Thursday, June 25, 2009
Grandma and the Prince - Part 8
<==Grandma at 19
Something happened to me the year I turned twenty-six.
It was 1976, our Bicentennial year, a year of history and memory. A year of looking back to discover how we came to be. I suppose my family is as representative of the U.S. in the 20th century as any family could be.
Three of my four grandparents were born in other countries. Only one, my mother's father, was born in this country and he was halfChippewa.
I started thinking a lot about how my family evolved during that year, trying to weave together the disparate stories into a whole I could understand. And who better to start with than my garrulous, storytelling grandmother El?
Grandma was living in a small apartment in Elmhurst, Queens, the New York City neighborhood where I'd grown up. It wasn't much as far as apartments go, more a glorified studio than anything else. You entered into a dark and narrow hallway. The bathroom was off that hallway, along with a huge walk-in closet that also held Grandma's chifferobe and secretary desk. Everything else had been lost in the fire two years earlier that destroyed the Woodside building where she and her daughter Mona had both been living.
The moment she smelled smoke and heard the fierce sibilant hiss of flame, she grabbed her strongbox of old photos, her bankbook and jewelry, and climbed out onto the fire escape in her nightgown. The metal rungs of the ladder were slick with ice but that didn't stop Grandma. She ordered the firemen to keep their hands to themselves and made her way down two flights to safety.
When the smoke cleared, she learned she'd be traveling much lighter through life. Paintings, framed photos, furniture, clothes--gone, all of it. These days they call it simplifying your life but it was more than that. It was a tragedy.
So much of her past was lost in that fire, so many clues to her heart and soul. Of course, none of that mattered to me in 1976. I was only twenty-six and my grandmother was going to live forever. She was my constant, my North star. And she was ready to talk.
We decided I'd drive in early Sunday morning for breakfast and conversation. I had my questions all planned, fresh batteries in my cassette recorder, and a curiosity so intense that I was willing to brave the Long Island Expressway on a July Sunday in order to satisfy it.
No matter where Grandma lived, the place always looked like her. I remember the Prospect Avenue house with the steep front steps and angled roof. The small ranch house on Eckhardt Terrace with the apple trees in the back yard and the pinball machine in the basement. The address didn't matter. You'd know who lived there the second you walked through the door. She hated this apartment, her last, but still she'd made it her own. She'd found a loose pillow-back sofabed at a thrift store and stitched up a slipcover in a slightly tatty chintz fabric that seemed to give off the faint scent of Tigress. She had paintings on the walls, oils and watercolors and prints, street scenes, rainy vistas, all of them in ornate frames hung suspended from thick velvet cords. They weren't the pictures she'd carried with her from home to home but still they fit. I can see each of her homes in my mind's eye.
Grandma and I talked for hours that summer day. She was instantly comfortable with the whirring of the tape recorder, so much so that she would ask me to stop the tape when she wanted to say something incriminating or downright bitchy. But I can’t remember the words.
I remember the room and the heat and the smell of toast and bacon and the feeling of having turned a corner, of being accepted in her world as an adult and not a child. I remember the narrow little table pushed against the wall, the way you could reach the sink from your chair without even stretching very far at all. I remember the sound of people talking beneath her window, of the gentle ticking of her anniversary clock.
Whatever we talked about, I captured ninety minutes of it on tape. I remember the
cassette. Capitol Records made the blank tape and packaged it in a cardboard box
decorated with a Peter Max drawing that was all curves and primary colors. The label was red and white.
The tape is old now and a little flukey with age. I popped it in an ancient cassette player and was jolted from my chair by the sound of our laughter. I didn't remember the laughter. Isn't that ridiculous? But I remember now.
It wasn't easy but I transcribed the tape about ten years ago and while the
omissions are telling (like forgetting her first husband, the man who was my biological grandfather) the content is downright fascinating and I hope to share it with you next month.
(The photo above is Grandma El at 70.)
* * * *
Today's my birthday and to celebrate I'm giving away a signed ARC of my August
book, LACED WITH MAGIC. All you have to do is leave a comment and I'll choose one winner (thanks, Random Number Generator) on Sunday night and announce it right here and on my blog.