Sunday, May 8, 2016

Happy Mother's Day!

the two of us- I was eighteen
My grandmother made her home with us when I was growing up. Maybe it was really the other way around, we made our home with her. She was sort of the master of the house, ruling with a wooden spoon.

I was born in Coney Island and lived in her house until I was three. She made the move with us to Rosedale, Queens when my parent's purchased their first house, then finally to Long Island, when we moved to the suburbs. I bought my own first house in the same neighborhood, so I could see her everyday.  She was the heart of soul, the centerpiece of our family. 

My grandmother was old her entire life. She came to this country when she was twenty-four, she often told me Calvin Coolidge was President. Her father died of consumption when she was three, her brother two, and her sister still in my great-grandmother's womb. My great-grandmother divided her children into assorted homes so she could support them by being a cook in a university. She had a gothic childhood that used to send shivers down my spine. It made me grateful for the simplest things I had and the security of knowing I was loved.

My grandmother was fostered with a rich aunt who's idea of discipline involved hours of kneeling on hard, dry lentils and beans that dimpled her delicate skin.

She had happy memories though, like when her hair was curled with sugar water and her mother surprised her with a blue lace, dropped waist dress for graduation. I adored this story and made my mother hunt high and low for a similar dress for my junior high gradation. She found it, my grandmother curled my hair charmingly, and I felt I honored her that day. I still have the dress in my closet.

She was bright and pushed to become a teacher, unheard of in her day. Her mother feared for her, Europe was volatile and she sent her to another relative in America where she was seen as ungainly and unmarriageable at the ripe age of twenty-four.

her passport picture
She married my grandfather in an arranged marriage made by his dying wife and her aunt while they were in the same hospital ward becoming a mother overnight to his two children and soon had another on the way. She told me she was blessed with a mother-in-law who taught her how to take care of the children. She had no household skills, and my great-grandmother patiently treated this shy girl as if she were her own daughter.

My grandfather was an immigrant, a furrier who lost his job because he refused to knuckle under union demands. They lost everything. She had saved a bit. and bought stock in an up and coming company called Bell Telephone. 

My horrified grandfather made her sell it all. He told her it would never work.

Eventually, she managed to save enough to buy a small apartment house that got gobbled up in the Great Depression.

Undaunted, she opened a candy store, ending up running numbers for  the infamous gangster Dutch Schulz, who furnished my impoverished family with coal and necessities when she ended up being booked by the Newark police. I don't think she had much choice and did what she was told to keep her family safe. She nearly gave birth to my mother in the local jail. There is a mugshot of my very pregnant grandmother somewhere in the annals of Jersey criminal history.

When she was released, she went right back to work, cooking rose petals from her garden into a sweet syrup for ice-cream, and keeping credit for people who couldn't afford to buy the necessities that only a candy store in the thirties could bring.

She sent clothes and food home to Europe to her family, going without for herself, making sure her mother, sister, and brother had what they needed. 

She was a gentlewoman, never calling any of her friends by any other name than Mr. or Mrs. So and so. I never heard her curse, not ever. 

She worked her entire life at one job or another, taking in her dead sister-in-laws five or maybe it was six children when their father remarried. She cooked every meal as if she was feeding an army. There was always a seat and a full plate at her table.

We all deferred to her. She was our queen. When I was in kindergarten, my mother brought her to the mother's day recital. 

We were to dance and sing around the room and then present our mothers with hand-made posies of paper flowers. I can recall it like yesterday. My mother gave up her seat, standing behind her own mother and watching me with pride. I loved my mother. She was the finest person in the world. I remember dancing, biting my lips. What was I supposed to do? My mother was here, I made the bouquet for her. But my grandmother sat in the front row. She was important, we all deferred to her. I made a decision. I looked at my mother, we exchanged a meaningful glance. I must have had apology in mine. 
Me, my grandmother, and my mom

I walked to my grandmother, my eyes on my mom and handed her the posy. My grandmother's eyes watered with happiness and gratitude. My mom didn't wait. She grabbed me in a bear hug, kissing me while she whispered with fierce pride that I was the best daughter in the world. She was so proud of me and I absolutely did the right thing. 

I know I said I was sorry, but we had to honor Bobbie first. She told me, she wouldn't have it any other way.

My grandmother came to all my graduations, proud that I became a teacher, like her, she told me.

Later, when I entered the business world, she  said I was following her footsteps there as well.

She taught me to always look forward, and that I could change my mind and do two or even three things at once. I could be anything I wanted to be.

My grandmother died when she was eighty-six. She had seventeen grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. 

In her lifetime she was a teacher, businesswoman, bookie, seamstress, cook, saleswoman, all while she was a wife and mom. 

She could beat the daylights out of me with in both scrabble and canasta, all while touting she had only two week of night school where she learned to read and write English.

She read stories to my boys, showed me how to handle a wicked diaper rash, and cook a delicious chicken soup. She taught me how to talk to my parents when they were being unreasonable. She sat with me watching television when I felt lonely. Told a great story about life in another time.

She was a powerhouse of information. 

We read books together, she enjoyed romances that we passed around between my aunts, my mother and me, comparing our take on the story.

my grandmother, Laura Greenhout Ross 1898-1985
I miss my grandmother with the same intensity as I miss my mother.

I am proud to be her descendant and want to remind everyone we are the outcome of a combination of our environment, the product of many parts. 

Everything I am today is a reflection of her input as much as it was my parents. So, today, on Mother's Day, I want to honor her memory along side my mother. She was a survivor, reinventing herself bravely, setting a bar for her daughters and granddaughters,and great-granddaughters,  showing them that nothing should ever be in their way.  

It is the lesson I have embraced for her great-great granddaughters. Every day when I tell them the sky is the limit, it's because she taught me that years ago.

With Love To All,
Carole P. Roman

No comments:

Post a Comment