Did Grandma See Her Shadow?

One hundred twenty-three years ago today, America was celebrating its eighth Groundhog Day and waiting to see if Punxsutawney Phil would see his shadow. In the small town of Boonton, New Jersey, my great grandparents were welcoming their first daughter into the world—my grandmother, who would grow up to raise six children of her own.

Grandma was the granddaughter of a Civil War veteran from Ireland and the daughter of a successful businessman—the proprietor of a hotel and tavern in town as well as a bottler. (I have one of his bottles in my kitchen.) Because of her father’s success, my grandmother’s family was able to enjoy several life-improving gadgets such as an electric iron and one of the first telephones in town.

During her eighty-two year life, she lived through five wars and one near miss between the Soviet Union and the United States in Cuba. She experienced great tragedy with the deaths of three siblings and her father, all prior to her twenty-third birthday.

Grandma was seventeen when the Titanic sunk and twenty-five and a young newlywed when women were given the right to vote shortly before the election of President Warren G. Harding. She and my grandfather faced very lean years during the Great Depression, but somehow, they managed to pay the bills and put food on the table despite my grandfather losing his job and working nothing but odd jobs around town for a while.

She saw the inventions of the vacuum cleaner, washing machines, talking movies, frozen food, television, the polio vaccine, and both the availability of the first automobile in 1908 and the moon landing sixty-one years later. She witnessed the legal end of segregation, the opening of Disneyland and the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King. All these advancements and events must have made her head spin.

In spite of the hardships and sadness during her lifetime, my memories of her are of a woman who was a proud mother of her six children and thirty grandchildren. She smiled a lot and complained little except for her “damn old knee.”

Happy Birthday, Grandma.

                                             

Grandma’s Thoughtful Craft

When Kelly was around one, Grandma noticed how much she loved looking at babies. You all did.  On one of our visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, Grandma gave Kelly a gift which she had made for her, knowing of that interest in little people.

I was touched, because I don’t remember her making anything before this little craft. As the working mother of five children, she didn’t have a lot of spare time at her disposal.

Kelly was thrilled by that gift, which was a photo album filled with pictures of various sizes and shapes of babies, which Grandma made by cutting out pictures from magazines. It was her favorite “toy” for a while. While not a difficult project, it took a lot of time, and it was extremely thoughtful.

Jamie and Casey (and probably most babies) shared that love of looking at babies, so when Kelly outgrew her album, it became theirs to enjoy.

I wish I had saved it, but I am confident that it eventually fell apart from overuse. Now when Lily comes over, she grabs the two albums because she just loves looking at herself and her brother. Kids are really the same—no matter the time.

Grandma’s Sweet Treats

I have talked about the power of music saying that it “lifts us up when we are sad, calms our nerves, makes us laugh, and brings us to tears. Music is a time machine, transporting us back to another time by just the sounds of a few notes in a song.” (See The Power of Music)

Food is like that too. Canned tuna reminds me of meatless Fridays growing up, escargot reminds me of our cruises when you were little, and Salisbury steak reminds me of my dining hall in college, when I swore I would never partake of that sorry excuse for steak ever again.

I remember going to my grandmother’s house, where she would have a bowl of cellophane-wrapped butterscotch candies. That was her special treat.

bit.ly/2gpDoX5
bit.ly/2gpDoX5

As you all should remember, when you went to my mother’s house, Grandma would always have her little goodies—some form of chocolate—tucked away in the drawer underneath her oven. So with that in mind, I was telling Dad that I need to figure out what my Grandma special sweet delight will be, and where should they be kept?

When Bryce visits, he knows to go to my pantry where he usually goes “shopping.” Somedays he will appear with a box of crackers, pretzels, or maybe some mandarin oranges. But that is not what I have in mind. Like Grandma, my treat for the grandchildren should be some form of chocolate, such as M&M’s or York Peppermint Patties (those will, of course, be found in the freezer!).

What are your thoughts? This is important, because my choice of a guilty pleasure will forever define me to future generations.

Baba

As I write these stories and talk to Grandma, I think a lot about the mysteries of memory. Why does she remember certain things which seem very random, yet forget other events which seem memorable or very recent? What makes me recall particular stories, and why do they sometimes pop into my head for no reason? As I spend more time with Bryce and Lily, I wonder what, if any, of these early memories they will recall in twenty or more years. If the answer is none, then does it really matter if I spend my time with them planning fun-filled outings, or instead, pop them in front of the television and watch the news or the shopping network?

This latest bunch of random thoughts was precipitated by the discovery of a photo of me with Baba, my Russian grandma ,when I was about two or three. You must admit that I was damn cute!

Baba and me

The first thing about me that I noticed were the curls on my head. My hair was not naturally curly, so the question that I ask myself now is whether my cute little ringlets were the result of curlers or a perm. My guess is the latter, because I do not believe I could have sat still long enough through the stinky process of a home perm. (Even though I was definitely the perfect child)

Then look at those bangs. I am sure you have seen the result of Grandma’s bang-cutting expertise in many photos of my two sisters and me many times.. Aren’t you glad that I never did that to any of you?

Then there is Baba. Like me, she looks so serious. When this photo was snapped, she had not been back in this country more than a year, having arrived in January 1957. I was not quite nineteen months old when I first met her.

I have vague flashes of memory visiting her at her home on Boonton Avenue where she lived with my twin aunts, Helen and Nancy. After she came to the United States and for the rest of her life, she was bounced from house to house. She lived in Boonton for a while, and then after my aunts got married and left Boonton, she lived in Somerville with Aunt Helen, and Trenton with Aunt Nancy.

Her move into our house was quite sudden and unexpected. I guess Aunt Nancy’s husband, Uncle John, had enough of living with his mother-in-law, so one day, they pulled up at our house in his flashy green Cadillac, and Uncle John literally dumped Baba at the curb in front of our house . There was no warning and a lot of panicked planning on Grandma and Grandpa’s part to figure out where to put her in a house with five kids and three bedrooms. Grandma cried a lot.

Grandpa then had an unexpected project, which was converting our dining room into a bedroom for Uncle Mart and Uncle Dave. The two openings into that room were originally arched entries, which Grandpa had to reshape to fit two doors.

That was the end of Grandma being able to host her fat club, which was a group of ladies who got together at each other’s houses to chat and eat dessert.

Now the two boys were sleeping adjacent to the kitchen and living room, and we had to squeeze an extra person around the kitchen table. It was not a good time for our family..

It was a very hard transition for both Grandma and Baba. Without warning, these two women, who could not speak to each other, were abruptly stuck with each other. Grandma was not happy having her mother-in-law who could speak only Russian sharing her days with her, and for Baba, she was literally thrown out of her daughter’s house. After all those years of living apart from her children, now she was discarded like a worn old shoe.

The only way we could talk to her was when Grandpa acted as a translator. So we would sit at the dinner table, and Baba would listen to the babble of the seven of us but would have no idea what we were saying. Grandma would continually be reminding Grandpa to tell her what we were discussing.

One day, Grandma went upstairs to change the sheets. After she removed the dirty sheets, she was interrupted by a telephone call. When she left, Baba saw the sheets lying on the floor or the bed, so she decided to help Grandma by putting them on the bed. Needless to say, Grandma was not pleased when she returned to discover that the bed was made with dirty sheets, and she could not explain to Baba why she was removing them. It is funny now, but it must have been frustrating for both of them.

I don’t know what she did all day. My uncle Pete bought Baba a short wave radio, which enabled her to listen to Russian stations, but I am not sure how much it worked.

She enjoyed certain shows such as I Love Lucy, which got a lot of its laughs with visual comedy. Aunt Ar told me recently that Baba hated Cher. I’m not sure why.

She had some Russian friends who lived near Mt. Carmel Church on Birch Street. I have no idea how she met them, but since Boonton is such a small town, I imagine they found each other or Grandpa dug them up for her.

Baba made the best bread, so she decided to teach Grandma how to bake it. As Bryce would say, “It was a disaster.” As someone who lived many years sharing her living space with another family and then sleeping at railroad stations during the war, her sanitation standards were at a different level than Grandma’s. She didn’t wash her hands enough, and if she had a runny nose, then, oh well, she used her sleeve or back of her hand and then continued kneading the dough. She measured nothing, and because of the language barrier, she could only demonstrate, but not explain. It was not good, and as a result, there is no family bread recipe.

She eventually moved one more time, which was to Aunt Helen’s Florida Gulf Coast house where she died in 1978. I often wonder if she would have been happier if she remained in Russia where she had family and friends. She had such a sad life.

See the USA in Your Chevrolet

My favorite Christmas present from Dad is both extremely geeky and incredibly mind-blowing. It is not much larger than a deck of cards but is capable of holding every photo I have digitally taken, my videos, all my research, the many versions of my two books, and all of my music. And after adding all this data to my new external drive, I have used only one per cent of its capacity. Whoa and Wow! Just try to wrap your mind around that.

While now organizing my digital life, I discovered an additional story about Grandma and Grandpa’s younger days which I’d like to share with you.

Grandma’s family never had a car.  When her dad worked at a local grocery store, he would take the kids for a ride in the country (Boonton Township) in the store’s truck while making deliveries or would borrow it to take the family on an evening drive. That was there entertainment.

Her first car was the Chevrolet Grandpa had when they got married, which was the car they drove to Texas together after their marriage in 1951. As I have mentioned, Grandpa was in the Army reserves, and was recalled to service during the Korean War.

They lived in a two-room apartment, and like Grandpa’s apartment in Russia, they had to share the bathroom with their neighbors—a woman from Texas and her spouse who was also in the army.  Grandma did not like her.  She said she was a typical Texan who thought everything in Texas was bigger and better than every place else.

One day, she told Grandma to come watch a house being moved.  Grandma, as typical of her wry sense of humor, told the woman it was no big deal, because in New Jersey she had seen whole houses, including the basement, being moved.  Furthermore, she claimed that she even watched the Empire State Building being moved to another location.

The town of Killeen, where Fort Hood was located, was very small.  There was nothing to do except go to the one theater located in town.  One evening Grandma went to a show alone and was followed home by someone who even shined a light in the window.  She screamed out as if she were speaking to someone, and the person left.  She immediately called Grandpa, who returned home and brought her back to the base.  She remained in the car until he finished work.

On Sundays, they would sometimes go to the base for dinner in the mess hall at a cost of $0.55.  She would pass her days with the bragger from Texas and another woman from Chicago. That summer was the hottest temperature thus far for that area.  In order to sleep comfortably, Grandma would sometimes put the sheets in the refrigerator to cool down. There were no air conditioners.

Fortunately, Grandpa’s service abruptly ended, and they returned to New Jersey in September after spending five miserable months in Texas. It was not a day too soon for Grandma, who missed her mother and could not wait to get back to Boonton!

See the USA in Your Chevrolet
See the USA in Your Chevrolet
Grandma and Grandpa's First Home- Killeen , Texas 1951
Grandma and Grandpa’s First Home- Killeen , Texas 1951

Grandma Back in Her Day

How will you remember Grandma, Grandpa, Dad and me? My grandmother was sixty when I was born. I like to think that is not really old but to a very young child, it is ancient. I have no memories of her ever running around with me like I do now with Bryce, but I was her ninth grandchild, so maybe she was too worn out by the time I joined the family.

It’s difficult to imagine any of our older relatives ever being young, but when you look at what was written about Grandma in her high school yearbook, you will recognize her in those words.

We all know about her Irish pride. Her Irish signs filled the wall of the hallway outside her bedroom door. “May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead” was one of my favorites.

She was a jokester then, and she still likes to make jokes today, although sometimes tasteless. But I think that is quite common with the elderly. Who knows what words will pour from my mouth in twenty-five years? I know that the nurses and caregivers enjoy hanging out in her room because she makes them smile and enjoys casual banter. This is not new. Everyone always enjoyed being around her as long as I can remember.

What is surprising to even me is reading that “she can talk on any topic at any time.” This I would have expected from Aunt Marian, not Grandma. I know she had plenty of friends and boyfriends, but that was news to me, and I have known her since she was just eight years older than when that statement was made.

But we never really know our parents completely. We see them through the eyes of the children that we will always be to them. I think that is why I have enjoyed learning so much about Grandpa’s life as a young adult. My research has given me a view of the father I did not know, like this yearbook portrays a side of my mother seen through the eyes of her peers.

Grandma- High School Yearbook 1947
                                       Grandma- High School Yearbook 1947

Jersey Bound

One hundred and two years ago this week, my Russian grandma was at a train station in Libau, Latvia, a small port city on the Baltic Sea. She was waiting to board a passenger/cargo steamship with her brother-in-law Mark to join my grandfather in New York. They had not seen each other for many years.

Travel during that time was unpleasant. My grandmother, who we all called Baba, and great Uncle Mark, stayed in separate quarters between the lower deck and cargo area. The beds were narrow and dirty, and there was little air, hear, or light in that part of the ship. Seasickness was a common result of the rough seas and awful food.

We have all experienced seasickness on luxury cruises, so can you imagine what this must have been like for them? My grandmother was only twenty-seven when she left, and Grandpa’s uncle was a year older. I have a very hard time wrapping my head around what they did at such young ages. They couldn’t pick up a phone to “check in” with their parents or send them a quick text to let them know they were safe. There was no communication.

At that time of the year, the weather was raw and windy, since they were traveling along a northerly route . They stopped first in Copenhagen, Denmark, then Halifax, Nova Scotia before finally disembarking in New York on November 25, 1913, two weeks after first setting sail.

Their ship docked in New York Harbor where the first and second class passenger disembarked after a very brief medical inspection. Steerage passengers, which was what third-class passengers were called, boarded a ferry to Ellis Island. You all went there in fifth grade, so now you know that your great grandmother came through that building.

On Ellis Island, they waited for many hours for a brief medical exam and then some inspectors asked them a series of questions such as their nationality, previous addresses, the name of the closest relative “in the country whence the alien came”, and whether they had a final destination, sponsor, and enough money for their travel.

They had twenty-five dollars between the two of them, which turns out was not such a small amount back then. It is roughly equivalent to six hundred dollars today. The tickets and money were sent to them by my grandfather, who had been in this country since July, after traveling there from Argentina where he had been working for many years on a farm.

My grandfather met them at Ellis Island after all the inspections were complete. They took another ferry across the harbor to a train into New York City where they stayed a short time.

By the time my grandparents were reunited, my grandfather had a job in Dover, New Jersey working in a company called the “Ulster Iron Works. They lived in nearby Rockaway, renting a place for four years before moving into their own home.

So that is how the Russian side of our family ended up in northern New Jersey.

My Russian Grandpa
My Russian Grandpa
My Grandmother- Baba
My Grandmother- Baba

The Final Postcard: Their Wedding

I am sad that I stopped sending the postcards to Grandma. This is the letter she sent to me after my final postcard in response to the questions:

1. What was your wedding like?

2. What kind of party did you have after the wedding and who came?

Dear Karen

Your father didn’t tell me about converting to the Catholic religion. It was a surprise to me. He went through the process in Texas before we were married. He had been baptized at St. Cyril’s in Boonton because there was no Russian church in the area. So that made it easy for him. I was surprised because keeping a secret was something he wasn’t good at.

 Our wedding was very small, fortunately, because he didn’t know when he could get home. We had immediate families only. Small ceremony, no mass, at 11 a.m., Mt. Carmel. His brother didn’t like the time so he didn’t come. He gave me a lot of grief over the time.

We had dinner in Denville—a place your father and I liked. It was very nice. We went back to the Birch Street house for wedding cake. I remember my mother writing out a check for the dinner. It was under $100. We went away for the night and left for Texas the next day.

 So fifty-seven years later, here I am. This is it for now.

Love,

Mom

Grandma wore a yellow dress for the occasion. Although all her siblings had more traditional ceremonies, with big wedding parties and traditional wedding gowns, I think that was really what Grandma wanted. She never liked big fusses made over her. That has always been her way.

I am surprised at my Uncle Pete. After all they went through trying to become a family again, and all the effort Grandpa made at getting him back from Russia, I feel it was a slap in the face for him to complain at all about the wedding. He should have kept his mouth shut and came with a smile on his face. I do not understand Grandpa’s family.

Grandma & Grandpa- April 21, 1951

My Grandma & Your Grandparents
My Grandma & Your Grandparents
Grandma and Grandpa's First Home- Killeen , Texas 1951
Grandma & Granpa’s First Home- Killeen, Texas

Who Didn’t Like Him?

Everyone needs an Uncle Tony. I do not believe it was possible to find a person who had an unkind word to say about him. There was so much love packed into his small frame. I can’t imagine him without a smile on his face, which says a lot for a man with eight children. I was lucky to not only have had him as my uncle but my godfather as well.

As you know, my grandmother lived in the house adjacent to ours, but as time went on, it became more and more difficult for her to afford to live on her own.  Uncle Tony and my grandma decided to look for a house large enough for the ten of them and her, which was very generous since she was the mother-in-law. But he was the kind of man who would never say no to her.

On Sundays, he would go to the local bakery to pick up buns for the family—crumb buns, jelly donuts and cream-filled pastries were among my favorites. As part of their extended family, we always received a delivery.

He was a hard-worker.  Their first house had a basement under only part of the house. I remember seeing Uncle Tony and some of the other men of the family digging it out by hand. That room was converted into a bedroom for the four boys, furnished with two sets of bunk beds.

No one could repair the body damage to a car like him, except maybe Billy, who inherited that skill and attention to detail from his dad. Anyone who had their car repaired by either knew it would be returned better than new. They were both that good.

Uncle Tony loved to bowl, but Aunt Marian did not–neither did Grandpa. So when Uncle Tony asked Grandma to be his partner on a weekly bowling team, she couldn’t refuse. Grandma bowled about as well as I play golf, but she continued playing because she enjoyed the camaraderie of the sport and her partner. She told me about the time he leaned over and whispered in her ear, and when someone jokingly asked if he was whispering sweet nothings to her, Grandma said, “No, he said I’m a lousy player!” He was funny in a subtle way like that.

When I was pondering about what to write about today, a song came on the radio. It was Queen—You’re My Best friend. Everyone knows that Queen was Billy’s band, but I remember going to Uncle Tony’s 80th birthday party and seeing all his kids getting up to dance to that song with him. That says it all. On television everyone loved Raymond, but in my town, everyone loved Uncle Tony.

Uncle Tony Out on the River
Uncle Tony Out on the River

Twins

Twins were not unusual in our family. Both of my grandmothers had twins. Grandpa’s oldest sisters were twins as were Grandma’s youngest brothers. Grandma’s great Uncle Jim had twin boys, and her great Aunt Johanna had three set of twins. (Oy and Ouch!) As a Gemini, I was convinced history would repeat itself with me, but fortunately that did not happen. At one time, prior to having any children, I thought it would be fun. After the birth of one, I saw the light.

When my Grandma’s mother was expecting her boys—Uncle Bob and Uncle Don—their birth was a secret. Back in those days, I guess you just didn’t talk about those kind of things with your children. In fact, my grandmother did not prepare Grandma for growing up, so when she got her period, she was convinced she was dying.

Aunt Marian did not learn she had two more brothers until a neighbor informed her. Apparently it was very touch and go after they were born, and my grandmother almost died. She went into kidney failure and was given the last rites by a priest named Father William Palazzo. At the time, Aunt Marian did not know that she would one day marry the nephew of that priest.

Having twins during the Depression years was very difficult for my grandparents. They were very poor but too proud to accept money from anyone. Her friend Mae, who married a very successful businessman, gave my grandmother the gift of home delivery of milk, which was a present she could not refuse.

My twin uncles led parallel lives. They both were married in 1956, just seven weeks apart. They each had two boys and one girl born during the same years—1957, 1960, and 1963. Both Uncle Bob and Uncle Don even worked for the same company.

They did everything together, including having heart attacks at the same time. Uncle Don went first, going to St. Clare’s in Denville before being transferred to a hospital in Newark.  Uncle Bob awoke with chest pains after visiting his brother in Denville, and when he was admitted, some of the nurses believed Uncle Don had returned. Talk about being close!

My research has found no other twins in the family for sixty years, when the great-great granddaughter of Grandma’s Uncle Jim Carey gave birth to twin girls in 2006. Fraternal twins, which is what Grandpa’s sisters and Grandma’s brothers were, is a genetic trait, which is more likely to occur in women in their early thirties. So although it has not happened very often, I am just warning you all of this.

Uncle Don and Uncle Bob
Uncle Don and Uncle Bob