Wednesday, May 22, 2013

“Tell Your Mother I Was Here”

When I was a kid, my Grandmother was the best grown-up I knew.

When she lived far from us, she would come visit on the weekends bringing boxes of Devil Dogs or Dunkin’ Donuts. She’d go to bed the same time as us kids, all in one bed, and we’d giggle until Mom told us to settle down. At that point, Gram would lead us in a round of very loud, very fake snores to convince Mom we were sleeping.

When they told me she’d be moving right next door to us, I cried. My mother couldn’t figure it out. I reasoned that weekend visit yummy treats would be ending. Mom pointed out that now all I had to do for a sweet was walk across the field. Al-right!!!!!!

If growing up next door to one’s Grandmother is a gift then growing up next door to this Grandmother in particular was like Christmas morning.

Being able to walk across the field and get sweets was, let’s face it, awesome. Having a grown up available when my parents were busy working to take us to the reservoir and Aunt Ellie’s house to go swimming was even better. I remember one time we got down to Ellie’s and realized I didn’t have my tube so she drove me to K-Mart where the only one they had left was hanging up high on display. That’s okay; she could wait for the man to get the ladder to retrieve it for me.

She loved telling us her life stories and we loved hearing them. Her tales of surviving a childhood during the Depression delighted and inspired us. Getting free watermelon by being so rude to the men unloading them that they’d throw them right at her and her gang! Cool! (And of course they’d bring them home in a wagon they made themselves from bits and pieces they found here and there. Clever!) Hiding the drunken boarder’s wooden leg under his bed and demanding a quarter to crawl under to find it! No fair, we never got to have a drunken boarder!

When I was a child, my favorite story from her childhood was about that one Monday after Easter when Polish tradition dictated that boys could throw water on the girls. When she stepped out of the house, a boy dumped a bottle of water on her head. She told him she only had one other outfit to her name so he should NOT do that again. She changed and came out and he did it again so she picked up the heavy glass bottle and broke it over his head, sending him to the hospital.

Oh wait, no, the one I liked best was about when she got her first factory job at age 11 (that wasn’t the part I liked). With her first paycheck, she bought herself a brand new outfit (finally!). When she wasn’t home, her sister wore it and stretched it out. She complained to her parents but they didn’t do anything about it. “So do you know what I bought with my second paycheck?” she’d ask. And we’d shout, “A LOCK!”

As an adult, there was a different story from her childhood I loved the best. She told us that when she was young and they were so very poor, there was certainly no money for toys. She and her gang of girls admired a fancy doll at the local department store and so collectively decided to steal it. They discussed at length how they’d get away with it.

Rule #1: Each girl would get one day with the doll and then pass it to the next girl
Rule #2: The doll HAD to stay indoors. Anyone that saw them with it outside would know it was stolen.
Rule #3: If parents asked about it, tell them it was from Santa. (Since, as Babci said, her “dumb immigrant parents” didn’t really understand this Santa business.)

Unfortunately, one of the girls just couldn’t resist bringing such a beautiful doll out to the playground. Sure enough, they were busted. However, when the powers that were found out about the group of poor girls sharing one stolen doll they implemented a program to get toys to the poor children at Christmas. To this day there is a collection of dolls on her bed and also on the spare bed.

It’s funny to remember when we used to call her Grandma because that was so very long ago. When the first Great-Grandchild was born, it was decided a different name was needed for the great-grandkids to call her and she chose the Polish word for Grandma, which is Babci (also spelled Babcia, sounds like Bocce ball). I remember the first time I called her that instead of Grandma she put her hand up as if she was going to swat me, saying, “I’m your Grandma, not your Babci!”

Now the great-grandchildren outnumber the grandchildren by at least ten and every single one of us call her Babci without fear of being swat at. She called all of us by our names and all of our friends “honey.” She called all of her cars Betsey. She would peel a potato and make one serving of French fries if that’s what you really wanted.

Her views on raising children? Just love them. And she reserved the right to give every new baby in the family his or her first pickle.

Her theory on staying in a bad relationship? Don’t do it. She taught me early on to not marry someone without living with them first. She told me that if I was staying in a relationship because of finances that she would help me out. She learned her lessons the hard way, she didn’t want any of us to have to do that way too.

She had married young and she had married badly.  Her husband was a no-good drunk. He began bragging to everyone in town that he had a gun and was going to go home and shoot her. People came to her to warn her that she should leave, but she stayed. Even though there were times he’d come home before drunk and raging and she would hide behind the couch with her baby  until he passed out, she stayed.

This time, not only did she stay, but she met him at the door. “You want to shoot me?” she asked him. “Then go ahead and shoot me. I’m 19 years old and I live over a bar with a drunk and a baby. Go ahead and shoot me.”

And that man, encouraged by his alcohol-induced confidence and emboldened by the his possession of a firearm, was met with the face of utmost courage and truth in a 19-year-old girl and he turned around and left.

After that she worked hard to make it as a single mother. I don’t think she ever expected to find the love she deserved, but she did in my Grandfather. I never got to meet him, but from the stories I’ve heard, I can tell he took really good care of her. From the big box of cards and letters she has saved in her attic, I know he really loved her.

She started life sharing a bed with her sisters, her home with a drunken boarder and her stolen doll with her gang.  I don’t think she had any great expectations of what her life could be. But she also started this life with a feisty independent spirit, a fierce sense of humor and a lot of love to give. And she gave it to us—her four children, fourteen grandchildren, twenty-five great-grandchildren  as well as her neighbors and friends—freely.

When I was a kid, my Grandmother was the best grown-up I knew.
When I grew up, she still was.


  1. Note about the title: often when she leaves someone's house, she says, "tell your Mother I was here" and it cracks me up.
    Recently my husband and I staged some pictures for "World Naked Gardening Day" (first Saturday in May) and she had a good laugh over them at the hospital. When we were leaving from visiting her there, my husband said, "tell your Mother we were here" and she replied with, "Try to keep your pants on."

  2. beautifully done, but you know what she would say if she read this " all this fuss about me ? " and then she would make that face .You know the face eyes and mouth open all dramatic disbelief ...

  3. What a warm, funny and inspiring tribute to your Grandma. I got that same inspiration from my Grandpa, whose name my son now bears. Thanks for bringing a smile and tears (nostalgic tears) to my face.