A Final Letter to my Grandmother
Years ago, when Teddy and I were very young, it was night time and we were in grandma’s side of the house. Grandma had gone to bed at her usual time, 7pm, because she always went to bed at 7pm, in order to wake at 5am — this was the result of more than half a century of being a farmer’s wife and keeping farming hours, even though by this point my grandpa had already passed away. But that evening, as we tended to do, we grandchildren had congregated in grandma’s space, and were still hanging out in grandma’s space after she had gone to sleep.
Teddy and I could hear grandma snoring. It’s no secret that grandma could snore with the best of them. So Teddy and I peeked in at grandma’s sleeping figure. She was probably 80 at the time. Teddy said, “would ya look at that. Her parents came to this country as immigrants, with nothing. She grows up in a tenement, survives the Great Depression, lives through two World Wars. Sends both of her sons to Yale on scholarships. One goes on to become a scientist, the other a governor. And here we are, two generations later, a couple of spoiled little shits.”
I apologize for the profanity, but grandma loved that story, and she certainly appreciated the occasional and well-placed swear word, and I’m pretty sure she’d want us all to be happy today. She always wanted everyone to be happy, every day.
We Pataki grandchildren grew up with this belief that, of all the grandmothers in the world, our grandma was special. In second grade I had grandma as my guest at school on “special person day” and when it came my turn to introduce my guest and explain to the class why she was my special person, I said, “this is my grandmother, and she’s my special person because whenever I see her, she is always happy and smiling.”
Grandma remembered that and I remember how through the years she would bring that story up as if she was so flattered to have been introduced that way, and I always just thought to myself, “well, grandma, duh. Of course I introduced you that way.”
It was obvious that that was how anyone would introduce grandma. Anyone who knew grandma knew that about her. She always greeted everyone with a smile. She always wanted everyone to feel comfortable and welcome. She always offered whatever it was she had in her kitchen. As my husband Dave said: “she was the first member to truly embrace me into the Pataki family.”
And her special-ness went beyond that. Grandma’s 101-year-long life was filled with one unbelievable story after another. As a girl I could never get enough of grandma’s stories. Stories of how when illness swept through the New York City tenement building in which her family lived, her mother gave them cod liver oil to stay healthy, and until the very end, grandma credits this natural elixir with her longevity and health. Stories of riding around in her father’s Model-T Ford to deliver the gin they made at home in their bathtub during Prohibition. Stories of her mother, Agnes Lynch, boarding a boat from Ireland at the last minute to come to America and find work as a maid in a New York City household — the same household where Agnes Lynch would land herself the Italian butler as her husband, even though all the other Irish maids had their eyes on him. Yes, this Irish girl and Italian boy would become grandma’s mother and father. There was the story of how grandma got the lead role in her high school play, but her hopes were crushed because the role required her to kiss a boy, and she knew her Italian father would never allow it, so grandma and her mother conspired to send her father out of town on an errand on the night of the play. There was the story of grandma turning down her scholarship to Cornell in order to take a waitressing job at the grill to support her family during the Great Depression. And there were so many stories from that grill, a place where a young man named Rosey broke grandma’s heart and a smitten young man named Louis Pataki happily stepped in to take grandma to the dance after Rosey had jilted her. Neither one looked back after that.
Grandma told these stories with heart and humor. Nothing made her laugh harder than to talk about her sister Ag. Nothing made her shine brighter with pride than to celebrate the joys of her sons, and then her grandchildren.
The grandma we knew always won at bridge. One of my favorite ways to picture grandma from our childhood is to see her, happy, hosting a table full of ladies on her porch, surrounded by spring flowers, playing bridge. We’d get home from school and Grandma would love to have us out onto her porch so her friends could ooh and aah; grandma was always so proud to show her grandchildren off to her friends. Whenever I would ask grandma after those gatherings: “who won?” She would always answer: “I did.” She literally always won, and so this of course only added to my suspicions that my grandma was better than all other grandmas.
It wasn’t until years later that I found out that grandma and her friends had decided that each one of them would always tell their grandchildren that they had won, regardless of who actually won. I was shocked to learn of this deception. “Grandma, you mean you weren’t actually always winning every week?!” I challenged her. She shrugged her shoulders: “Well, I did actually win most of the time.” I don’t know if she was just saying that to put me at ease, but I choose to believe that she did actually win most of the time.
Grandma somehow always seemed to know the right thing to say. I remember a song she always sang to us grandchildren. The lyrics were as follows;
If you’re ever in a jam, here I am;
If you’re ever up a tree, send for me;
If they ever cook your goose, turn me loose.
She was unwilling to ever be cross with us; she played that special grandma role of always taking our side, always seeing the best in us, even when we didn’t see it ourselves.
There was…one…time when grandma was mad at me, and even she didn’t try to hide it. I was in high school, and my parents went out of town, so I did what any self-respecting teenager would do in the situation. I had some friends over – or, you might say, I had a party. Weren’t there NY state troopers stationed all over my house, you might ask? Yes, yes there were. Somehow I snuck the friends in to the house in spite of the troopers. But grandma, that was a different story. Grandma had gone to bed at her usual 7pm, and I thought I was so clever as I locked the kitchen door that connected our two sides of the house. Grandma, on hearing a racket, must have woken up at some point In the middle of the night, and on seeing that the kitchen door was locked, she climbed her stairs, crossed into our half of the house on the second floor, and down she comes, down our front staircase smack dab into the middle of our party in her nightgown and sleep cap. She was a bit irritated to see the scene, and we were a bit shocked to see her. As you can imagine, the party came to a screeching halt. Grandma told everyone in a stern voice that they needed to go home. But, what ended up happening was that within five minutes, everyone was gathered in the kitchen around grandma while she made everyone coffee and eggs.
The last flight grandma took was for Teddy’s wedding in Houston, Texas. At that point she was in her mid 90s. We were on the same flight back to New York. This flight had some particularly rough turbulence. The pilot came over the air and said that unfortunately the turbulence would continue for most of the four hour flight, and you hear this collective groan go throughout the plane. I was totally rattled. I remember grandma was sitting a few rows In front of me and I could just see her white head bobbing up and down, and side to side, with each rough jolt of the plane. I was thinking to myself, “gosh, I better check on grandma. She doesn’t fly that often, this is pretty rough, she must be terrified.” So I wait until a calm moment and I hop out of my seat and I run to grandma and I lean over and I take her hand and I say, “grandma, are you ok? You must be terrified.” And grandma just looks at me, her face calm, and she says: “I’m fine. You’ll be fine too.”
For some reason I’ve been thinking about this story a lot in recent days. I’ve been seeing grandma’s head bobbing up and down in the rough air and then her perfectly calm face, her reassuring words. I realize that, for me, for so many of us, grandma played that role our entire lives. She was always the calming presence, the steadying presence, the loving presence, the comforting presence. Hers was a quiet strength, a modest strength, yet, clearly, a mighty one. The word we heard ascribed to grandma so much in her final months and weeks and days was “fighter.” You might not think of a sweet little 101 year old lady as a fighter, but indeed she was. She fought, every day of her life, in her gentle yet powerful way, for the ones she loved.
We had the great good fortune to grow up with a special grandma, and to have her for 101 years, 32 years of my own life. We all had the great good fortune to have a special grandma, because she was grandma to all of us.
My grandma and my daughter are almost exactly one century apart, onehaving been born in December of 1915 and the other in October of 2015. How special that my grandma got to love not only her two sons, but also two daughters-in-law, six grand-children, ten great-grandchildren, and more friends and loved ones than it would be possible to count.
I’m fairly confident that my daughter, at one and a half years old, will not remember the special moments she spent with her great granny, but I’m certain that she will grow up knowing, as I did, the remarkable stories of grandma’s long and inspirational life.
And now grandma has gone on ahead of us. We are sad, because we miss her. We will miss her every single day. But so too are we so incredibly grateful for the long time we had with her, and the remarkable role she played in each of our lives.
Grandma loved no season more than spring. She loved Easter blossoms and dogwood flowers and daffodils; she loved to sit on her porch and see her blooming lilacs that my dad planted for her one Mother’s Day. Grandma won’t get to see her lilacs bloom this spring, but as my sister Emily said, the flowers where grandma is now are even more beautiful than anything we have down here.
I know grandma is up there, enjoying the flowers, eating pound cake and drinking tea, holding court with the so many loved ones who waited so patiently for her to join them there all these years. And it’s good to know that, someday, grandma will be there to welcome each one of us with her big smile, and make us feel, once again, the love that she was always so eager to share.