When I was growing up in a crowded working class neighborhood in New Jerseythe people on my block all knew each other. Those were the days before city people started to prize anonymity. Our houses were so close together that there was precious little we didn’t know about each other. If two people had an argument, we all heard it, especially if it occurred during the warmer months when windows were open. Privacy didn’t exist for us. The upside of that was that it was easy to form relationships outside our immediate families.
My father’s mother was alive when I was young, but we didn’t see her much. She lived in another part of the city. My mother’s step mother was a colorful character who’d been a labor organizer and read and spoke seven languages. She had red hair, bright red circles of rouge on each cheek, and a cigarette dangling from her bright red lips. Not the stereotypical grandmother, but I was captivated by her. With hindsight, I suspect my mother put her largely off limits to preserve my innocence.
Where were those grandmothers like the one in the Dick and Jane books? Mine sure didn’t look like her, and neither of them baked cookies that I knew of. So naturally, I gravitated to the old ladies on my block who fit the picture.
One of my favorite adopted grandmothers was Mrs. Schechter. She lived alone at the other end of my street and often waited on her porch for us kids to pass by on our way home from school. I don’t think I ever saw her standing, yet I knew she was a tall woman from the way she sat in her chair. She was blind, but she always had homemade cookies in a dish on a wicker table next to her chair. She’d call me onto the porch and ask me to thread a needle for her. I did it gladly, not out of any altruism, but because I knew the payment was on that pink glass plate. In between stuffing my mouth with cookies, I’d tell her about my day in school.
I confided in Mrs. Schechter things I didn’t tell my own mother. She was the one I told that cute little David Brown (no relation) ran up and kissed me on the playground, and she laughed when I reported that I’d rewarded him with a punch in the face. She never judged me; she just listened and smiled, and told me what a nice girl I was. Sometimes she’d ask me to stand in front of her so she could feel my face. She said it felt pretty, and her fingers told her I looked like Elizabeth Taylor. I felt special when I was with her.
Mrs. Boudish wore house dresses covered by a cobbler apron and stockings rolled to just below her knees. Her legs had bulging blue veins in them, maybe the result of the tourniquet-like garters that held up her stockings. She had bushy brown hair that stuck out in all directions and she walked with a funny rocking gait that was recognizable from a block away. She always seemed to be going or coming from somewhere and carried a large canvas bag filled with odds and ends. If I saw her on a city street today I’d assume she was a bag lady, but she lived in a house on the middle of the block with her husband.
She had grandchildren who lived somewhere else, and they came to visit her often enough to be known to all the regulars on our block. Whenever her twin grandsons visited she invited the neighborhood kids in for milk and cookies. Sometimes we had ice cream, too. I had my first sundae in her house. She seemed to come alive when she had a house full of noisy kids. She took a special liking to me, and the day after Charles and William left she’d walk down the alley next to her house and look up and down the street until she spotted me. “Lissa-la,” she’d call. All the kids had an extra syllable tacked onto their names in our neighborhood. It’s an endearment that comes from Yiddish.
Whatever I was doing could wait when Mrs. Boudish called. I’d dash over to her and she’d run her fingers through my curls. “Guess what I have for you,” she’d say. “I have to fatten you up. You look like a stick. Come.” I’d follow her into the kitchen and feast on cookies, cake and whatever else her grandsons hadn’t eaten.
I was trained to call adults by their last names unless instructed otherwise. Mrs. Boudish asked me to call her Bubbe and after a few reminders, I did. My mother was always puzzled about that and couldn’t understand what drew me to Mrs. Boudish and the other old ladies.
Not all of my adopted grandmothers baked cookies. Mrs. Codner was the grandmother of one of my playmates and she seemed too old to make cookies or anything else. A couple of times a week after school I’d stop by Sherry’s house while she put on her play clothes. I’d already changed, but my friend was a slow poke.
“So, girls,” Mrs. Codner would ask, “what did you learn today?” We couldn’t go out to play until we’d provided a satisfactory answer. I’d rattle off some times tables or other rote lesson from school and she’d pat us both on the head and tell us how smart we were. Even if we weren’t smart, she made us believe we were.
I’m now likely older than those adopted grandmothers I recall from childhood, and the lessons I took from them live on. They made me feel important, loved and gave me the confidence I could do anything I set my mind to.
Lissa Brown is the author of Family Secrets: Three Generations, a novel about the special relationship between a girl and her grandmother and the effects it had on three generations of women. www.lissabrownwrites.com