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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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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (17+ / 0-)

    Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

    by fenway49 on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 09:00:08 AM PST

  •  Than you for sharing your story and your family (8+ / 0-)

    pictures.

  •  Wonderful to read about Little Eva (6+ / 0-)

    and the rest of your family's matriarchs. I knew just one of my great-grandparents, too, Great-grandpa Jim who died at the age of 95 in 1958 when I was 13. My clearest memory was him sitting in a deep arm-chair, cane by his side, watching baseball on television. He LOVED the Yankees and once drove his Model A or Model T, one or the other, from tiny, rural Winthrop Ia - a trip that now takes 4-1/2 hours - to Chicago to see the Yankees play the White Sox. While he was at the game his car was stolen!!  Luckily, the Chicago police found it, unharmed, somewhere and he made it back home.

    If I knew whether the Yankees won or lost that game, I'd know how mad he would have been driving home. He was just a little guy, himself; maybe 5'6" and incredibly strong and wiry.

    Thanks for stirring the memory stick, fenway!

    Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it. --- Bob Dylan.

    by figbash on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 10:15:53 AM PST

    •  You lost me at (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      figbash, brook, Jim H
      He LOVED the Yankees
      I place the Yankees somewhere below the Republicans. ;-)

      Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

      by fenway49 on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 11:11:44 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  So do I. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        brook, Jim H, fenway49

        Could never understand why anybody would like the Yankees. My only brother does too. He's a Republican. That's probably why. I'm sure it is, in fact.

        Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it. --- Bob Dylan.

        by figbash on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 11:38:57 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I knew I liked you! (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          figbash, Jim H

          Here in New England, many Italian-Americans were semi-secret Yankee fans. They adored Joe DiMaggio, who in their view placed them in the mainstream in a positive light. (I think he was a great ballplayer but a bit of a jerk). They also associated the Red Sox with the Irish population in Boston, with whom they had some tensions. But the Red Sox had Joe's brother Dom DiMaggio, who was almost as good a ballplayer and a better man.

          I do have some friends and relatives who are liberals and Yankee fans. I love pointing out the contradiction. One finally said to me, "But the Red Sox have almost as much money and commit the same sins and the Yankees, just on a slightly lesser scale." "Right," I said, "and I am a Democrat."

          Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

          by fenway49 on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 12:06:43 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Being a baseball loving kid out in the sticks (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            fenway49, Jim H

            of the Midwest, I attached myself to the Brooklyn Dodgers. I loved them so much! When Campy's career was ended in that car accident I cried and cried and blamed it on O'Malley for moving dem Bums to LA. Him and Stoneham - bah!

            Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it. --- Bob Dylan.

            by figbash on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 01:36:12 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  My NY family loved the Brooklyn Dodgers (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Jim H, figbash

              They were devastated when O'Malley skipped town and pretty much all became big Mets fans. Only my uncle, who was 4-9 yo in the years when the Yankees were the only game in town, really got into the Yankees.

              To show how far things have moved politically, O'Malley was going to pay for his own new ballpark and Robert Moses said no to the site. These days public officials fall all over themselves to spend public money on these stadiums.

              Republicans...think the American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it. Harry S. Truman

              by fenway49 on Tue Jan 08, 2013 at 02:16:53 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Oh, I love this diary. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jim H

    Wish I had seen when you first posted (I'd not been at DKos for a couple of days).

    I wish I had known any of my g-grandparents, but they had all died before I was born.

    I sure know a lot about them, though - probably more than they would like ;)

    Looking forward to Fridays diary.

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