On Thursdays, in-between her lunch and dinner shifts, my grandmother would come to our house, always arriving with boxes of nearly expired Entemmann’s from the discount store. My favorites were the chocolate donuts with cake crumbs stuck on top.
My grandmother would sit at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. This was back when people used to smoke inside their homes. I would sit next to her, listening to her and my mother talk as I picked the crumbs of cake off my donut.
My grandmother’s uniform was a pair of black pants, a matching black vest and a white blouse. Each week I would ask to see her brooch – a miniature silverware set made of gold.
After her coffee, she would take out a roll of chocolate Velamints, peel one out for herself. Then pass them around.
She always made time to visit with our parakeet. She’d stand over his cage repeating, “Pretty bird,” until the bird mimicked her. Then she’d sit on our living room couch, kick off her flats and pay my sisters and me a quarter a piece to take turns massaging her stockinged feet.
She spent 30 years on her feet, waiting tables – first at Bruno’s Diner, in Camden. Then the Grand Coach Grille, in Maple Shade, exit 4 off the New Jersey Turnpike.
She raised two daughters on a waitress’ pay, at a time when single mothers were nearly unheard of and certainly looked down upon.
Born three months before F.D.R. won his first presidential election, her childhood was marked by the tail end of the Great Depression and a World War.
She didn’t meet her husband until after her daughters were out of the house, with kids of their own. It was 1981, the same year I was born. For the first part of my life, I knew him as my grandmother’s boyfriend. But after they got married he became granddad.
My grandmother loved animals. She had a Chihuahua named Cindy. But that was before my time. I knew her mutt, Suzy.
It seemed like, every time we went to my grandmother’s house, Suzy had put on more weight – her tiny legs barely able to support her huge body, her breathing so heavy you could hear it from the next room.
My mother, and the vet, warned my grandmother she was killing that poor dog with table scraps.
“Nonsense,” my grandmother would say. “Suzy’s a happy dog. Her weight is just fine.”
In the end, she proved them wrong. Suzy lived to be 18 years old.
One time, my granddad gave my sister a sandwich, instructing her to take a big bite. Before she could swallow, he held his hand out. “Give it here,” he said. “Come on, give it here.”
That’s when we discovered that, not only were my grandparents overfeeding Suzy. They were chewing her food for her.
It was my granddad who insisted my grandmother stop waiting tables. She sold her house, moved in with him and they traveled. Every place she went, she would bring back a refrigerator magnet.
I remember magnets from California, Nashville, New Orleans. She talked often of her trip to Hawaii. It was the first time she’d ever been on an airplane.
Whenever I went to my grandmother’s house, I would look at the magnets on her fridge and ask about the places which, as a child, seemed so foreign to me.
When I saw her room in the nursing home, I was glad to see she had brought her magnets with her. They were stuck to a refrigerator, which seemed to take up too much space in her small room.
I have a collection of shot glasses. They sit on my bookcase, speaking of all the places I have traveled. By the time I started my collection, my grandmother was too old to make the trip to my house. But I like to think of her, standing in front of my bookcase, asking me about the croissants in Paris, the castle in Prague or the wild monkeys in Japan. The same way I used to ask her about the beignets in the French Quarter, the inside of the Grand Ole Opry and the volcanos in Hawaii.
During her Thursday visits, my grandmother taught me the bits of Polish she knew. Each week, I was quizzed. This came full circle when, on the last day I saw her, lying in a hospital bed, the nurse asked her to follow a few simple commands – raise your finger, open your eyes, tell me what year it is. When she failed, the nurse worried my grandmother had lost brain function.
“Grandma,” I stepped in, taking her hand in mine, “what are palecs?”
“Fingers,” she answered, Just as she knew that zeby was teeth, ocyz eyes and usta mouth, impressing her nurse and sending me back to New Jersey. Back to the house I grew up in. Sitting on the living room couch, so close to my grandmother our legs were touching. Instead of a patient’s gown, she was wearing her waitress uniform, the golden fork and knife pinned to her vest. Instead of the sterile smell of a hospital, the room was filled with a blend of cigarettes, coffee and chocolate Velamints.
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