My father and I were living with my grandparents in their two-family house. We had the upstairs, they the downstairs. The house was always there for the family. Before my dad moved in, my aunt was living upstairs. Over the years my cousin was in and out of the TV room/second bedroom in the back of the first floor, next to my grandparent’s bedroom.
There were thirteen stairs in the house that lead upstairs. I used to always count them, half hoping one day I would find out that I had counted wrong and there would be twelve or fourteen, that there would be something new I could discover, like the one time I found toys that had been hidden by my cousins in a hole under the carpeting in a corner of the stairs. But, there were always thirteen.
I liked spending time downstairs, especially in the winter because my grandparents had radiant heat and I loved the way it felt on my feet. So did the dogs my grandma had through the years. Grandma’s knick knacks always fascinated me. Resting on a hutch in the living room, the glass animals seemed like tiny treasures. One day I even asked her if I could have them when she died. I was a tactful little one.
My grandmother was a ceramics painter until her eyes became too bad for her to focus on the small details that brought everything she did to life. The house was filled with her creations, including an entire wall of ceramic heads in the TV room. It was this sea of meticulously decorated heads that stared at you when you watched TV or took a nap. Her pirate head stands out most clearly in my memory...the patch over his eye, the green parrot on his shoulder. Grandma was my earliest exposure to art.
She was also my first stylist, always trimming my hair and bangs for me when I needed it, until I got older and became a victim of the late-80’s/early-90’s permanant wave. Then I had to turn to a professional. I actually thought these faded away like New Kids on the Block, but just this morning a co-worker said she had just gone for one. I wonder if she listens to New Kids on the Block.
Grandma made me breakfast before school and ironed my clothes. She seemed to iron everything in those days, even her sheets. She’d say things like, “Well Heavens to Betsy.” When my dad worked nights, she would take care of me. In those early years, she was my mother.
She’s loved Budweiser for as long as I can remember, but even longer than that. She says that she had her first beer ever when she was seven on Coney Island, with her aunt. She will fight you fiercely if you tell her there’s no way that is possible. I made that mistake once.
“In them days,” she said, “people wouldn’t think twice about it. Not like today.”
She’s only had Scotch once, but promptly resumed her loyalty to Budweiser. She swears drinking beer is the only reason she is still alive. At the time of this writing, she is 94 years young.
“My sisters didn’t drink—dead,” she’d say. Grandma likes butterscotch on her ice cream and wears Jean Naté.
I’m pretty sure she’s also where I got my ability to be punctual 90 percent of the time and a sometimes overwhelming need for order. I was always fascinated by my grandparents’ dressers. Grandma’s had a level of organization that I loved and was baffled by. She had rows of hankerchiefs, sheets, and pillow cases neatly folded and in perfect rows. The dresser had a distinct scent that she said was from the smelling salts she kept in there. No one was ever fainting, to my recollection, so I don’t know why she would have them. Sometimes Grandma was a jokester, though, like the time she introduced me to garlic by telling me to take a big bite of a clove.
My grandfather was the entertainment. He would sing old songs, “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife. Take it from my personal point of view—get an ugly girl to marry you.” He’d tell jokes, and take out his teeth at the table. He wore polo shirts, plaid pants, and bolo ties.
He drove a white 1977 Mercury with a blue top. He’d take Grams shopping, to the doctor, pick me up from school if I was sick, or drive down to Murph’s, the local bar. He drove that car until he was unable to drive anymore, and probably should have stopped way before that. His glasses were thick like Coke bottles and my grandmother would always talk about how he had to have special glasses made because his eyelashes were so long. That’s a trait I wouldn’t have minded inheriting.
As a kid, in the early days of my neat-freak-dom, during summer breaks from school, I would help Grandma dust. I used to wash my grandfather’s car and I’d make him cards with crayons and whatever paper I could find. Sometimes he would pay me. Now, I was a kid and was always happy to have money, but I always wondered if he thought I just wanted the cash. Well, maybe that’s why I cleaned his car, but certainly not why I made him cards. I loved him.
Grandpa used to always have a fabric hankerchief with him. Maybe using something that could be washed and reused was a product of the Depression Era, I don’t know. To me, it seemed as if he carried them around in his pockets forever, blowing his nose, then putting it back in his pocket. One summer while cleaning his car interior, I came across a hankerchief he had left in between the seats. I pulled it out to find that it was full of maggots. There’s definitely something to be said for disposable tissues.
Grandpa was social. So much so that whenever Jehovah’s Witnesses would come by selling their brand of religion, he would always let them in. It drove my Grandmother nuts. One summer day, after Grandpa had passed away, I came downstairs to find my Grandmother hiding behind the kitchen table.
“Um, what are you doing Grams?” I asked.
“Are they gone?”
“The Jehovah’s Witnesses. Your Grandfather would always let them in and they keep coming around.”
I looked out the front window and there was no one in sight.
“I think you’re good to get up now,” I told her and laughed.