MY GRANDMOTHER’S NAME is Annabelle and she lives at 192 Lowell Lane in Northport Village on Long Island in the State of New York, United States of America, Western Hemisphere, the World. It’s a two-story shingled house with some lawn in the front and in the back. And Grandma lives there. That’s right, she’s 90 years old and she lives there. Other than my other grandmother, Peg, who is 96 and doesn’t remember who I am anymore, Grandma is the oldest living person I know.
Her mother Genevieve was the oldest person I have ever met in my life, period, meaning that she was the one who was born longest ago. Genevieve also lived at Grandma’s for a time, or so I remember. There was a room upstairs that was called “Great Grandma’s Room,” and it was about the size of a closet. To the right was Joe’s room and to the left was the bathroom and Bob’s room.
Joe and Bob were my uncles, but they did not like to be called “Uncle Joe” and “Uncle Bob” because they were in their twenties and “Uncle” sounded so serious, and they were a couple of happening young guys. So they were “just Joe” and “just Bob.” There was a pull-up bar in the doorway to Great Grandma’s room too. I am not sure if that was there when Great Grandma was alive. But that’s how mysterious Grandma’s House was. Each room held more questions, more personalities. There were Great Grandma, Joe, and Bob. And that was just on the second floor.
Genevieve was really old, in fact that’s all I can remember about her. I remember blue eyes and light hair. I was very small then and hearing about God in church, and somehow this really old lady and God got crisscrossed in my mind. Was Genevieve the same age as God, or even older than him?
Did she know him?
Genevieve knew her grandmother, Catherine, who was from Ireland and born in December 1839. It says so on the 1900 US Census, which is a document only true nerds and antisocial people bother to look at. Catherine came over on a ship. Later she ran a cotton brokerage on Water Street in Lower Manhattan. She kept scrapbooks for fun and Grandma Ann still has these keepsakes buried somewhere in her house. In the scrapbooks there were cut-out cartoons of an old strip called “The Katzenjammer Kids,” which the online encyclopedia Wikipedia tells me debuted in 1897 in William Randolph Hearst’s The New York Journal. Here is a picture of that old cartoon.
Rudolph Dirks’ The Katzenjammer Kids (1901)
Catherine died the year my grandmother was born. 1924. It was a long time ago. But her scrapbooks survive. Grandma showed them to me once or twice in her kitchen. They were thick old books with images of Victorian angels and newspaper clippings and pictures of flowers. Grandma’s house was full of these ancient treasures. It seemed like every thing in that place belonged to some long-forgotten time and had a story about how it had come into her possession. And Grandma was never forthcoming about the provenance of these goods. When I would ask her questions, she would squint just a tiny bit, with a telling sparkle in her blue eyes, as if she was on the witness stand or something. There was a lot more to all of these back stories and she only gave part of the answer.
Or so I imagined it.
I think Grandma was born in Queens – Forest Hills, I once thought I heard her say. I have driven through there a few times, but never noticed any forest or any hills. I saw a lot of apartment buildings though. I know Grandma is from New York City because of her manner of speaking. And yet she does not have the nasal New York accent that every gangster speaks with in the movies. She has this refined, slow, steady, transatlantic thing, like those old recordings of FDR’s Fireside Chats. There was no ‘r’ – it was ‘ahhh.’ “Father” was “Fah-thah” – and it is quite charming to hear her speak like this. I wish I could even imitate it, but it seems like only Grandma can speak that special way.
Grandma’s brothers spoke like that. Uncle Frank speaks like that too, and so does Aunt Doris.
Grandma had a lot of brothers. She was the only girl. She once told me how she wanted to wear “slacks,” which is what most of us call pants these days, or if we are feeling a little funny, trousers. But Great Grandma Genevieve just couldn’t bear to see her only daughter dressed in “slacks.” Her only daughter had to wear skirts or dresses. I think Great Grandma relented though, because I have seen pictures of Grandma wearing “slacks” and I think she wears her beloved “slacks” most days.
She also told me once that I had to be careful. How once when she was a little girl she was ice skating with other children in the city and one other little girl was abducted by a bad man. I am not sure if I remember this correctly, but when I think of Grandma as a little girl, I always imagine her on that rink. I’ve seen a picture of her when she was very young. It is black and white and blurry, but you can make out the light brown bangs and light eyes. It reminds me of our daughter Maria.
That makes me happy.
I can’t imagine what it was like for Grandma growing up in a house with all of those boys. In no particular order, there was Ken, Bob, John, Joe, Freddy, and Frank. Frank is the one I always forget. Of the gang, I knew Ken and John better and Joe the absolute best. I should spend just a little time on her brother Joe, because it was almost always at Grandma’s House that I saw Uncle Joe, or as she called him, “Father Joe.” He was a round, stocky man with a ruddy face and bright blue eyes, what I would later learn were common Irish features so that whenever I met an old man later in life who looked a bit like Father Joe, you could bet your life that his last name was McCarthy or O’Driscoll.
Father Joe once told me that they used to go swimming off Brooklyn and Queens when they were children, and that the water was very clean then. This is another imaginary memory I have of Grandma’s childhood, of them all in those old-fashioned swimming trunks swimming in Brooklyn.
When I was small, I didn’t even understand that “Father Joe” was a relative though. And why was he called “Father” if he was nobody’s father? To make things odder, he always seemed to show up at Christmas … just like “Father Christmas.” He would sit before the fireplace at Grandma’s House and hand out gifts. “Ah, yes, I see that this box says Ryan on it,” he would say and hand it over. Little cousin Ryan was so happy with his toy train. We were all so happy to be in the presence of this great “Father Joe.” Later, I was informed that our personal Santa Claus was actually Grandma’s brother. They called him “Father Joe” because he was a priest. And that portrait on the young priest with the yellow hair and the familiar blue eyes on the wall? That was Father Joe, many years ago.
But who painted the haunting portrait of Father Joe that still hangs on the wall? I just don’t know.
I don’t know who taught Grandma to cook, either, but whoever did thought that butter and sugar were the greatest ingredients ever created. If you drank Grandma’s lemonade, it was sweet, but not so sweet that you couldn’t stomach it – just sweet enough to make you want another glass. My cousin Brad called it something like “Meema’s Sunny Day,” and later they even named a boat the “Sunny Day,” all after Grandma’s not too sweet, extra lemony lemonade. Her pancakes were plump, textured, and delicious. They were also just a bit sweet, but tasted a thousand times better with some melted butter dripping on top that shone blue like an oil slick in the streams of dark maple syrup.
Grandma always got up very early. I swear, I would hear that radio alarm clock go off at 5 AM on some days. Or was it even earlier? Often, it was still dark out, and you would hear the sink water running. She would make herself coffee and listen to the news on the radio. The news was usually bad, but that did not slow Grandma’s bustle. The coffee was made, and soon the butter would be put to the pan to melt. Sometimes she would let the gray cat inside so that he could have breakfast, too.
The cat’s name was Mr. Snuffleupagus. “Snuffy” was a street-smart cat, and sometimes got into scuffles with other neighborhood cats. But no matter where the rough life of the Northport streets took Snuffy, he always came home for his bowl of crunchy cat food and a few pets from Grandma. Then Chloe the dog would come out from under the table sniffing good-humorously along for her food. Chloe was supposedly our dog Leroy’s sister, and they even said that Aunt Mary’s dog Brandon was Leroy’s son. Leroy and Chloe were a mix of golden retriever and black Labrador. Chloe came out all chocolate, and Leroy was black on top, with a gold belly. Leroy seemed more laid back to me, and Chloe high strung. Chloe enjoyed slurping loudly at the metal bowl of water, and Grandma pet her too, right behind the ears. Then she let Mr. Snuffleupagus back outside.
Grandma knew the eating habits of every member of our family. My mother, she said, liked to eat breakfast right away, while my Aunt Mary, she said, liked to wait a while before having her breakfast. My grandfather cut his pancakes into precise squares before eating them, a habit that Bob continued, and which I also have emulated. Once, many years after teaching me my grandfather’s pancake etiquette, Grandma noticed that I was cutting them up into squares. “You eat your pancakes just like your grandfather!” she said. I didn’t tell her that she was the one who taught me that. I wanted her to think the pancake thing was genetic. I also had a habit of spilling my food on the floor. Grandma would say that she always knew where Justin sat, because of all the crumbs.
I knew that my grandfather was dead, and that he had died somewhere in the house. I cannot tell you how I knew these things. I can’t remember anyone ever telling me about it, and yet I just knew it. Especially when I was in the downstairs bathroom, I would think about my grandfather. Was he still there? Could he see us? There was a picture of him and my grandmother on the table in her bedroom. It was black and white. Grandma’s hair was thick and appeared dark in the image. She looked very pretty. My grandfather had black hair and very big cheeks. He looked sort of like all of my male relatives on that side put together. Most of us have those big cheeks thanks to him. They flatten out over time, but only a little. Even my daughter Anna has those big fat cheeks.
Another one of Grandma’s specialties was something called “hard sauce.” This was put out at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and was some whipped-up combination of butter and whiskey, and even when I was a very small child I would dab a bit on my pumpkin pie and enjoy the steam of the whiskey coming out of my ears. I do not think that you can get drunk on hard sauce, but it always made our holidays more enjoyable. I think Great Grandma must have taught Grandma this recipe.
In Grandma’s kitchen, there was a big framed menu from a restaurant in Rome called “Aeneas’ Landing.” It was yellow with red lettering, as I remember it, and advertised traditional dishes, linguines, fettucines. Grandma was not an Italian but her husband was and she adored Italian culture and cuisine and even went to Italy several times. Sometimes I think Grandma wished secretly that she had been born as an Italian, but she loved Italy more than any true Italian can because of its problems. If you ask an Italian about Italy, they will complain. But Grandma never complained. Once we were watching TV and there was a sitcom on about four Italian brothers who liked eating a lot of pasta and saying “Baddabing!” to each other and stuff like that. Grandma seemed offended.
“Derogatory stereotypes,” she said and sighed to herself. “They … they are mocking Italians.”
Grandma met my grandfather at church. She told me that if it wasn’t for the Catholic Church, it would have been harder for Italian-Americans to integrate into mainstream society. In the Catholic Church many of the dark and exotic Italian men fell for the Irish and Polish girls with their blue eyes and red-blonde curls. The handsome blue-eyed men similarly seduced the olive-toned Italian ladies. This was how we wound up with cousins with names like Mary Ann and Stanley. But that didn’t matter. Cousin Mary Ann still made pignoli cookies at Christmas and we were all Italians inside. Still, it wasn’t always easy. Grandma said that all people did not look fondly upon such blonde-brown marriages. When I asked her what they did, she looked away and didn’t tell me.
Father Joe had more mixed feelings about the Italians. He was an old school type, who confided in me that he wished he had been born in the 19th century, where he could have sat around philosophizing with other intellectuals in a drawing room, smoking a pipe. When he found out that my father had some Greek heritage, Father Joe was delighted. “John, are you Greek? You never told me you were Greek!” he said. “The Greeks are a learned, cultured people. Greece is the cradle of Western Civilization. The Italians, on the other hand, pfff, are barbarians.” I think a lot of Italians would agree. There were so many Italians in New York back then, much closer to their origin country. I can imagine that it at times felt like the city had been besieged by pasta-eating invaders.
In addition to the portrait of Father Joe that hung on the wall, there were other interesting pictures in Grandma’s House. Above the fireplace, there was a very old looking painting of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus. And just to the left of the fireplace, above the chair where Father Joe would sometimes sit, there was an image of a castle beside a mountain lake. Father Joe once told me a story about such a castle, perhaps in Germany, where they had found piles of gold that had been hastily dumped in a nearby lake by retreating Nazis. Father Joe had a book called Blitzkrieg in his room that was about the German advance in WWII. He seemed to know so many things, and I could listen to that old man talk. If he didn’t know something, he would hint as if he actually knew more and just didn’t want to let you in on all of his secrets. He would also encourage me in my probing and questioning, as if I was a detective or reporter. “Now you’re getting closer, now you’re getting closer,” he would say. If he strained to remember something, he would close both of his eyes tight as if in a trance, and then the memory would stir and the words would at last come to his lips.
His eyes would then reopen.
It was Grandma who actually first talked to me about World War II. Once I stayed at her house and fell ill, so she brought a book to cheer me up – children’s stories from the Second World War! There was the Italian girl who remembered seeing how her father was missing his fingernails – they had been pulled out during a police interrogation. And the little Estonian girl who was delighted whenever she had a cold, because the salt from her snot would make her unseasoned soup more savory. Food was rationed, and the real treat was a piece of bread with a teaspoon of sugar on top. Whenever anyone asks me about the first time I heard about Estonia these days, I always tell them the story about the book my grandmother gave me, and that little girl who her loved snotty soup.
So far I have told you about the second floor and the main floor, but I don’t think I have told you about the basement at Grandma’s House. Interesting. To get to the basement, you took a door from the kitchen, next to the rotary phone. No room in Grandma’s house was particularly bright, but the basement was the dimmest of all dims, and even when all lamps were on, there was nothing but a dull orange glow that you could make out from the top of the stairs to let you know it was safe to descend. On many Thanksgivings and Christmases my cousins and I were corralled in that basement with some light supervision from Bob or Joe. Bob preferred to slouch in the arm chair, while Joe would pace about with his hands behind his back or lie sprawled out on the old carpet, with his hands clutched on his chest. Each one of us had a nickname. My brother Ian was called “Eagen,” by Joe, Steven was “Ernest,” I was “Scooty” and Brad was “Piggly Poo” or just “Piggly.” Joe referred to us collectively as “vermin,” but with affection. “What’s up, vermin?” he would say. I did not know then what the word “vermin” meant, but Wikipedia defines it as “pests or nuisance animals, especially those that threaten human society by spreading diseases or destroying crops.”
Sometimes Uncle Steve would be there too and he would pace the floor or stand eyeing the chaos and catastrophe like an eagle. If we got too violent he would threaten us with outrageous punishments that could only make you laugh inside. “If you two don’t knock it off, I’m gonna …”
We all knew he wouldn’t do it.
I watched some interesting films down in that basement. Excalibur. The Clash of the Titans. Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. These films were watched in silence, with total respect. To hear Bob say the name of the film made it impressive and gave it an awesome aura.
On the other side of the basement there was a door that led to what I assumed was a storage area. I think I only went there two times. Once, I walked in and it was full of bird houses that Bob had designed and had managed to sell through a magazine. So he was busy assembling dozens of bird houses for potential orders. Bob was a graphic designer in Manhattan, but when the catalog came out, we saw that the bird houses had been credited to a “New England architect.” To think that all of those unsuspecting buyers bought the cute bird houses thinking they were assembled in some Vermont barn by a Robert Frost type when it was just Bob in Grandma’s basement out in Northport.
Another time I walked into the backroom to discover a pool table there. My cousin Ryan was with me and he knew all about the pool table and was knocking the balls into the pockets with finesse. Aunt Mary’s kids spent more time at Grandma’s because they lived close by, and so they knew its secrets better than I ever could, and were most likely aware of the pool table the first day it arrived.
One other treasure in the basement was a mounted church text that looked as if it had been written in the Vatican in ink in the 16th century. It may have been in Latin, because I could not decipher what it said, but it had the requisite crosses and symbols. Grandma’s faith mystified me. She spoke with great knowledge about the Franciscans and Benedictines. I did not know who these bands of merry men were, but I imagined them in maroon-colored hooded robes, and that they would meet secretly under Rome to plot against each other. Later, Grandma would wear a shiny Celtic cross around her neck. As curious and labyrinthine as the Catholic faith seemed to me when I was young, Grandma’s belief in it was consistent, and I think it got her through a lot of troubled times.
Each summer on the first of August, there would be a party held in Grandma’s backyard. This was originally in celebration of Great Grandma’s birthday, but it continued on after she died. Many interesting characters ensconced in the shadows of Grandma’s House, some of whom were referred to by their surnames alone: The Graus, The Rupps. I had no idea what the criteria was for admittance to the annual summer party, but at least some of the attendees were relatives. We usually stuck to our own, the kids. There were great adventures in that backyard. Sometimes, we would just catch fireflies, also known as lightning bugs. You had to wait for their bio-luminescence to glow. It usually did so in a rhythm, so you had to train your vision on one corner of the yard and wait for them to light. Then you would swoop in and catch a few in your hands to keep as a short-term pet.
There were great battles in the backyard, too. The most memorable was the one when cousin Shane and cousin Conner, who were toddlers, went at it for a while. Usually, two warring children would be separated, yet we were transfixed by the primitive, brutal violence for some time.
In the front yard during those summer parties, we would play hide and seek among the thick hedges or even venture across the street to play with the neighbor girls. Sometimes I even went into their house. You could also climb up the tree that was planted right in the middle of the front yard. Once, Grandma caught me climbing up the tree and came out and told me, “Do you know, that tree was my mother’s day gift, from the first year we lived here?” I imagined it was just a sapling back then. Then it matured into a sturdy tree climbed by rambunctious grandchildren (there were so many).
And then, one day, I went to visit Grandma when I was an adult, and I noticed that the tree wasn’t there anymore. Nobody explained why, but I assumed it got sick and they decided to cut it down. Or maybe it came down in a storm. It’s just another mystery. But that was okay, because Grandma was still there, waiting for us at the front door. She had curly white hair that day and was smiling. Her Celtic cross glinted from around her neck through the glass, just like a content and joyous Irish saint.