Today is Grandma’s birthday. She was the fourth child born to my grandparents, entering the world in an apartment on Main Street where Boonton Avenue meets Main. We all know she was named Helen because Jean was not a saint’s name (supposedly a Catholic requirement at the time), so she had to either be named Eugenia or something else. Grandma claimed the choice of the name Helen was a random decision, which has continued to haunt her during her entire life. Add the sadness at losing her easy-to pronounce five-letter Irish name when she got married, along with her denial of aging even at a young age, and you will understand why she embraced being referred to as “Aunt Jean” by more than just her nieces and nephews.
But back to my story….When she was born, my grandfather was working at a grocery store in town. Times were tough for her parents even before the stock market crash nine months later. But like my childhood memories, my grandparents did a wonderful job surviving those lean years and hiding their financial problems from their children.
She was five when her twin brothers were born, which was apparently a surprise to my grandparents. Ultrasound technology did not exist back then, so they were prepared for only one baby. But my grandmother was thirty-nine, and there was a history of twins in the family, so the odds of a multiple birth was increased. As I mentioned in Twins my grandmother almost died.
By that time, my grandfather had taken on a second job, working for a store that installed linoleum floors. When the twins were just eight months old, my grandfather lost his jobs, so he supported the family by doing odd jobs around town—laying linoleum occasionally and making signs for various companies around town who were familiar with his beautiful handwriting.
My grandmother was an expert seamstress, so she altered the children’s hand-me-downs so they always looked nice. She became adept at doing her own hair, so it always looked like she had been to the hairdresser. No one knew they were so poor.
Grandma was from a musical family. Her mother took piano lessons, and when Grandma was about seven or eight, she also took piano lessons at a cost of fifty cents for each lesson. I don’t know how my grandparents even afforded to pay that much, but somehow they managed. She was taking tap lessons from her cousin Gertrude as well, and after a year, my grandmother gave her an ultimatum: dance or piano. Tap won hands down! Although Gertrude was her primary teacher, she preferred Gertrude’s father, Uncle Jim, because he was a no-nonsense teacher and they learned even more.
She and Aunt Marian loved putting on shows together. They danced at different events, and the two of them were always last and brought down the house. She said to me, “We would look at each other and grin as people clapped at the parts that looked complicated. We just loved that!”
Grandma told me about dancing for the war veterans at a local hospital. She didn’t enjoy performing for them, because when the music began, the vets would looked up like they were hearing rockets. It made her sad, and she would always go home and cry.
When she got to high school, there would be music and dancing in the gym during lunch hour. Grandma usually skipped lunch so she would be able to spend the entire lunch break doing what she loved best. I think her love for dancing ignited the flame for Grandpa, who also was a great dancer.
You know about Grandma’s early jobs, beginning at the age of fourteen when she worked for the “obnoxious lawyer” who didn’t like her make-up, and how she later contributed her paycheck to her family after her father lost his job (Working 9 to 5 and More). So it was just a matter-of-course that she would be a working woman despite being a mother of five.
She always said she would not work for a second car or other “luxuries” like that, but only to help with the necessary family expenses. Working at a medical group was brilliant, because she often got our medical bills reduced or free as a perk of her employment. I know she enjoyed her employers and coworkers, but it could not have been easy for her to go to work every day at 4:00 until closing at around 9:00, or sometimes later. She did it for us. The house was always clean, the laundry done, and dinner was prepared. We all pitched in, but the weight was on her shoulders, and I don’t recall her complaining.
There are a lot of lessons I learned from Grandma—words of wisdom you might say—some of which I have passed on to the three of you. You all know the most important one which was taught to us at the dinner table: “It’s okay to spill the milk, but never, ever spill the wine.” I am sure Jesus probably spoke those words to the apostles at the Last Supper.
Grandma was self-sacrificing as a mother, but has always been stubborn as a woman. With the exception of canned tuna, she never lifted the embargo of fish imports into our home. Likewise is her permanent refusal of all yogurt products despite accidentally liking the frozen variety one time until she realize what she was eating. She won’t deny I am right.
Her sense of humor has grown more outrageous during the past few years, which is probably what makes her so well-liked by the nurses and aides. She is lovable to her friends, nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren. Even when she is not feeling well, she tries to hide it, not realizing that her adult children are still tattle tales and will spill the beans. It’s too hard to cover it all up. We share because we care.