Generations come and generations go. For much of time they were defined by wars, by monarchy, by lifespan. Marking the time by their numbers of births remember for their actions and eventually mourned in their losses.
Is the natural passing of the torch from the old to the younger to the even younger still. Each generation of elders mindfully caring for the youth before becoming bitter to them. Each generation of youth eagerly learning from their elders before rebelling against them.
In our youth our grandparents seem invincible. They were always there. Always doing something. Always inspiring. The foundation of many of our families and the people whom the entire family revolved around. The put up with our crazy parents. The put up with us a s rowdy kids. The were threatening spankings between slipping us treats.
Time passes. They eventually slow down. Look tired. When they pale in the light of themselves it is disheartening. They show a vulnerability we long thought hadn’t existed. Their mortality becomes a sad reminder of our parents mortality. When they pass we confront our own mortality.
Death is always the great equalizer and no matter where in life we wish to think we are. No matter how wealthy as you define wealth. Or blessed as you define blessed. Or what ever superlatives you can chose to include they cease to matter in short order when we lose our elders.
My grandmother lived to a ripe old age into her 90s. She was born at the tail end of, as Tom Browkaw coined, the Greatest Generation. A US Citizen by birth, she spent much of her youth in her parent’s homeland of Portugal before marrying my grandfather and returning to the States. They made a life together here in the post-War era, raising my mother and later my Uncle. They both worked and the household was decidedly Americanized all things being equal. It was a choice they made that fits the era, that fits their immigration status, that fits their goals and in that fit and in the whole influenced great swaths of their family. As the family grew with in-laws and grand children there were so many subtle ways they influenced us and crafted amazing memories about of seeming small interactions.
The house they’d been in since my mother was a child was a center point of the family, especially around holidays like Christmas. I remember my great Aunt and grandmother speaking Portuguese while scampering between the kitchen and living room while the cousins played with toys on the rug. I remember scents though I don’t know what they were they live in the recesses of my mind as having only existed there, as if the house itself had it’s own personality in that regard, born from years of her care. I remember weekend sleepovers for oh so many reasons… but, how she’d take extra care to be sure we were comfortable, even once moving the noisy clock with the eerie light from the back room upstairs just to make it easier to sleep always stands out. She made us meals I know she didn’t eat just to pacify us and tried to teach us games we should have liked but didn’t before she gave in to sitcoms…
It might be strange for the time in the end of gen-x not when most immigrants were assimilated citizens or had gone home, but my grandfather was an ex-pat while my grandmother is technically born US citizen. He was Portuguese by birth, and somehow in my mind still Portuguese first and foremost, always will be having worked for their government in some way in our short lives together… but still living here in the US as happy to be here as a resident and together with my grandmother who was nearly Stateside idealist by birth only, they raised their children and influenced their grandchildren as the “American” ideal whatever that had been at the time.
There is a part of me that’s still a bit disappointed they didn’t bring the old world “charm” to our lives more. However, in retrospect, I get “it” in so many ways and I’m more than thankful for the heritage they did provide as it bridged their own pasts and their present lives. Where I grew up we were all kids of immigrants or kids-o-kids-of immigrants in tight knight communities so that perhaps I knew more people who were more recent immigrants and struggling with it or knew more “old” families who were past the immigration status but still fighting to prove the were normalized that maybe other places, but I never felt out of place and it was, in no small part, because of what I perceive in retrospect was a very conscious decision to never make either a focal point of who we were as a family. We were who we were, not this last name and that family last name and that other name because that’s who we were.
When my grandfather passed on in my youth it seemed like it was before his time. My grandmother continued to be the family matriarch. The old neighborhood had changed greatly and she eventually moved to a place with my Godparents not far from our house in North Jersey. It was quaint having the whole family in such close proximity. The new place would come to be a place of great memories too, in time.
She probably never realized it because as family stories go she’s rarely mentioned in it, but she’s in no small part how I ended up a percussionist. Sure, there’s my Godparents having given me a toy drum, or a family friend who was a drummer inspiring me, and of course my own mother who graciously allowed me to bang on her pots in the kitchen before putting me into formal lessons. But, it is in the last part my grandmother inadvertently plays an important role. If she hadn’t kept the religious novelty shop in downtown Elizabeth I would never have needed Saturday baby sitting while my mom was helping tend the store. Because of the relationship my grandmother had cultivated with the other shop owners on the street over the years I was introduced to the music store where I would end up spending many an hour of my youth on the weekends at. It was one of those indirect influencers that changed me from being just some kid poking around the shop front getting into trouble into becoming the music loving fanatic I am today.
I also learned early on from the many hours in the store a bit about the value of hard work. In addition to the chores at home, Saturdays my grandmother and mother put me (and when she was old enough my sister too) to work in the store. We re-arranged cards in the racks, took the streaks off the glass display cases, dusted around the statues that she was pretty sure we couldn’t knock over an break and she even used to help us with learning by having us count change in the register. I remember again lots of small things doing that last task, like how she seemed to have long conversations with just about every customer, even the ones who didn’t buy anything. I also remember that ancient cash register, seemed as old as the planet at the time.
She was an ongoing inspiration to my Portuguese American heritage even if her own native tongue had faded and she made little effort to pass it along to her Americanized children and grandchildren. She took the time when I was going through my divorce to teach me recipes of family favorites like Boules Bacalhau (codfish cakes) and frango em arroz (chicken in rice), flan (egg custard) and lait creme (cream pudding). I’ll admit my sister is the keeper of the recipes for the latter two, I do pride myself in my ability to make the former. I learned about caldo verde and couve in general (dark leafy greens, mostly kale), sardinha em ovos (sardines in eggs, don’t ask), boiled squid, and of course cod, cod and more cod (cast iron cooked, broiled, baked, bbqed, pickled, salted… yeah some of her suggestions not so much) plus the best uses of port wine (it should be noted, for drinking, that’s my mom, and sister my grandmother struggled with drinking port like she did with cooking with garlic, unfortunately) . She’d never call herself a chef and probably had forgotten more than she remembered, but it was the times we did get to work together in her little kitchen I’ll never forget. It inspired me to learn a lot more about my Portuguese heritage’s cooking and I’ve tried to incorporate it as often as possible into my own kitchen.
Overall she was a good listener, more curious about what was going on with you than ever giving up much about herself. I used to call her almost every week when I was younger and it was only on a rare occasion the conversations broke the five minute mark unless I carried the bulk of the conversation. When I got older and phone time was harder to come by in my schedule I would write to her multi-page missives in my free time to which I would receive in return a few sentences, half of which were questions. Even in person she’d be more interested in asking “so what’s new?” than re-telling stories of her youth or what she was doing today. Every so often she’d open up with a good quip (it was actually a conversation with her that spawned this interpretation of music) or a story of a bygone era.
I’d say she was pretty simple, rarely wanting for anything of note and always seeming happy with what she had. She’d spend the afternoons with her stories (soap operas) and puzzles (word hunts and the like). She always had herself made up even just to go out and run small erans. He weekly hair appointment was ritual for a long time. And, it was in that, that she never looked her age until the last few years father time finally caught up to her. She was spry and fiesty and we should all hope to be as youthful as her for as long as she was.
She was always strong willed though and she didn’t put up with much from anyone. When she was on a diet for medical reasons she still snuck what she wanted to eat anyhow in spite of everyone else’s insistence. Same with getting around even as she needed help, she was determined to do it alone and would let you know it quite poignantly. If she disagreed with you, you knew it. But it was never threatening, more in the, ‘this is how it is’ kind of way. And she stayed that way right till the end, insisting she was fine and could take care of herself, even when sadly we all knew she couldn’t. That spirit though, was unending.
So, she’s passed on now. All that’s left is a small room of her stuff to be taken care of and the memories of which we’ll all so fondly cherish. For me, I’m still trying to process all of this. I am a better person for her in my life, and not only because without a grandma there wouldn’t be my mother and thus wouldn’t be me, but because of her influence directly and perceived that I grew into the man I am today and I can embrace the life around me as eagerly as I do. She was who she was and I loved every bit of it I can key onto this blog and so much more burried deep in the recesses of my soul.
She lived so much longer than my other blood grandparents that even though I knew this day was inevitable it never seemed like it was actually coming. One day she was grandma the same as she always was, then, one day she wasn’t and was getting care in a nice facility wreaking havoc not unlike her grandkids (wink), and then she stayed the same for a while, and then she wasn’t anymore, or at least the same as she had been the last few years, and she was in the hospital nearing the end of her time with us. Her end of life was over the course of probably a decade and yet, in many ways it still seems like only yesterday I was a kid and she was a sprite, youthful woman who hardly ever seemed like a “grandmother.” I don’t need to make it to my 90s but if I do there’s some inspiration to be derived from how she got there. God bless her soul, may she rest in peace …