I wrote and read the following on the occasion of my Grammy’s passing in August of 2016. Her husband, my Opa, followed her about a month later. Today, my mother and her two siblings are gathered with a few family members and friends to lay them to rest in Medina, Ohio, the town where they spent many happy years and raised their three children. Since I can’t be there, I’m sharing this in her memory.
As most of you know, I had the misfortune this year to lose both of my grandmothers within nine months of each other; to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “To lose one grandmother may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Many of you knew my Nana, and you know what I mean when I say she was quite a presence. In my memories, my Grammy often recedes into the shadow of her dominant personality, and despite both being Irish Catholics from Staten Island, their differences didn’t stop there. My Nana was the kind of Irish you find in the greeting card aisle in March, of Beleek china and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” Grammy was the Irish of depression-era Staten Island, of Molly Malone and spending the rent money at the pub, a product of the Great Shame who claimed to have a touch of the sight. Nana was the Catholic of medals and scapulars, masses of rememberence and an hour every night on her knees in prayer. Grammy was partial to vials of holy water from springs visited by the Blessed Mother; she served the Church through stewardship by lending her talents and energies as needed.
There was nothing equivocal about Nana, and everyone who stood to speak at her Irish wake, myself included, knew exactly what they wanted to say, and spoke on similar themes. However, I think that if we asked everyone in this room to describe my Grammy, we would be left with very different impressions of who she was.
We would get the young woman who survived a Staten Island childhood, attended secretarial school and transformed into a glamorous, capable, New York City working girl, taking the ferry every day to her position at an insurance agency in lower Manhattan; she often reminisced about these days when I called her from my dorm room in New York City or told her about my summer job on Wall Street. We’d hear about the woman so slow and poky her family dubbed her “Bug,” a nickname she came to embrace through her use of the ladybug motif in her jewelry and home, and yet whose fingers flew over typewriter keys or with pen and paper.
We’d see a woman who caught the eye of a dapper, handsome G.I. – in one of my favorite photographs of her, Grammy is perched delicately atop a rock on a visit to his parents’ New Jersey farm, sporting new clothes and shiny new saddle shoes in imitation of what she thought a country girl might wear – what her family called her “Joanie goes to the Farm” outfit.
I think we would hear about a woman who struggled her entire life with anxieties and insecurities that could be crippling and paralyzing, and yet who raised three children, worked alongside her husband at his business, and volunteered her secretarial talents to her church’s St. Vincent de Paul society, eventually becoming the first woman inducted into their ranks. She had a love of travel and accompanied my grandfather on his sales trips all over the country and internationally to Greece and Germany, and yet sometimes had difficulty leaving her house.
Grammy relished her role as a grandmother. She never let me forget that I was their very first grandchild, and never stopped saying I was the best anniversary present they could ever get, an allusion to the shared date. Patient to a fault, my earliest memories of her involve hours spent playing pretend with my stuffed animals and reading books. No child could wish for a more captive audience for their performances, and it was she who first encouraged me to be an actress. True, my acting career was limited to school and community theater and may have lasted a mere seven years, but I still identify strongly with that aspect of my personality. By way of my mother, I inherited Grammy’s love of classic film, and loved to hear her stories of going to the movies during the golden age of cinema. I’ll never forget the day she tucked me into her bed next to her mother, my Great-Grandma, and screened my first viewing of Gone with the Wind for me, complete with grilled cheese sandwiches during the intermission.
Grammy’s personality may have been dwarfed by my Nana’s, but as I was gathering photos to display today, I was struck that my Grammy was there for every milestone of my life, beginning with my birth and baptism in Ohio. Despite the distance from Ohio to Massachusetts, she was there for my first holy communion, my 8th grade graduation, my star turn as Minnie Faye in my high school performance of Hello Dolly!, my high school graduation. She was there at my wedding, and there to meet my daughters soon after they were born, even developing a special relationship with Klara.
Grammy’s favorite thing to do, more than singing or watching movies or even playing with her grandchildren, was talk on the phone. Over the years, Grammy called me to say hello, to tell me she was thinking of me, to reminisce or to have my Opa play “Peg O My Heart” for me on the accordion. She called if she heard it was going to snow, if there was a flood warning in my area, or if a butterfly flapped its wings in Tokyo and she thought it might affect the weather where I lived. She called if she heard the name of my town on the news, or even a town that sounded a bit like my town. When I was pregnant with Klara, she told my mom she was afraid to call me because she didn’t want to disturb me in case I was resting, so my mom gave her my husband Eric’s phone number. “Mom,” I asked helplessly, “why would you do that??” She admitted it might not have been the best decision. Grammy called me if she couldn’t get ahold of my mother, and after that, if she couldn’t get me, she’d call Eric. I had to stop screening my calls so that she didn’t drive him crazy. My oldest daughter Klara is a chatterbox (to put it mildly), and often drives me to distraction with her talking. One day, in a moment of inspiration, I hit upon a brilliant idea, and put her on the phone with Grammy. I don’t think either of them has ever been happier.
What I’ll always cherish the most about Grammy were her words of affirmation. I never ended a conversation with her without her calling me, my children or my family beautiful a least half a dozen times. She marveled at my accomplishments – even the little ones – and I think she really believed I could do anything at all if I wanted to. To her I was smart, talented, attractive, strong, funny and caring, and could do no wrong, and my children, if possible, were even better. I don’t flatter myself that this was an accurate portrait of me, but sometimes, this is exactly what we need, and I’ll miss that truly unconditional love. I think everyone deserves someone like this in their life. I wonder if she had someone like this, and if not, what she could have done if she had.
See also: My Nana (All the pictures have disappeared because I don’t know what I’m doing and shouldn’t be allowed to have a blog but I do anyway so enjoy.)