All of us who have ever known grandparents can conjure up images of time spent in their presence. I am no exception. However, while most of my friends fondly remember their grandparents as frail, gentle, soft-spoken individuals with whom they spent Sunday dinners, my recollections are very different. My memories take me back to visiting my grandmother at her small apartment and seeing her glued to her television, cigarette butt in mouth, screaming aloud as she cheered on her favorite wrestler. Words like “grab him” and “knock him down” filled the room, obscuring everything around her.
My grandmother was born in Budapest, Hungary before the turn of the 20th century. She spoke no English upon her arrival in America, but in her desire to assimilate, she worked hard to learn English. Some nuances of the language escaped her, and my siblings and I laughed out loud at her misuse of idiomatic expressions. Names also seemed to elude her and she devised her own nomenclature for her grandchildren; my brother Richard was “Butchie,” my sister Marilyn was “Tu Tu” and I was “Beckie.” Being hearing impaired, grandma was much too proud to ask for clarification when being introduced, thus my brother-in-law Vito became Pedro throughout the course of her lifetime.
Although my grandmother didn’t conform to the traditional image of a grandparent, she was no less loving with her grandchildren. I can still recall being bounced on her generous lap as she chanted one of the rhymes her mother must have sung to her when she was a child. Although I never understood a word of what was being said, the depth of her love filled every part of my small frame. Now, in my later years of life, I think about how poignant these moments must have been for her as memories of her homeland became resurrected through those little rhymes.
A true believer in the goodness of people, my grandmother rarely picked up on dismissive social cues. It went beyond her comprehension that anyone would want to slight her. One incident comes to mind when I was sixteen and working my very first job in a variety store. Like the gale winds preceding a hurricane, my hard-of-hearing grandmother came heralding into the store loudly calling out my name. Like most sixteen year olds at the time, I was easily embarrassed and the thought of my grandmother hovering over me at my place of work was more than I could handle. So, before she could see me, I hid behind the shower curtain display. My shoes or some part of my body must have been exposed, because the next thing I knew, grandma pulled aside the curtains and yelled, much to my chagrin, “Ha, ha, I found you!” As I reflect on that day, I am thankful that she never knew that I was intentionally hiding from her. She was much too kind to suffer the indignity of a granddaughter who was trying to avoid her.
All grandchildren have a favorite place to go to when they visit their grandparents’ house; mine was my grandmother’s dresser drawers, which she allowed me to investigate whenever I came to visit. My excitement mounted as my small fingers held her bejeweled hair combs, exotic facial creams, perfume atomizer, hand-held mirror and a medley of photos of her and my grandfather taken at Sammy’s Bowery Follies and various other “hot spots” of her day, each photo presenting an image of two people who loved life and each other.
Dancing was a part of her life, but as arthritis took over her body, she would ask me to dance for her. I must admit that my five years of tap and ballet did little to improve my gracefulness, but to my grandmother I was a Prima Ballerina and she would gaily clap and throw coins at my feet as I danced to some Hungarian Rhapsody playing on her phonograph. Little did she realize that the smile on her face and our times spent together meant more to me than the coins tossed my way.
We are all the product of many forces that help to mold our lives. Although I don’t smoke, watch wrestling or chant Hungarian rhymes, I have inherited many of my grandmother’s traits and superstitions. I will not have peacock feathers in my house (my grandmother once told me that they symbolized death) nor will I buy gladioli (a funeral flower). I do chant rhymes to my granddaughters as I bounce them on my knee. I continue to enjoy dancing, often with a toddler or infant as my partner, and I have developed a fondness for composer Franz LIszt’s music. Most of all, I hope to carry her legacy through my ability to appreciate life’s simple rewards and through the love I show to my granddaughters.
During my teaching career, I often read Kevin’s Grandma by Barbara Williams to my students; a delightful book about a grandmother who indeed marches to her own drummer and does outlandish things. My students sat enthralled, as Kevin’s grandmother was compared to the traditional image of a grandmother. Whenever I read this book, my mind travelled back to my own grandmother and some of her antics. From the very first time I read the story aloud, I became convinced that I would always want to have a bit of Kevin’s grandmother in me. Only recently did I realize that I had more than the character of Kevin’s grandma in me. I had the real thing; I had Betty’s grandmother.
As I write this and think back to the diverse nature of my grandmother, I wonder what aspects of my personality will be most memorable when my granddaughters grow into their advanced years. I can only hope that they recall me with the same degree of fondness that I now hold, as I remember grandma.