After two diaries about distant cousins I never knew, this time I’m turning to someone I did know personally and also to my Eastern European heritage, which often gets lost in the shuffle in my very Irish family.

Like virtually everyone else, I have eight biological great-grandparents. Four of my great-grandparents died before even my parents were born, and another two died between my parents’ birth and my own. By the time I was born only two great-grandmothers were living. My father’s beloved grandmother died a year later. We have a photo of me on her lap as a baby, but I don’t remember her directly.

My last surviving great-grandmother, though, I remember very well. Jump over the korovai bread, orange as it should be, and I’ll tell you my favorite story about her, a Christmas story.

The only great-grandparent I remember was my mother’s mother’s mother, Eva. Eva, whom we knew as Gram or Grammy, lived with my maternal grandparents in Brooklyn for over forty years and died at the age of 92, when I was twelve. She was under five feet tall, and very thin when I knew her.  I was quite surprised later to see pictures of her in middle age looking quite stout. She had a thick Eastern European accent, and when I was very small, I was a little bit afraid of her. Not because she was stern, just because she was so old. Gram was actually a lot of fun and very kind.

Eva with Grandchildren, 1976
Little Eva with three of her grandchildren: my mother, my uncle, my aunt. This was taken around 1978, when I was 3.
Because she was short, my mother had dubbed her “Little Eva” in 1962, when the artist Little Eva had the hit song “Locomotion.” My great-grandmother, then almost 70, made all the kids laugh uproariously by going along with the joke and performing some of the “Locomotion” dance steps on command. She didn’t take herself too seriously.  She was also a little absentminded. She used to give the grandchildren cards and checks she’d forgotten to sign on their birthdays.  
Family at Christmas 1982 in Brooklyn
Little Eva sitting in the chair on Christmas 1982. I am wearing Number 55. In the back are my grandmother and mother; in the front are my brother and sister. They are twins and my sister seems annoyed about something. I was 7 and Eva 87 when this picture was taken.
My strongest memory of her is from her last Christmas in 1986. We had gone to my grandparents’ house, as usual, and she had been tired and gone upstairs to her room before we opened presents. Hers was the rear-most and the smallest of four bedrooms upstairs.  She had been in that room most of the time since my grandparents bought the house in 1947. The room itself was very spare, with a twin bed, a dresser, a nightstand that was really a sewing machine table with bench, and a small table near the door that perpetually held a bowl of hard candies and a pitcher of orange Tang on ice, with a small collection of glasses.  

On her last Christmas, just after opening mountains of presents with the rest of the family downstairs, I went up to use the bathroom. When I came out, she was standing in her doorway and beckoned me in. She told me to sit on the stool under the “nightstand” and gave me a glass of Tang. She asked me if I was a good boy, “not giving to your mother too much problems,” and how school was going.

She looked at the floor and then at me. “I don’t have a lot of money,” she said, “but I want to give you something.” Then she opened the tiny drawer on the Tang table and took out a bag of Brach’s butterscotch candies, the same ones she always ate. “Please,” she said, “take this and share with your brother and sister.” Even at eleven I was very emotional about this moment, and to this day I can say truthfully it’s just about the only Christmas present I really remember from my childhood.

Four generations, 1978
Four generations: Little Eva (my great-grandmother) with my grandmother, mother, and sister in 1978.
Less than six months later, we got a call that Gram had died peacefully in her sleep. My aunt later told me that, just days before she died, she had a dream that she was going to see her husband again, that they were dancing and everything was “very nice,” which in her book was the highest praise imaginable. My great-grandfather John had been gone almost 50 years, and I’d like to think they’re reunited and happy.
Four generations in 1978
We did the four generations picture again 28 years later, in 2006. My mother was no longer living by this time, so this is my aunt, grandmother, sister and niece.
Christmas week in 2012 was bittersweet for me. During a visit of several days to the New York area I spent some time in the house my grandparents bought in 1947, Eva’s longtime residence. On my visit I went to Little Eva’s old room, and looked at the table where she kept the Tang and butterscotch.

By next Christmas, at the end of this year, the house will likely be sold. My uncle lives there alone for now, but to comply with my grandmother’s will we are selling the house. It’s hard to see the place go. My mother grew up there and I lived there myself, off-and-on, for more than ten years. The place has many memories for all of us. It’s time to move forward, but it doesn’t make it easy.

I’m grateful for the years in that house, the years my life overlapped with Little Eva’s, and especially for the Brach’s butterscotch, which never fails to remind me that family and simple things are more important than the latest gadget. It's been more than 25 years but for the most part I've managed to hold on to that essential lesson.

Coming next, in this Friday's (January 11th) Open Thread: A look at Eva’s life, as an immigrant in Brooklyn, long before I came on the scene.

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