My grandmother died more than forty years ago, but still I think about her. I lived with my grandparents until I was 6. During that time, she was the same age I am now. I always thought of her as old, but at 57, I usually think of myself as an aging adolescent.
Barely 5 feet tall, she was overweight and had high blood pressure. She wore black oxfords and rolled her nylons at the knee. She limped from a broken leg that never healed properly. She showed me her caesarean scar almost daily, explaining "here's where they cut me open and took out your aunt." I found her long pink scar both frightening and exciting and stared at it as long as she let me.
The youngest of 12 children, she was 23 when she came to America from Ukraine. She never said much about her childhood, but when I refused to eat, she'd tell me how lucky we were to have enough food. As a little girl, she often went hungry.
"Don't play under the table," she warned me, "you'll stop growing." "Don't sing at the table, you'll marry a foolish man." Over the years, I saw her throw tons of salt over her left shoulder, knock on wood and tell fortunes with ordinary playing cards. If someone wronged her, she gave the evil eye. She didn't have to be anywhere near the person, she merely pulled on the skin under her eye and rolled her eyeball up. To this day I have never been under a table, and it paid off. At 5 feet 3, I am the tallest woman in my family.
She suspected the neighborhood widows of flirting with my grandfather, who was too clueless to notice. I never saw them kiss or even hug, but I know my grandparents were completely devoted to each other. After my grandmother died, my grandfather believed she came back each night to move their twin beds together.
In the mornings my grandmother and I listened to records: Bing Crosby, Strauss waltzes and my favorite, The Teddy Bears' Picnic. I imagined myself sipping lemonade in the woods with the sweet teddy bears.
"Bears aren't so sweet. They can kill you with one hand."
This I could not believe.
When we watched I Love Lucy, my grandmother commented, "Too bad Desi doesn't love Lucy."
I couldn't believe this either.
But I did believe her when she told me there was no Santa Claus, because I had grappled with the question for a long time. We lived in an apartment building surrounded by other apartment buildings. There were no chimneys, so someone would have to buzz Santa into the building. My grandmother helped me see the obvious.
I did think there was a tooth fairy, however, until the morning I woke up and found my grandmother standing over my bed, change purse in hand, sifting for a quarter while my tooth lay under my pillow. I closed my eyes, pretending to be asleep, but I could never shake my disappointment.
Every afternoon my grandmother and I watched Queen for a Day. The contestant with the saddest story won things like wheelchairs and crutches, a case of baby food, or a lifetime supply of bandages. Every weekday afternoon at 4 my grandmother could be found in front of the TV set crying.
My grandmother told my aunt's fortune with playing cards, weaving fascinating stories of love and betrayal.
"Tell my fortune next," I would beg, but my grandmother refused. "When you're old enough to get married, I'll tell your fortune."
One afternoon in late summer, my grandmother sat on the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach worrying that my aunt would never meet the right man, when a woman sat down beside her. It so happened that the woman had a single son. Phone numbers were exchanged, and the following summer there was a wedding.
My grandmother could neither read nor write. She could find an address, buy me beautiful clothes and take the correct dosage of medicine, but she couldn't read a newspaper or write down a telephone message. She made clothes without using a pattern; she cooked without recipes. She ground her own beef using a hand-cranked grinder that clamped onto the edge of the kitchen table. Together we baked cookies and fruit-filled strudels.
She lived the life of an immigrant, struggling in a strange culture and language to make a better life for herself and her children. I took my advantages for granted and felt I was owed an education. I worked hard, but I never had to leave my country just to live a decent life.
I am glad Barack Obama went to Hawaii to say goodbye to his grandmother just before she died. I wish I had done the same with mine.
St. Petersburg resident Alice Graves can be reached at [email protected]