Ethel was my paternal grandmother. She died in 1987, when I was 21 and she was 73, after a very long battle with osteoporosis and a very short battle with pancreatic cancer.
My dad says Ethel was a bitter, unhappy woman, but I don’t remember her that way at all.
What I do remember is that for years she tried to kick the habit of biting her nails and once she did, she was never without a perfect manicure. She had the most amazing silver streak in her otherwise dark head of hair. In her Brooklyn co-op apartment, she had an oven that between the burners and the stove had two small trays that were just wide enough for sliced bread and on which you could make the most perfect toast with Muenster cheese. To this day, when I need comfort food this is what I crave.
As a child, I would go and stay with her for a week each summer. Just me, without my brothers. I loved that time, when for just a week I was an only child and she spoiled me rotten. I would take the Greyhound bus from Philadelphia to NY and she would be there waiting for me with a list of all the things we would do. Shopping. Lunch at the Rollin’ Rooster. A movie or two. A trip to THE CITY on the subway. We would visit her friends and I would watch them with fascination as they played Majong. I would sit quietly as they played their tiles and spun stories about their husbands, children and grand-children. These women had been gossiping with each for longer than any of them could remember. They had been through everything together. They grew up together, watched each other get married, have children and grand children and sadly bury their husbands.
My grandmother was one of the first to bury her husband. So, while my dad remembers her as being unhappy, I just remember her as sometimes being sad.
I suppose she had reason to be sad. While she had a lot of wonderful things happen in her life, she also endured some tragedy. When Ethel was a 10 or so, my great-grandmother left her home with her younger sister for a few minutes while she ran to the store. In the time that she was gone an apartment fire broke out and while Ethel was unharmed the younger sister died. My great-grandmother never let her forget this. 55 years later, Ethel still felt guilty for something that was not her fault and happened such a long time ago. No matter how horrible my great-grandmother was to Ethel she never stopped trying to make it up to her. Or, stopped being sad over it.
Equally painful was the sudden death of my grandfather. One day in 1971, he got up, got dressed, took the subway into the city for work and while sitting at his desk had an aneurism and died almost instantly. On those visits to NY, I remember lying in bed with my grandmother, listening to the radio, her arm leaning across her face, quietly sobbing. She would say that she was crying happy tears because I was there, but I knew differently.
There weren’t very many pictures of my grandfather in her apartment. I think they made her sad, but after he died she took to wearing his signet ring. She said it made her feel closer to him. On those visits to NY, while we were lying in bed together, I would always ask to wear the ring. I loved the way the gold felt on my finger and the way I could only just make out the initials it was so worn away.
Ethel shaped the way I see a lot of the world and a lot of what I wanted for myself in the world.
My dad says that my grandfather spent his whole adult life trying to please my grandmother. I don’t know about that, as I was 5 when he died and I don’t really remember him. What I remember is that after Ethel died I was with my mom and Aunt cleaning out her apartment and we found her mink stole. My mom and Aunt wanted to put it in the pile of things to go to Goodwill, but I has having none of having that. My grandfather must have worked for months or maybe years to be able to afford to buy that stole for her. I don’t remember ever actually seeing her wear the stole, except in pictures, but I can totally imagine how happy she was when she got it. When she died I wasn’t in a relationship, but I said to my mom and Aunt, “someday, I want to marry someone who will work that hard to make me happy” and I never compromised.
When I was in 9th grade, I went to Paris on a class trip. Along with some spending money Ethel gave me some advice. She said, “never let your passport expire because you never know when a man will want to whisk you off to Paris for dinner at a moments notice. ” At the time that made perfect sense to me, although I have no idea if she wanted that for me or for herself. I also have no idea whose life she thought I would be living, but none the less, I have never let my passport expire. I have also never been whisked off to Paris for dinner at a moments notice, but my husband recently booked us a trip to Marekash and I like to believe that Ethel would be thrilled if she knew all the places I had traveled with my passport.
I was working for Bloomingdale’s, outside of Philadelphia on a six-day work schedule when Ethel got really sick. I would faithfully use my one day off to drive the 1 1/2 hours to NY with my mom to visit her in the hospital. She wasn’t eating very much and so we would stop at the Rollin’ Rooster on our way, pick up her favorites and try to entice her to keep up her energy. My mom would tell her funny stories about what was going on with my brothers or read her excerpts from the Sunday NY Times travel section while I would carefully remove the nail polish I had applied the week before and apply a fresh coat.
On one visit, as I took off the signet ring to rub lotion into her hands, she said “why don’t you take it for safe keeping? I don’t trust the nurses here. I don’t want it to get stolen and I know that you will take good care of it.” As I slipped the ring on to my finger, the gold felt just as good as it did when I was a kid.
Ethel died soon after that visit and I never took that ring off until one day, many years later, it was replaced with an engagement ring from a man who worked very hard to make me very happy.
This is the latest edition in my Alphabet Memoir blogging challenge. The idea is to work through the alphabet by writing short memoir-like pieces. Thanks to Courtney , City Wendy, Charlotte, JadePark , Lounalune and Contact Zone for their inspirational alphabet memoirs. There might be other alphabet memoir bloggers out there, but I haven’t found them yet. If you find more, let me know.