I’m still not sure I can write this post.
See, when I was a kid and my parent’s split, whenever I went to visit my mom, I went to my grandparents’ house.
My mom was pretty incommunicado at the time– I spent a lot of time on their couch, watching way too much ’70’s shows. (Shazaam! anyone? And Almighty Isis?) So when I was Zoomboy and Squish’s age, I saw my grandmother every other weekend.
Saturdays, she was usually pretty damned busy.
Grandma was something of a pioneer. Of course I didn’t think of it like that, because my stepmom was working and going to school, and her mother had been a nurse in the army, so as far as I was concerned, all women worked, we were judged not just by our careers but by the way we raised our children while we had them.
I did not realize that running your own business back then was something of an anomaly for a woman. But then, neither did my aunts and uncle, and they were living with her, so that’s not the part of grandma I remember most.
I remember her smile–and although she is much older in these pictures with Chicken (again, I have better somewhere on my computer, but I’m not sure how to access them!) when she was younger, she was something of a knockout. Yes, she had the bold Italian nose, and yes, she had a strong chin–but she was elegant and very very… stated. She made a statement wherever she went, whether it was the red hair or the slight Italian accent or the fact that she cooked with tomatoes and garlic.
When I was knocking about in her house (and it’s a big house– she designed it and oversaw its construction– twice, because it burned down once) she would find something– a coloring book, jewelry, something to keep a hyperactive grade-schooler from just bouncing all over the couches unsupervised–and she would smile at me and say, “Little girl…” And I would know something diverting was coming. She said this to me even into my thirties, and then she said it to my own daughters. It’s something I’m not sure I can convey–how much it meant to me that grandma– who seemed very glamorous to me when I was young–had something special, just for me.
On Sundays, we would play games. We would play Scrabble and I sucked at it (STILL DO!) but it taught me to appreciate a good word game, even if I wasn’t so good at playing it. Almost to the day she died, grandma played bananagrams, which is a Scrabble like game. We have a set (given to us by my aunt Teresa) and Grandma taught ZB how to play. He plays no-points Scrabble with himself, and he’s brilliant at it–and he got that from Grandma.
Grandma was proud of me–and that’s something I heard from my aunts and uncle today. She was always, no matter how bad our screw ups, proud of us. I think that’s important. She was raising children in the middle of the sixties and seventies, and it wasn’t easy. Our world was changing, our rules were changing, and there were new and amazing ways for us to screw up. But if there was one thing grandma believed in, it was in free will, and in going your own way. When Chicken was getting ready for college, (and I think it was when I took this picture) grandma told her to keep in touch.
“Oh, I will!” said Chicken. “I’ll be texting my mom every day! I’ll tell her everything!”
“Well, not everything,” Grandma answered. “If you can tell your mom everything that happened when you were away at college, then you haven’t really been away to college.”
I was the oldest grandchild, and because of my mom’s illness, I was always a little out of place. Grandma tried very hard to give me a place. There is a picture of the two of us–I had just gotten one of those awful bi-level cuts of the early 80’s, but if you held my hair up, my fuzzy red curls matched grandma’s, (hers were from the bottle by that time, as are mine now!) and our glasses were a lot alike, and she really did look like my mother. We were that much alike.
We were alike in other ways besides the fuzzy red hair, and these also were things I passed down to my children. (I included this picture of me and my girls, because they look very much like my girls, and because that also meant they looked very much like her girls, and she was so very proud of her family.)
Grandmother loved reading. She loved language. She had a book published somewhere in the Library of Congress, and every so often she got a tiny little royalty check. She told me once she was so proud of that–she loved knowing her book was read by other people. I remember that I wanted to do that. And, well, now I do. And so does my daughter (although not for profit.)
Grandma was recruited for the OSS during WWII– she was literally a spy in the war. All of the other members of the OSS were given “code names”, but not grandma. Olga was so unusual, everybody said– people would assume it wasn’t her real name. I seem to recall a story about how it took grandpa some time to convince, since he worked for the OSS too. I also recall a story about how she’d been writing to her family during the war about dating a “Phillip” (grandpa’s code name) and how they were all very puzzled about how she was, at the end of the war, marrying Ken.
One of the pictures my aunts and uncle had blown up has them both on a ferry in San Francisco, looking very dashing–and very Dashiell Hammett– in trench coats– and very much in love. I’m glad they chose this picture– Grandpa looks very handsome, yes, but grandma looks very much the femme fatale. I think she probably could have been.
When grandma worked in the OSS, she said she worked for the “Office of Dirty Tricks”. When it became declassified, she told me what she did. Do you all remember Hogan’s Heroes? The television show about the POW’s who ran missions from the camp? Well, it was based on grandma’s division– they did things like giving food poisoning to the Nazis and then moving their latrines back six inches in the middle of the night. Sounds silly? Yes. But do it the night before a battle or a raid, and it’s the difference between success and failure. Grandma’s people thought of the “tricks” or sub-missions to run, and somebody radioed the info to the troops. I told her that sounded very exciting, and she told me two things that sobered me up right quick. One was that the POW’s had a 90% mortality rate– and she felt horrible about that. The other was (and this has stuck with me):
“We thought it was very funny when we were doing this, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that those boys were some mother’s sons as well.”
Compassion for the enemy– I thought this showed an incredible greatness of spirit, and I’m as proud of this as I am of the things she did in the war.
And I am proud of these things. My aunts and uncle all said that she never seemed like a pioneer to them. But when Chicken and Big T listened to her stories, not only of the OSS but also of parenting, Chicken said, “Grandma was bad-ass.” I love that. A real life hero–a female hero. Our world is still so full of the double standard, that the ugliness of war was for the men–I love that my daughter has another way of looking at the world, a way in which she can play a part.
But in spite of the glamour and the OSS and the female pioneer, grandma was mostly proud of her family. Of everybody, she was the one person who didn’t spazz out or disapprove when I got pregnant with Squish. She called me up and said, “So, how are you doing? Like me? Hale and healthy and ready to push this one out and finish the next row of tomatoes?”
And yes– I was just like that. We both agreed that we were the sort of peasant stock that could repopulate the earth. In fact, I think some of the things that grandma did that irritated me the most (as relatives do) came from being a working mother of five.
I know that when I doze off with the kids in the house, I will wake up and automatically go, “Where’s Squish! Where’s Zoomboy!” I’ve done this since they were toddlers and I was working full time and trying to feed everyone and get them to their after school stuff and write on the side as well. I know that grandma–when she was healthy– would sometimes be all about radio silence for a while, and suddenly there would be a flurry of activity. Thinking on it now, I sense that same sort of, “How’s Amy! Where is she? What’s she doing?” rhythm of the mother, waking up worried about her children.
I think she did that a lot.
But oddly enough it gives me some peace knowing that she was startling awake, worried about her kids (me included, sometimes, although I was very clearly the least important puppy, since I had other parents of my own) even into her nineties. Your children are your children. Today I saw her children come together and try to condense ninety varied years of hard work and service to country and pioneer spirit and senior volunteer work and motherhood and extremely unique perspective and singular intellect and personality into an afternoon.
It couldn’t be done.
I’m sure many of the people who could have helped us do it have since passed on, which is actually perfect. Grandma told stories of herself, because she was always the guest of honor at her own party. This way, she was very much the guest of honor, and no one could contradict the vision of herself that she’d given her children.
For such a tiny woman, she will always be larger than life to me. I hope my own life can be one tenth as well lived, and my children can learn as much from me as I learned from my Grandma Olga.