Friday, April 13, 2012

Thinking of My Grandma

Ever since becoming a grandmother almost a year ago, I find myself thinking often of my own two grandmothers, who were both wonderful and loving women.

Growing up, my siblings and I were fortunate that we lived close enough to our paternal grandmother to see her on a regular basis. She was an extraordinary woman. She was one of the most elegant-looking ladies you’ve ever seen, naturally beautiful in that way that fashion models are: tall and lean, she was almost regal in her bearing, carrying herself with a fluid sort of grace; and her patrician face was marked by remarkably good bone structure. She was strikingly beautiful, always meticulously groomed and coiffed, and always well put-together in understated but gorgeous, impeccably-tailored clothing. You know, the kind of clothing where the simpler the cut, the more expensive the garment. I never saw her looking less than spectacular.

Grandma grew up the oldest of six children in a well-to-do family. Her father was a man of some wealth, but he lost it in the crash of ’29. As my mother tells it, when my grandmother’s father lost his money, he lost most of his spirit and ambition, too, leaving Grandma’s determined mother as the tough-as-nails matriarch who essentially became the head of the household. Grandma saw the life that had been plotted out for her—as a well-heeled young lady with a roadster of her own, on her way to college at Bryn Mawr—come to a crashing halt. She ended up having a rather tough life. Widowed at a young age, she became a single mother to two young children, my father and his younger sister, and became a public health nurse to support them. But though she never again enjoyed the kind of wealth and privilege with which she’d been raised, Grandma never lost that kind of upper crust way about her, a way of carrying herself that set her apart. In fact, although she was born and raised in New Jersey, she somehow ended up with an incongruous British-sounding accent. She was the only person I ever knew personally who called a tomato a “to-mah-to.” And she wasn’t putting on airs; that’s just the way she spoke.

With her extraordinary beauty and her high class mannerisms, Grandma might have come across as snobby and unapproachable if she hadn’t been such a warm, loving, funny person; but she was that and more. And she was an absolutely perfect grandmother.

My two brothers, two sisters, and I were Grandma’s only grandchildren, and she doted on the five of us unapologetically. No matter what the outside world thought of us, as far as she was concerned, we could do no wrong. She adored us absolutely, and we knew it.

And she had an uncanny knack for knowing just what any one of her grandchildren might need at any particular time, without a word being said. She seemed to read what was going on under the surface, and she was there with her own personal brand of magic to give any one of us just the boost he or she needed.

For me, that time was the year I turned eleven. At ten, I’d begun to suspect that my looks were sub-par when a female classmate made the offhand remark, “You know, you wouldn’t be so bad-looking if it wasn’t for your nose.” Up until that point, I don’t believe I’d given my nose a whole lot of thought. But after that girl’s thoughtless comment (kids can be so cruel, can’t they?), I couldn’t stop inspecting my apparently grotesque proboscis in the mirror. And suddenly, it seemed rather hideous. It was not the pert, small, upturned “ski jump” nose with which my best friend and my younger sisters had been blessed; it was a long, hooky beak. Why hadn’t I noticed this before? As if that wasn’t bad enough, when I turned eleven I had to start wearing glasses and--lucky me!--had braces put on my teeth at the same time. I was the tallest kid in my class—and was taller even than my older brother, who was a year and a half my senior; combine that with the baby fat I still carried around my middle, the glasses, the braces, and my apparently hideous nose, and the word “awkward” doesn’t begin to describe the phase I was going through. My grandmother must have sensed my discomfort with my appearance, because out of the blue she presented me with a couple of full-page Oil of Olay ads, torn out of her fashion magazines, which featured large black and white photos of a lovely model with a long, thin, somewhat beaky nose. “This model has your nose and eyes,” she said. And then she assured me, “This is what you’re going to look like when you grow up.” (Is it any wonder that when my greasy adolescent skin finally dried out and I had to start using moisturizer, I turned to Oil of Olay products, and use them to this day? The power of advertising!)

I’d like to tell you that my grandmother was right, that I eventually morphed into the spitting image of the woman on those magazine pages. But that model had high, sculpted cheekbones with a lot less flesh on them than mine, and she didn’t have the pad of fat under her chin that I can’t seem to get rid of even when I’m at my thinnest. However, I absolutely adore my grandmother for knowing how shaky my self-esteem was back then and wanting to give my morale a much-needed boost during those difficult pre-teen years. No matter what anyone else might have thought of me, I knew I was always beautiful in her eyes.

When I began dating my husband in high school, she was crazy about him from the start. I used to tease him that she loved him more than she loved me (it may have been true!). Whatever-- or whomever--her grandchildren loved, Grandma loved, too.

And she did this for my siblings, too. She took one of my younger sisters aside when she was a little girl and let her in on a big secret: she removed her dentures, showed her gummy smile to her wide-eyed granddaughter, and then popped her dentures back in. Grandma must have known that my sister was in need of some special attention at that time, because she never did that funny little trick for any of her other grandchildren. That was the special bond that just the two of them shared, and I can only imagine how thrilled my sister must have been to know that Grandma trusted her, and her alone, with such a deep, dark secret. (I never suspected that my beautiful grandmother had false teeth until I learned about it after her death. My sister kept that secret faithfully, as I’m sure Grandma knew she would!) I’ll bet if I polled my other siblings, they would have similar stories to tell about their unique relationships with our dear grandmother.

Right now, my twin granddaughters are happy little ten-month-old babies; their every hurt or disappointment can be fixed with a hug, a song, a story, or a belly tickle. But when they’re older and they go through some of the difficult stages kids go through, I hope I can be for them what my grandmother was for me, and for all five of her grandchildren: a source of unconditional, all-consuming, fiercely powerful love and support.
Grammy and her little darlings!
Grammy promises to do her best, girls. Luckily, I have a great example to follow.

God bless you, Grandma. I miss you!


  1. Oh, Laura, I have tears in my eyes reading this! Grandma did make all of us feel special. I will never forget the shopping trips to the grocery store I took with her (as an adult) and laughing at the silliest things! She told me things and stories that I can't repeat here, but ask me about them at the Palooza!! I love this!!

  2. She really was a PERFECT grandmother.