A Polish and an African-American Grandmother
We get so fixated on the nuclear family in the United States with its portability, privacy, and freedom to reinvent itself that we forget, except on Thanksgiving, how rich and supportive it can be to have several generations around the table. A few days ago, in this wonderful interregnum between frantic work-weeks called Thanksgiving break, I had lunch with two friends who had never met before, but who both grew up in Chicago. “She’s my sister,” cried the younger African-American friend. That lovely “soul sister” idea. Then when they were face to face, she asked, “Are you from the city?” As opposed, I found out, to the many suburban communities spreading in all directions except directly east, where of course lies great Lake Michigan. Yes, they both grew up in inner city Chicago. One with an immigrant Polish family, the other with African-American grandparents who came up from Mississippi.
I never knew my grandmothers, a lack I’ve often mourned. Word has it they were both good women, though not strong enough to withstand cancer in their early 60s. “Your grandmother could make us four boys stop fighting just be coming into the room,” that’s my father’s voice in my memory. His mother Rose was a tiny Sicilian woman, probably no more than four feet, ten inches tall. When she was dying of ovarian cancer in Florida (where she and my grandfather moved to escape the Pittsburgh winters), my father’s first cousin Eleanora, then newly trained as a nurse, took the train south to care for her. “When I looked in her jewelry box,” Eleanora remembers, “I found a note from your grandfather, a love note telling Rose how much he adored her. He did that–left her little charms in her pockets or in her hymnal or behind the spices.”
Let’s call my two Chicago friends Adele and Roxy. Adele’s Polish family lived not far from Lake Michigan in a duplex, the grandmother on the bottom, her daughter’s family on top. After school, Adele immediately stopped at her grandmother’s kitchen. “She wasn’t a great cook,” Adele confesses, “In fact, I can’t remember what she gave me to eat, but it was quiet downstairs with Grandma. Upstairs, my mother would be sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee with her friends and criticizing their relatives. I didn’t like that.”
Roxy’s African-American single mother had four children before she was much over twenty. Roxy spent the first and second grades in Southside Chicago schools–“all the schools were neighborhood schools,” Roxy tells us. “We had an entirely African-American class.” When she was in third grade, her mother moved the family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The change was enormous. The four kids were the only black children in their grades. They quickly learned to speak “white English.” Then every summer for five years, Roxy and her brother went back to Chicago and stayed with Gramma. “She was a witchy old lady,” Roxy laughs, “saying things like, ‘Don’ you go leavin that purse on de floor.”
“How come?” Roxy would challenge her. “Purse on floo, you be poor.”
Hands on her hips, little Roxy sassed, “Then how come you be poor? Yo purse neber on de floo?” Roxy laughs at her sassy kid-self, then shakes her head at Gramma. “That lady brought all these notions from Mississippi. She was strict with us, but we’d laugh at her, not mean, just enjoying all being sassy together. Later she was proud of me. She kept saying, ‘Law, chile, you be so smart. Don’ you stop that studyin!'”
Adele picked up sewing from her Polish grandmother. This woman was so skilled that she made her daughter’s entire graduating class of girls fancy “stepping out” gowns. She would take the bus downtown to the big department stores and shop for fabric. She knew the names of all sorts of linens, wools, silks, cottons, and later synthetics. Then arthritis stopped her, and she became simply a haven from Adele’s sharp-tongued mother. Now Adele creates masterful needlework herself, knitting, needlepoint, crocheting, even that old-fashioned edging on pillow “slips” and sheets called “tatting.”
I, who grew up so far from any grandparents that I saw them only in the presence of my parents, I wonder how my young-life might have been different if the older generation had taken part in it. I imagine they might have buffered me from my parents’ excesses which became more and more pronounced as we lived longer in South Carolina–my father’s ranting against civil rights, his finickiness about clothing and housekeeping and food, and my mother’s rigid attempts to control his outbursts, her fearful whispering at me to behave, “because if you don’t your father will never forgive me….”
There’s a truism among immigration historians that the first generation arrives with grit, determination, and an unexpected sense of who they are and where they came from. It’s the second generation that flounders. That fits my father, determined though he was to escape the Italian immigrant community and marry “a real American.” Yet that “real American,” my mother, constantly failed to create a milieu that comforted him, plus by moving to South Carolina, he had lifted himself out of the larger associations that defined his identity. It was sweet, though pathetic, how he sought out Italian ships docking in Charleston harbor, and occasionally brought home sailors from Genoa or Naples who could speak to his heart.
Lucky indeed are my friends whose childhoods were enriched by extended families. Their hearts beat close by, and still help to measure and regulate their own.