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Sunday, May 2, 2010

An Ode (and a Cautionary Tale) of Grandmas

My parents had the most interesting women for mothers themselves, and these two women could not have been more different, one creative, energetic and loving, the other...well..not so much..

One came as a child to Chicago, during one of the many anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia and the Ukraine. She had a large and loving family, and met my Grandfather at her parents' dry cleaners, when he came in to get his pants pressed, a quaint but now-obsolete common practice in the 1920's.
She was my mother's mother...

The other, the child of parents who came to New York on the 'fever' ships from Ireland,
a Catholic and a Protestant from 'Derry, strangely and dangerously married...this child's parents didn't survive long, and she was raised in a Brooklyn Catholic orphanage...
She was my father's mother...

My maternal grandmother, Marie, was the creative one, although I don't think most of her relatives appreciated her efforts...she wanted to embellish everything, make everything 'pretty', as she said, but was sadly frustrated in her efforts. She used to knit me those crazy-coloured booties that seem to last a season, then another pair would come, right on time..she was a great cook, and would never let us visit without stuffing us mightily with gorgeous Ukrainian food, the Depression probably not far from her thoughts in this new time of plenty.

My paternal grandmother, Trudie, my sister named for her, was an entirely different article..she spent visits talking about herself almost exclusively, and exhaustively, as if to convince us of her worth, which I never appreciated, since she always sent us, as her only gifts to us, Christmas-time excruciatingly cheap, bad, impossible to wear ugly clothing, which of course we were forced to wear in her presence. She cooked as if the Depression were still a reality, and I actually learned to enjoy such poverty protein as lambshanks (they used to be really cheap, gentle reader!) and fried smelts...
My maternal grandmother was always impressed and delighted with my juvenile efforts at being creative, perhaps feeling I was a chip off the old block. Her various homes, (for she and my Grandfather were, indeed, perennially wandering Jews, a habit that I too was born with..) over-
embellished with floucy furniture covers and lots of little prints of classical art that was actually a good starting education for me, embarrassed my Mother, who was totally without creativity and had no apprecialtion for her mother's attempts to gild the lily..but what Grandma Marie gave me was the ability to ignore boundaries, to colour outside the lines-
probably the most valuable gift I ever received as a Maker-permission to fly...
Now my favourite Grandma Trudie story is a bit shocking, but very telling in some sense..
She was the crocheter, who didn't teach me because she didn't know I wanted to learn, and couldn't have because I'm left-handed...
When I was about 4 or 5, I can remember sitting at a bus stop in Glendale, California (where she lived, not I) and watching her crochet a tiny little baby dress and hat on a rubber baby doll, less than 2 inches long.
Do any of you remember those wee dolls? Usually, they came naked in a little plastic capsule from a gumball machine for 5 cents... At any rate, I thought it was miraculously beautiful, so I was staring at her hands, busy with that skinny metal hook and thread, when a woman with a young son sat down next to my Grandma...for no discernible reason, the son, about 3 years old, bit my Grandma on the hand...
My Grandma calmly grabbed his arm and bit him right back, till he started squalling, his mother, shocked but silent, looking away as if it hadn't, this didn't corrupt crocheting for me for a lifetime, as you can see, quite the contrary..
When my Grandmother finished the doll, I asked if I could look at it, and she handed it to me I wanted that little dolly...well, of course not, it was for a little girl from her church..and this was the other great lesson, and probably what made it necessary for me, later in life, to learn, against all my left-handed odds, to do the damn thing myself.
Now, one grandma came from love and tradition, and one from death and pain, so as I get older, I am more empathetic to my 'mean' grandma, because her life was so horrifying, so young..

Still, I will always believe that, for me, creativity comes from love...


  1. My maternal grandmother was mean too. She used to tell me I was her favorite because I was the only grand child who was interested in what she did...also, crochet, sewing and whatnots. She'd teach me things and if it was not to her liking...she make me re do it...everything...but, I must say..even though I was a little scared of her, she helped me along with my creativity instead of stifling it. Have a wonderful week!


  2. Yes, bunny, creative types can be hard taskmasters, but, as you say, she still was your inspiration...
    My 'nice' grandma, used to tell everyone that each one of her four grandchildren was her'favourite', depending on who was there or which child was being discussed..we always knew it, and we always loved her for it...

  3. Oh if I had a booty crocheting Grandma I would be in heaven! I am digging your biting Grandma, too.

    My grandmother I loved died in 1997. I still have one that is alive but she never acted like she cared much about us kids, we rarely were allowed in her house, we were not allowed to call her Grandma, and honestly I don't remember ever hugging her or touching her as a kid.

    I enjoyed your blog post.


  4. Loved this post! SO wonderful to remember who we came from and what helped us to become who we are...beautifully done! Love the biting story! Wonder if that helped that little guy???

    Thanks for sharing your stories today!