourteen, a young girl growing up in Manhatten in the early 1900’s, Grandma swept a dressmaker’s floor from eight in the morning until seven at night, six days a week…and she learned to sew in the evening when everyone else had gone home. She would eventually become a skilled seamstress, specializing in children’s clothes. Her meager paycheck was turned over to her mother and supplemented the family income.
Grandma would reminisce coyly about the old days when she was queen of the “pompadour set” and drank claret lemonade at the Saturday evening balls. How pretty she was when at age seventeen she met Mike, the young man who would be her husband for the next seventy years. Marriage to Grandpa gave Grandma frequent pregnencies, a home above a horse stable, stalls to clean out, and horses as well as children to feed. Grandma’s personality blossomed as her belly did.
Hard work and good fortune enabled them to move out to the “country” of Long Island to a red brick home in Bayside. Grandma then became active in the Church’s Rosary Society. During her reign as president, Grandma had the occasion to lose her pink “bloomers” on the sidewalk before ten o’clock Mass. The elastic gave way and down they went. To Monseignor’s open-mouthed surprise, she solved the problem by hastily stuffing the under-garment into my unknowing grandfather’s pocket. The silky material mischieviously worked its way out a little…and Grandpa turned quite a few heads coming down the aisle from Communion.
Up until recently, Grandma would sneak cigarettes behind Grandpa’s back. She employed everyone else in the household in an alliance to keep her supplied with Kents, and to faithfully signal when danger approached. Though suspicions were aroused, she was never caught. Ironically Grandpa was engaged in a similar secret activity– his vice was El Producto cigars. So was he only going for a walk to the mailbox…and was she really just hanging out the wash?
Another former vice of Grandma’s was eating certain delicacies she shouldn’t have had. A great meat and potatoes and gravy cook, Grandma loved nothing better than hassenfeffer, strawberry shortcake, and pickled pig’s feet. When her gall bladder protested, these treats were forbidden and cheating was only occasional. At Christmastime, Grandma made German stollen, and then at New Year’s sour meat and potato balls. My mouth waters just thinking of that sauerbraten! What a well loved tradition!
Grandma loved her countryhouse best of all places– a little red roofed cottage on a narrow country road in the Shawangunk Mountains of NY. I loved its wrap-around porch, the pine tree swing, the grape arbor, and the pond filled with goldfish. Grandma especially loved her garden. She grew a bounty of wonderful vegetables and beautiful flowers…juicy giant tomatoes, rows of crisp green beans and our family favorite, kholrabi. All along the fence, Grandma’s dahlias seemed to me to be six feet high…and so brightly colored and lovely. Perhaps the proximity of the nearby outhouse had something to do with the productivity.
My room was in the attic, rustic and cosy. From my bed I could smell the aroma of coffee and toast each morning. Grandma would have her cup of “instant” while the metal percolator bubbled on the stove. The larger breakfast–maybe cream of wheat and toast, or eggs and bacon, always followed by fruit, would happen after Grandpa shuffled into the dinette. Meals were a ritual and so looked forward to.
The countryhouse was closed up each October, the cold weather and only a wood stove to heat the house, made the winter in the Long Island house appreciated.
From downstairs in my bedroom, I can often hear my grandparents and I know and treasure their routines so well. I know of Grandma’s conflicts with Grandpa range from his cold feet sending shivers up her spine at three A.M. to his stealing the comforter before dawn.
Grandma’s pleasures include enjoying rides in the country and reading romantic novels. ..and of course her family. Spry and sharp as ever, Grandma chuckles when she thinks back on the old days. She is a great story teller, and nothing gave me more pleasure than coming home after a day at school, sittng at Grandma’s feet beside her chair, and hearing her bring her stories alive. From time to time she might get up to use a stiff broom to rid the side stoop of her granddaughter’s waiting boyfriends…but that is another story.
Thanks for the memories, Grandma.