She would have turned 104 today, my grandmother Esther, my mother’s mother.
But she was taken when I was ten. A sudden illness. No hope the doctor had said.
And our world came crashing down, like a heavy black curtain signalling the end of the show way too soon. And we were left wanting more.
Her departure, first major loss of my life, leaving a gap so deep and wide in our family that my beloved grandfather, her Mickey, our Poppy, would grieve for ten long years. Hurting, and perhaps angry with a God he found difficult to understand or love.
Everything changed that August night she died.
Everything except our love for her.
And in loving her, she lives on.
I raised my sons with stories of Great Grandmother Esther, those mere handful of memories made during my own youth.
They cleaved as one for 39 blessed years, having met when teenagers and him slipping a band of gold on her finger during the Great Depression, September 1931. My mom, only child of their love, arriving in January 1935, completing the little family.
Little sisters, we grew up in Ma and Poppy’s house, a two family city dwelling not far from a small business strip of stores. Mom has told me how grateful Ma was to finally own her own home after too many years with a wicked landlady.
And how earlier, when Ma was maybe eight or ten, how thankful she was when her large, immigrant family relocated from a dirt floor residence to one that had oil cloth. Each day, Ma got down on her hands and knees to scrub that floor, thanking God I am sure for His gracious provision.
And each day we just spent together: living, loving, laughing.
Holidays, vacations, parties, circus acts, farm stand trips, amusement park rides, multiple shared experiences creating a mosaic of memories. Them upstairs and all around with us, offering a sweet repose from too frequent chaos downstairs, Daddy shouting slurred from a deeply wounded heart.
But our Ma, she was quiet and gentle.
As beautiful outside as she was inside, like the roses she loved so much and which she grew in great profusion with luxurious scent in our backyard.
The earliest story I recall took place in Atlantic City, N.J., where Ma and Poppy had honeymooned and returned every year on their anniversary. I was a restless toddler on a languid summer night, sleep deprived due to heat and humidity.
We were a threesome on the boardwalk, me insisting on pushing my stroller and Poppy, a great prankster as well as storyteller, pushing my little sailor hat off my head while chastising the wind and laughing hard as I repeatedly ran after it.
It was early, VERY early, on another morning, that we jumped into Ma and Poppy’s bed begging them to come quick so we could rip open the wrapping from our Santa surprises. Groggy, they obliged. How they doted on us, me and Theresa, three years younger.
When the entrepreneurial bug hit in the fourth grade, our Ma served as my top sales exec. Weaving without ceasing, I mass produced potholders on a red plastic loom with multi-colored loops. She took orders from her friends at work, recording them carefully on my handwitten form. I weaved, she sold and my piggy bank’s belly got heavy. I charged 25 cents per potholder.
Years and years later, going through her dresser as a young woman, I discovered a stack of potholders too numerous to count in all the various color combinations that my budding business had offered, along with the order forms, stashed under her lingerie. Seems she not only handled sales and marketing for me, but was my #1 client as well! Her love reaching from Heaven, touching the heart of a nine-year old girl all grown up.
On another occasion she hired me to clean her apartment, paying me a buck a week. And I saved a bundle that year and gleefully spent the money at the Great Danbury (Ct.) State Fair, our annual bash for my and Poppy’s October birthdays. I was a millionaire clutching a fistful of dollars. Autumn’s blaze swirled outside as crisp winds flapped sides of tent. Sawdust underfoot, I scurried from booth to booth below the red and white stripes, rich with her love for me.
On Saturdays, when she and Poppy had more time to cook, their kitchen called to us with the aroma of homemade chicken or beef soup loaded with vegetables and noodles, or her delicious pot roast, crusted potatoes and kapusta (browned sauerkraut) made the way her mother had in the Old Country.
Ma would ladle soup into bowls, collected when Mom was little in those days when theaters gave away plate sets one piece at a time. And Ma always added a little milk to cool the soup, mashing carrots and potatoes for her granddaughters dear.
And in her heart God had placed not only a sweet spirit, but a gift that manifested itself in an array of beautiful handiwork. An artist, she created with needles: knitting, tatting, embroidering and crocheting.
Some of her pieces are so lovely we framed and display them in our own homes. I can still see her sitting on the sofa, hands actively engaged, while crossed leg stroked and soothed our childhood mutt, Rexie.
And her glorious green thumb yielded a beautiful collection of houseplants. She taught me how to crumble dried leaves into the soil to feed the plants. And not to over-water lest the roots rot.
The last Mother’s Day gift I ever gave her still lives. It was a small potted pothos that I purchased at the five and dime. This plant, like our memories of her, has thrived over the years with cuttings given away or rooted for a new plant. Tending it, I often think of her.
Life giving and gracious..all of her beauty and love lavished on those of us blessed to have known her.
And the fragrance of her sweet memory lingers like the scent of her lush roses floating on a summer breeze…