My maternal Grandmother had a huge influence on me. I was lucky to have her in my life until my early 30s. I have so many memories of her, weaved with the life lessons she provided. She was born in the early 1900s in Rhode Island, the eldest of 6 children—3 girls and 3 boys. She was of Irish descent and raised Catholic. She lived through the depression and, as most people who lived during that time period, remained frugal throughout her life, never wasteful and never missing a good sale. Before getting married, she was a teacher, helping her family and even helping to put one of her brothers through medical school. She was of strong character and next to God, her family was her top priority. When my Grandfather left to serve in WWII, she was 9 months pregnant with my Aunt Ellie. My Uncle Tom was about a year old at the time. She had to raise the children by herself and endure the constant worry of wondering if her husband would return safely. When he came home 4 years later, the children initially wanted nothing to do with him. He was a stranger to them, after all. I can’t imagine how painful that was for both my Grandmother and Grandfather, but in time, they came to accept him and love him. Soon after, my Mother was born—one of the tens of thousands of babies to become part of the baby-boomer generation. Twenty years later, I made MY entrance.
I was the first grandchild on both sides of the family. Needless to say, I was kind of a big deal. In my early years I had very blonde hair. My Grandmother used to tell my Mother that it looked like “spun gold” and I never tired of hearing that story. My earliest memories of my Grandmother are of looking up at her in her kitchen in New Jersey as she baked some kind of dessert. When I was in nursery school and kindergarten, we played games like “Pick Up Sticks” and “Don’t Spill the Beans” on the floor of her living room. As simple as these games were, I loved them. My parents divorced when I was 6 and I remember my Grandparents watching me and my sister while my Mom commuted back and forth to college. My Grandmother always had crackers and cheese before dinner. I would have my fill of Triscuits and Wheat Thins. Funny, I don’t remember anything about dinner, but I can remember the cheese and crackers vividly. Then my Grandparents would drive us home and we’d sing songs. As soon as we’d get to the house, my Grandmother would pull two little bags of M&Ms out of her purse, which to me, signified the end of the night. I can still remember the sound of her purse clicking shut after she laid the candy on the coffee table. I remember pouring the M&Ms on the table, separating them by color, and then happily munching away.
After my Grandfather passed in 1973 of pancreatic cancer, things changed. It was a very hard time for my Grandmother and she moved back to Rhode Island to be closer to her sisters and brothers. By the time my sister and I moved to Rhode Island with my Mom in 1975 the “fun” Grandmother I knew had changed. We lived down the street from her and she watched us after school. I was in 3rd grade at the time. She was strict and often judgmental. I had developed asthma and had gained weight from not being able to run around the way I used to. Even though she was not a small woman herself, she often made comments about my weight. But the worst part (to my 9-year-old self) was that she insisted that I go to church, attend catechism and make my First Communion. I distinctly remember one Sunday, waiting for her and my Great Aunts, Aunt Cele and Aunt Reet, to pick me up. I had the bright idea to hide behind a large tree in the yard. I silently prayed that they would simply pass on by. But instead she pulled up to the curb, rolled down the window and yelled at me to get out from behind the tree and get in the car. The 5-minute ride to the church felt like 10 hours as all 3 of them ganged up on me. I longed for the days of Triscuits and Wheat Thins. I felt like I was constantly disappointing her, but also felt resentful that she didn’t let me have any fun.
The following year, my Mom moved us to a pretty little town in Massachusetts, about 40 minutes away from my Grandmother. This actually improved my relationship with my Grandmother. Now, when we did see her, it was a lot more fun. When she visited, she’d always bring a few random bags of groceries—items on sale and often things that we never used. Of course, nobody had the heart to tell her that. For some reason I thought it was really fun to see what was in the bags because you never knew what kind of treasure you’d find. I would empty the bags onto the counter: Ivory Soap, a can of frosting (score!), pasta, dishwashing soap, canned corn, a role of twine…it looked like something MacGyver would use to get himself out of a jam. Later we’d all have dinner and then play “Boggle” at the dining room table. My Grandmother, who had an incredible vocabulary, won almost every time.
Going to my Grandmother’s house was once again a fun experience. She would pick us up, take us to the mall and then out to lunch. But there was one massive hurdle we’d have to overcome each visit: going to confession and then attending the 4:00 mass. Now, I was a pretty good kid so I often struggled to come up with something to tell the priest. I quickly whipped up some sins. Usually it was fighting with my sister or talking back to my mother (even if I hadn’t). It never occurred to me that making up sins was probably frowned upon. I was always scared to death and my stomach was in knots as I awaited my turn. I would watch as someone exited the confessional. My Grandmother would give me a nod as if to say “go ahead.” I had trouble memorizing the prayer we were expected to recite so my Grandmother created a little cheat sheet for me. I was always grateful to her for that.
Once confession was over, a feeling of relief would wash over me. But I still had to get through church. My sister and I would play games like “count how many women are wearing hats” to pass the time. When the parishioners offered each other the sign of peace I knew it was almost over and would gleefully shake hands with the strangers around me. After church we’d go back to my Grandmother’s house. My Great Aunts would come over too and we’d all eat dinner on our little tv stands. I was in heaven. First came Lawrence Welk, which I didn’t love, but it had its moments. After that was The Love Boat—my personal favorite. In the morning my Grandmother always made Pillsbury Cinnamon Buns and allowed me to have coffee with milk and plenty of sugar. We would chat about all kinds of things and I was always a bit sad to go home.
When I became an adult, my relationship with my Grandmother deepened. She had mellowed out quite a bit (and I had grown up quite a bit) and I really enjoyed talking with her. She was my saving grace during and after my tumultuous marriage. The random bags of groceries started up again and she always bought packs of diapers for my daughter, Chloe. Right after my divorce, after I started a new job, it was my Grandmother who came to the rescue when Chloe came down with a virus. I was afraid to call out of work and my Grandmother, now in her late 80s, watched Chloe. Chloe absolutely loved her Great-Grandmother and the feeling was mutual.
When my Grandmother passed in August of 2001, my Mother, my Aunt Ellie, my sister and I were standing around her hospital bed. Our matriarch was gone and it was surreal. That night and for many nights after, I cried. I felt her presence with me and talked to her often. What I would have given to go to church with her one more time! Now, almost 20 years later, I often wonder what she’d think of The Divine Breadcrumb, an idea downloaded from the heavens. It’s ironic that the biggest lesson she ever taught me, the one that I fought for so long and took me the longest to learn, was to have faith—faith in myself, but also faith in something much, much bigger.