When I tell you my grandmother was a tough old bird, you will likely get a picture of a stout matron in homemade gingham, wielding a wooden spoon as she intimidates a chicken into perfect roasted readiness while declaring in a brassy voice just how it’s gonna be in this house, if we all know what’s good for us.
That picture of my grandmother would be inaccurate.
Ella Smith was a bird of a woman, to be sure. But more along the lines of sparrow or chickadee than eagle or hawk. Small, unassuming, never one to stand out in a crowd was my Gogo. (We called her Gogo because that was the closest my oldest brother could get to saying “grandma” when he was a toddler. Mere decades later, he graduated with honors from Cornell and Harvard. Go figure.)
Gogo at my wedding in 1990, four days before her 91st birthday, dancing with an old family friend
But Gogo was one of the toughest people I’ve ever known. Without a gram of arrogance or bravado about her, my grandmother stood up to life’s gusts with hardly a cry. And I’m talking about a woman who was so slight that she had to stay in on windy days, or risk accidentally flying to the library.
She was born on April 4, 1899 to Lithuanian immigrants who ran a clothing business. She was the youngest child of four, and the only girl. In the early 20th century, that made things hard. It was the boys who were expected to go out and learn and earn, so they got the advantages. Daughters were, in the words of Fiddler on the Roof‘s Tevye, another mouth to feed. Still, Gogo got what education she could, including high school German. (She would chuckle when she remembered: “‘Don’t you Jewish kids try to fool me,’ my German teacher would say. ‘I know when you’re slipping in Yiddish!'”)
Gogo married, and my mother was born. At some point while my mother was still a little girl, my grandfather left them. For years, I thought he died before I was born, like my paternal grandfather. Actually, he moved to California, where he died in a car accident when I was about eight. My mother has half-sisters there. I found this out all too late.
Not that I would ever have divined it from Gogo. She refused to dwell on the past, at least where we could see. Instead, she delighted in my brothers and me. And knowing that I would be the last one, she was especially fond of me. One day a week, she would ride not one, but two busses from Squirrel Hill (transfer downtown to the 36A) and climb not one, but two formidable hills to get to our house on Ridgefield Avenue. Rain, shine, snow. Afternoon with me, dinner with us, then my Dad would drive her home. Hardly ever missed. I sat in a wing chair while she perched on the giant chair by the fireplace, and she would tell the family stories: who was who, wear they came from, who was dead, which cousins she still ran into at the Carnegie Library. She knew her grandfather, who came along with her parents from the old country. He had to have been born no later than 1850 or so, which made Gogo a link to history for me.
She was into her sixties by the time I was born. She was nearly 91 by the time I was married. (She attended and had a marvelous time.) She was proud when I distinguished myself at school and became a young lawyer. She never squawked about less time with me as I pursued young-man adventures. For a period, I took her every Saturday to temple; she greatly enjoyed that. We would reminisce about the times she would have me to her little apartment on Wightman Street for a sleepover when I was a little boy. These trips always included visits to the dinosaurs at Carnegie Institute, homemade blintzes at her place, and me sleeping on the sofa and gazing out the window at the sky above what I believed to be the biggest, most fascinating city in the world.
It was my habit during law school, before I could afford my own car, to borrow one of my parents’ for the weekend. I too would take the 36A and trek up the hills to my parents’s house. One Friday, as I stepped into the kitchen, my Mom said, “Gogo is in the hospital.” Gogo was in her mid-80s by this time; the occasional hospital visit was not out of the ordinary.
“Oh? What is it? Can she go home soon?” I said.
“Evidently, she had a heart attack,” my Mom said.
“She had WHAT?”
“About a week ago.”
“A wee –?” I was bewildered. I had just seen her two days ago, careening down Smithfield Street in her smart violet overcoat and matching pillbox hat, an octogenarian bowling pin tottering but refusing to fall on her purposeful way to lunch with a friend.
“It seems,” my mother said with a worried huff, “that she has been walking around with chest pain for a week. And once she couldn’t stand it anymore, she went in, and they determined she had had a mild myocardial infarction.”
She recovered. She came back. She continued to walk from her apartment at Fifth and Craig along Bellefield to the Carnegie Library. She rarely complained. She met my wife, then my fiance, and they got on famously. She may have been bothered by niggling health concerns, modernity rushing rudely by, the weather, cinnamon (she just…turned on it one day), any number of things. But Gogo never stopped smiling at me. When she died in 1994, it was at the end of about three months of mental decline. Before that, she was as sharp as the crystal blueness of her gentle eyes. And here was I, in the throes of young marriage and professional life, overweight, looking for my path out of unfulfilling lawyerhood…when she went, it felt like I was lunging after days and hours that were once so substantial, but now vanished around my grasping fingers like smoke.
Fortunately, I remember it all.
There are some people you miss every day, even if you don’t say the sentence “I miss ______” in your head. I miss my late brother, for sure; he died far too young and with so much potential unspent. But Gogo’s absence dug a hole too, even with the knowledge that she had a full life, past 90 — not without trials, but also not without joy. I miss her even on the days I don’t say it to myself, in my head.
Likely because I hear it every day in my heart.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr