Thursday, November 19, 2009


I looked at the calendar this morning and realized that today is (was) my Grandmother's birthday. This was after receiving a sad phone call first thing this morning from a cousin's wife (Marianne) whose Mom (Anne) had passed hours before. I knew her Mom - a very sweet, brave woman, as were my own grandmothers. This morning's phone call had me thinking all day about the importance of not only grandmothers in my life, but in my children's lives, And of the roles grandmother's play in general. I really started thinking about both of mine, their homes, and the time I spent with them.

In a way, the reason I am blogging at all is because I have been inspired all my life by the life stories of both of my grandmothers. I wrote a play about the early life of my mother's mom for my capstone project for my bachelor's degree in English. I am beginning to write the story of my father's mom from her younger years during the Great Depression. How both women coped with adversity and kept on moving is not only admirable, it's remarkable. I was in awe of them both, for different reasons. Grandma Shine was educated and from a well-to-do Irish-Catholic Chicago family, but settled for much less and made it work for her family. Grandma Horecny was from a small rural village in Slovakia - Podhradie, which I visited a year ago, a lifelong dream to see the village she spoke so fondly about. I turned out to me JUST as I had imagined from her stories.

Now I admire my Mom in every way, but my Grandmothers lived difficult lives by contrast and were made of stern stuff. They lived through extreme economic hardship as adults, saw sons off to war (Grandma Shine had THREE sons at war at once - all of her children) or in the case of Grandma Horecny, buried three of four children and her husband before she left this world. I learned so much from them both. They were faithful to their church and families to the end.

Grandma Horecny taugh me about traditions, taught me to bake and sew. I spent a lot of time with her growing up. She babysat for the three of us more than anyone else. I loved going to her house. On Halsted Street I remember sleeping in her front bedroom and listening to the nearby trains at night. I can remember the smell of Grandpa's aftershave in her bathroom, and the three choices for toys in her closet - Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs or colored wooden blocks. She had a small child's desk with pegboard in it in their first house that sat out on their screened-in back porch. Oh, and inside the lid of that desk was one of those plastic critters like a Mr. Potato Head that came apart into like 10 legs, three body parts and antennae, like an ant. Cooties? Something like that. At both houses she had a large garden that I remember helping her with (well, a little). I love tomatoes today becase of her gardens. And Grandpa H. took me up to the lumberyard with a bucket in hand to bring back a little sand for me to play in next to the garage. Later, in their newer home close to my house, I went each week to set Grandma's beautiful white hair, for which she unfailingly gave me $5, no matter that I didn't want a penny for doing it. I remember many nights sleeping on the couch in her living room at that house as a young teen, listening to the furnace kicking on and off. She had a cookie jar on the counter in that house which was always full of her own sugar cookies with the slivered almonds on top and chunks of sugar cubes. Delicious. I have finally figured out how to make them.

Grandma Shine's house was a different kind of adventure. I went there every friday for 12 years of my life to take piano lessons. She was a music teacher and gifted pianist herself. I don't remember ever seeing her cook anything, really - although of course she must have. She loved tea, not coffee. She sat in a fluffy gray linen chair in her living room that nearly swallowed up her shrinking frame in her late years. From this position she talked about life in Glenwood when her boys were young and they shared the house with her sister's family for several years. My father has many great stories of life during this time. She was the parish organist too. I will never forget her piano recitals and how she would patiently bring over the music during our performance if we faltered. I was always determined that she should not have to do it for me, but alas, she did at least once have to bail me out when memory failed me. An extremely proud woman, I don't think she ever asked for help from anyone.

Her house was an adventure to me - large and very very old as it had been her summer residence when SHE was a girl. The stairs leading down to the basement were warped and worn down on the treads. There was a real cellar down there that was cool and I think even had an earthen floor. In her front hallway on a coat ack was a mink wrap whose clasp was the mouth of the animal, so it was made as if there were three minks hanging onto the tails of the one in front. Creepy, but kind of fascinating too. In the three bedrooms upstairs that weren't either Grandma's or Grandpa's rooms were loads of STUFF. She called them her "glory holes". They were filled with artifacts from her family's life. Pictures sent home from her sons during WWII. The crutches my Dad used in high school when he broke his leg and was laid up for six months with the compound fracture. Law books. All kinds of things. As a child I really wasn't allowed to go into them, although I did sneek in with older cousins a few times during family picnics in their yard, which was acres large. The outhouse served as first base during clan baseball games, and the rhubarb patch was third base. There was a hand pump for water in the yard that I remember being there and using when I was small, but it had to have come down by the time I was in high school or earlier. Yes, there was indoor plumbing - it was put in some time in my father's high school years. I've seen pictures of Grandma there by that pump in the yard with buckets to bring into the house. Dad said there used to be a large barn on the lot, and a cookhouse too. The small building I knew as Grandpa's garage had been a children's playhouse when my grandmother was small.

It wasn't just their houses that were fascinating. It was the stories they told. I have always loved hearing a good story, and theirs always seemed so different than the life I lead - like something from a book. Grandma Shine served as postmaster for her town during the war. Grandm and Grandpa Horecny were insturmental in getting a catholic church built in their hometown to serve a large Slovak community. There is a mural on the wall in the church dedicated to my mother's brother, who died in WWII. My son visited his grave in Belgium last year. Both of my Grandmothers told stories of raising their kids, my parents, which is always fascinating to a grandchild. "What was my mother or father like, Grandma?" was a popular theme in the barrage of questions I always had for them. In other words, am I like them? This was particular of interest to me as I have known since birth, practically, that I am adopted.

After I had children of my own, I was lucky enough to be able to work outside the home and know my kids were being cared for by their grandmother, my mother-in-law. My Mom babysat from time to time when they were infants, but when my youngest was just one and a half, we moved out of state, taking my mother-in-law with us. Both of my kids are particularly close to her, protective of her. Sometimes I admit to even being a little jealous of this connection they have for her. Maybe it's just the guilt for being away and working, I don't know. I am grateful to know they weren't left in a stranger's hands though. They were always watched over with loving eyes. Such was my own upbringing too.

I am blessed to have spent so much time with both of my Grandmothers. I learned from them. I modeled myself after them. I loved them both so much. Each have now been in heaven a long time. Grandma S passed in 1982, less than a year after I was married. I love knowing she was at my wedding. Grandma H passed in 1994 or 5. (Can't remember which). My children actually remember her as..."Grandma Tilly." Ryan in particular remembers her. I am glad that my kids have grown up knowing both of their grandmothers so well. Next year Ryan will marry and will have both of them at HIS wedding - a blessing, for sure, along with his Grandpa too. I hope he gets how lucky he is. I know how lucky I have been to have them all in my life.

So tonight, I will say a liitle prayer for Marianne's mom, "Grandma Anne Genge" = a truly sweet woman that I also really liked and admired. She lived with cancer for over 20 years. Talk about perseverance. God Bless all of the Grandmother's in heaven. You have special places in all our hearts, especially mine today.

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