Sunday marks what would have been my grandmother’s 88th birthday. 12 days later marks the 13th anniversary of her passing. So many things remind me of her and I think of her so often. December always feels like Grandma Month to me.
I was lucky to live very close to my grandparents while I was growing up. I spent every Saturday at their house. In the summer, my grandmother would carry around a little radio so she could keep track of the baseball game that was on. Her favorite team was the Mets and I actually knew some of the players’ names. One of her other hobbies was puzzles. Often you’d find partially finished ones in the house and I loved when she’d let me help. I was not a good help at all though because they were very difficult. I think she had one that was all one color, or something equally complicated. My favorite one had all the pieces shaped like salamanders. I loved to take that one out to play with.
Grandma’s house was always prepared with the snacks we never had at home. She drank soda (fun brands like Tab and Shasta and Vintage) but always had a bottle of Shop-Rite brand for the kids. She had great flavors like grape and orange and root beer (she pronounced root to rhyme with foot, not toot) and birch beer. My brother and I had our own special cups too. Mine was Strawberry Shortcake. There was always Cheez-Its or ice cream (or both!) in the house. And Oreos and Devil Dogs. I didn’t like the Devil Dogs, which she knew, but my brother did. She used to get me “finger cookies,” which were Keebler Fudge Stripes. You could put your finger through the hole and it was like you had a cookie on a stick.
We always stayed for dinner on Saturday night. One of her specialties was Spanish Rice, which was a recipe from the back of a Minute Rice box. That recipe card was so old I think it was actually from the first box ever made. What cracked me up was that she always took out the recipe and yet it always tasted different. As she got a little older (and a little more forgetful) she would forget if she added salt. She did not find it so funny the day no one could eat the rice because it was so salty. She was an avid food-salter. She always referred to ground beef as “ground round” and I never knew what she meant. She also made “Quick Spaghetti” and I really never understood how it was different from the never-mentioned “Slow Spaghetti.”
Great days were when I’d enter the house and she was making lasagna (she cubed the mozzarella cheese so there were always chunks mixed in rather than a layer) or making fried chicken. These were infrequent, so they were all the more special. She was often peeling potatoes when I would arrive (and I LOVE potatoes) but sometimes she’s serve them boiled (yuck!) instead of mashed (yay!). I remember standing on the step stool, which I now use in my house) to help mash when I got older. I felt special when she let me do that – like I was one of the grown ups. Don’t ask me why that was so important to me when I was only about 5 years old, but it was.
And a really not favorite day was when she was peeling carrots. Carrots have never been my favorite vegetable, but when you boil them to mush they are 10 times worse. It just didn’t bode well for the meal. For example, there was the carrot, ground round, boiled potatoes with onion stew that a friend once told me looked like prison food. Everything tasted like carrots. Then there was ground round mixed with onions with sides of boiled potatoes and boiled carrots. My mother and grandmother would just mix the whole thing up on their plates, so I never really understood what was the point of not making it in the same pot. I guess so the kids would eat more of the stuff that wasn’t soaked in carrot juice. And then there was the best of all in this genre, the “hamburg patty” with mashed potatoes and boiled carrots on the side. At least the carrots weren’t canned. And truly, beggars can’t be choosers and I’m thankful that she fed me, lest anyone think I’m an ingrate.
After dinner my grandmother would always indulge me in endless games. Crazy Eights, Go Fish, Life, Camp Grenada (these were my aunt’s games from when she was younger). She almost never said no to playing a game. At the end of the night we could always count on getting our backs scratched (sometimes my brother and I at the same time) and she never complained. Never.
One of the greatest things I remember was how she never smothered the children. I saw this mostly with my cousins who are quite a few years younger than I am, but I’m told she was this way with us too. She’d watch the kids play – just sit back and watch. And she’d say that you just have to let children come to you and they always do. My grandfather was more the type to try to engage the children, sometimes against their will (and I mean that as kindly as I can) but my grandmother didn’t do things that way. There was a sweetness about it that I haven’t ever seen in another person.
Grandma used to play the lottery. I’m pretty sure it was daily. And she had this elaborate record keeping system and formula for doing something to calculate the numbers. I do not have the slightest idea what she did with those numbers, but every night she’d write them down on 1/2 sheets of paper, then do some THING with them, make boxes around some. I don’t know. There were STACKS of these papers in the closet (same closet as the puzzles and the vacuum) and in other places. I wish I knew what she did with those numbers. Whatever it was, it did not make her rich. I assume it made her happy though.
Walking to West End Pharmacy or Shop-Rite Liquors with her to get the lottery tickets was always a treat because it usually meant she’d get my brother and I candy. And it was nice to take the walk with her too. I’m sure as a child the candy seemed more important, but now I know that wasn’t really the case. She liked 3 Musketeers bars. And she’d usually pick up Wintergreen Certs and a carton of Marlboro Reds. Sometimes she shared the Certs.
Somewhere around my sophomore or junior year of college, my car died in the middle of the street on the way to school. I didn’t have money to get a new one. I found a car I could lease, but there was nothing for a down payment. I could put it on my credit card, but it would have maxed it out and I needed that for all of life’s other incidentals (you know, food and gas to get to work). It was a very difficult time. I was at her house because I had walked to the insurance agent’s office which was around the corner. I was sitting there for a few minutes before I walked home. I was tired and upset and didn’t know what I was going to do. She reached into the pocket of her housedress and pulled out a wad of cash. I didn’t ask for it, she just gave it to me. It was enough to get me through. I told her I had no idea when I could repay her, she said don’t worry about it. She didn’t ask me for a payment plan. She didn’t get on my case about why I didn’t have money or priorities or anything. She just told me not to worry about it, it was a gift. “Because I can and you need it,” was all she said. Now, I know gifts don’t show love and it’s not about the money. It was the fact that she got it – she got how hard I was working at school and an internship and my job and that I was taking care of my mother on top of it. She got that there was just NOTHING else I could do. And she never, ever mentioned the money again.
I can’t believe she’s been gone so long. I wish she had seen me grow up from the 22 year old I was – so much has changed. I wish she knew Nathan and had gotten to know Kris better. Like anything else, there’s things I’d change if I could. But I hope that she knows how much she meant to me. I wouldn’t be who I am without her. Saturdays at Grandma’s saved me as a child and I’ll never forget them.