Worlds & Time

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving and Family History

For Thanksgiving I went down to spend the day at my Grandmother’s apartment in an assisted living community. Well, I suppose I should say that I came down. I’m still here and it’s the evening of Thanksgiving, but I won’t get to post this until I get home tomorrow, so I want to slip into the past tense.

She’s been in this community for something like seven or eight years and although she’s been in the “independent” section of the facility it’s getting to be too difficult for her to get around in her own apartment without some more serious care.

The problem is that my Grandmother seriously doesn’t like having people that she doesn’t know coming into her apartment every day and taking care of her like she's an infant. She wants her independence to some extent and she at least wants to know who is taking care of her.

Thus, my mother wants to take Grandma down to New Mexico to live with her. That means that this is probably the last time that she’ll have a holiday with her friends there.

Anyway, I sort of got roped into being here because I still haven’t found a job in NYC and I’m really the only person in our family who isn’t going to be either traveling or working.

I took the bus down yesterday (or I tried, but the stupid bus only got me half way before I had to call my cousin to drive me from Albany, yarg) and Grandma was surprised to see me. I think she’d forgotten that I was coming.

I didn’t sleep well last night so I slept in this morning and then we went to her “dinner” which is the midday meal that’s prepared by the staff and held in a large dining room. Grandma doesn’t eat much so most of the time she only eats that one large meal every day.

They did the traditional turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and green beans. It was better than I remember it. I actually liked the green beans, and I usually hate green beans. I guess that’s like my Great Uncle’s retirement facility which had the only cooked spinach that I’ve ever liked: people that cook for old people know how to cook vegetables.

They also had pumpkin pie, which was okay. I’m probably going to steal Grandma’s apple cobbler from the fridge. That actually looked much better. (Added note: I had the Pecan Pie the day after this was written. It was excellent.)

If I were you, I’d probably be wondering why on earth I’m going on about the food about my Grandma’s retirement facility, and that’s a perfectly valid complaint. I’m bored out of my mind just reading it back to myself.

I’m leading up to a conversation that I just had with my Grandma. She decided that she wanted some soup (probably to trick me into eating more like she’s always trying to do). So, after a negotiation with her I made the soup and we sat around the table and ate it.

She started talking about her family, not just her kids and grandkids but her parents and grandparents. I just want to get some of this down before I forget it because it’s interesting to me.

The first thing that caught my attention when she started talking about her dad was brought up through her nightly cup of wine. She told me that it was a tradition passed down from her father, who had always had a cup of wine when he got home from work.

“He used to brew it himself,” she said.

I didn’t know that actually.

Apparently every fall he’d go down to the farmer’s market and buy a carload of grapes from the local grape farmers (there are local grape farmers in upstate New York? Apparently there used to be) and take them home. He’d pick them off the branches, clean them up, and then pack them in barrels where they were ferment all year.

Grandma reports that it used to smell horrible, and she wrinkled up her nose to underline her statement. A friend of mine fermented mead one time and I remember that smelled bad but there weren’t barrels and barrels of it.

I think it might make a bit more sense to readers at this point if I point out that my Grandmother is ninety seven years old. She didn’t say exactly how old she was when this was going on but I think that if it was going on when she was around ten that would put it in the same general region of American history as prohibition.

This vision of my Great-Grandfather as a scofflaw during prohibition was sort of discordant to me. This side of my family has always seemed a bit traditionalist and conservative and very much law abiding. The great-uncle that lived with the delicious spinach that I mentioned above is a priest. One of his brothers used to be a priest, and their sister still is a nun. No one in my Grandmother’s generation knows that I’m gay, for example.

So, I asked her what her father used to do. He worked in the turbine section of GE (GE is a big deal to my family for this and more reasons, see below), not as a laborer or an engineer but as the time clerk.

He apparently had three siblings, two sisters and a brother: Fred, Elizabeth and Ann. Fred took advantage of the GE apprentice program and became an engineer. I think it was Elizabeth that became the secretary for the head of GE’s international division. On days that her boss was out of town on business she would sometimes bring my Grandmother into the office with her and let her play with the typewriter.

Then she told me about her Grandfather, my Great-Great-Grandfather, who was a butcher. He used to buy the animals and kill them and distribute the meat in the city where he lived but the thing that she remembered most about him was the fact that when he came over to their house for Thanksgiving he would bring a bag of nickels with him and hand them out to the kids.

She looked at me when she said that. “That was a lot of money back then,” she said, just checking to make sure I understood that. I thought of the fact that I considered a scarf from a street vendor at $10 as very cheap but didn't say anything.

All of this is repeated several times, of course. Grandma’s short term memory is about three minutes, so if I’m looking for more information on something then I have to repeat various parts of the conversation.

So, here are things that I learned from various iterations of this conversation: 1. Her Grandfather was a bit unsociable; 2. He would come over to her father’s house for Thanksgiving. 3. Her Grandmother lived with one of her aunts.

You may already see where this is going, but I didn’t. So during another iteration of the conversation it came out: “She finally couldn’t deal with him anymore. She moved out.”

In all the rest of my family, there were pretty much no divorces except for my mom and dad. It always sort of weirded me out that it was my parents that split up out of dozens of couples in my family. What made them so different?

I guess in those days there wasn’t much divorce, but my great-great-grandparents were separated too. It sort of grounds you when you realize that maybe your branch of the family tree isn't quite that crazy.

Then we moved forward again. Grandma talked about how she couldn’t believe that I was living in NYC. She didn’t think that it was a very good city in which to live but she mentioned that she liked to visit for the shows.

It turns out that she used to take “excursions” from where she lived into NYC. They were like planned tours and they would have planned times to go shopping and eat dinner, and then they would go see a few plays.

“This is back when I had money. Back when I had a job.”

Again, I guess this is something that I should have known about my Grandmother but didn’t. I asked her about her job.

It turns out that she’d used to work in the GE corporate office. She started in payroll and then moved to the government contracts office on the second floor of the GE offices. That was how she met my Grandfather: she worked on the second floor and he was a factory foreman that had an office on the fourth floor.

When she married him she left her job and became a housewife.

I don’t know my extended family extremely well. I grew up thousands and thousands of miles away in New Mexico while most of them were in the Northeast. Only the daughters were outside of driving distance, my mom and my aunt, moved away. Even my great aunts and uncles lived in stretch from upstate New York to the Baltimore area.

So my family was usually just my mom, my dad, and my brother.

I don’t know exactly what to do now that I’m out here. I don’t know how to really interact with my extended family as well as a lot of the people out there that I see. The “normal” extended families are usually people that have deep long term connections to other people, but I barely have that connection with my immediate family. I only saw my cousins and my uncles and my aunts once in a blue moon. Less often, perhaps.

So this chance to connect a little bit more with my Grandmother was appreciated and I definitely learned some interesting things about my family history.

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