I have few memories about my mother. The last time I ever saw her was on my 7th birthday when she came to our house. My brother and I were hiding out in the backyard, trying to avoid the arrival of the stranger. Needless to say, it was an awkward introduction. She brought two birthday presents with her: a very creepy VHS of Rumplestiltskin that I later destroyed after having too many nightmares of the dancing midget, and a dishtowel with Stuff, the old Orlando Magic mascot. I remember that at dinner, grandma made her a salad as an alternative to the dinner she prepared for us, having just announced that she’d become a vegetarian. The next morning, we went with my uncle who drove her to the bus station. And that was it.
For Mother’s Day every year, I send floral-patterned greeting cards and gifts to my Grandma. This, the lady who I’m sure never expected would be raising kids all over again when she and grandpa packed up their house in Staten Island and retired to Florida. When you’re a little kid raised by grandparents, other little kids who are not have this idea that it’s just like a prolonged version of when their cheerful grandparents come to visit on special occasions. Someone actually asked me in 2nd grade, “So… do your grandparents give you lots of presents?” Bill Cosby was right, kids do say the darndest things! No, my brother and I weren’t showered with presents from our grandparents as though we were the prodigal kids in a nativity scene. And could you imagine what kind of assholes we would have turned out like if we did?
You get a different outlook on the world when your “folks” (and their friends and relatives, many of them New Yorkers) are spritely and elderly (though there was no escaping the oft-repeated reminder that “it’s no fun getting old”). In that kind of environment you tend to be less cynical about age, less ignorant about it, too. And, I don’t mean to say spritely in that Auntie Mame sense of flamboyant, menopausal theatrics, but still in their right minds and most of them, up until a few years ago, weren’t resigned to stationary living. Even at 80, Grandma still reupholsters the living room furniture, climbs a ladder to paint the house, cooks big meals like we’re preparing for Siesta, and just took her first overseas trip to Rome (where she accidentally saw the Pope!).
This is my Grandma. She was born on the brink of the Great Depression to a big Slavic family in a Kentucky town that doesn’t exist anymore. By her teens, she shed her accent and left home smart, independent, and stubborn. She eventually called New York home before Florida and lived there almost as long. She worked as counter girl demonstrating hair products. As grocery store manager. In real estate. And for a long time, as a dressmaker at a boutique run by a man named Joe, turning down an offer by a wealthy woman to become her personal tailor. She played Mahjohng with the Jewish women in her building in the Bronx. Married my Italian Grandpa. Impressed his mother because she could make ravioli. Lived in the Projects. Raised my uncle and my mother. Lost her husband to cancer.
This is the lady who jumped in a hotel swimming pool with her clothes on to rescue me when I fell in when I was a little kid. The one who spent a summer teaching my brother and I math and geography with flashcards. Who made us clothes. Who taught me how to drive. Who once told me she was proud of me when I showed her an editorial I got published in the paper, and called when I was writing my Master’s thesis to ask if I’d considered broadband for my topic. Who I never knew is really kind of shy. Who can still make me laugh to tears and sometimes, can’t even get through her own corny jokes, busting up because she knows the punchline is too corny to utter.
My Grandma. And I’m really not saying enough about a woman who has lived to be 80 and raised a girl who’s almost 30, but I do want to say, HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!