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.
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.
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.