Born in 1909, she had always been a staid, working-class housewife who “knew her place,” which was not what most people would have considered it.
Convinced that men couldn’t think their way of a room with doors nailed open, she expected they would keep their noses out of “women’s business.” That left her free to get on with the real work that kept her world running smoothly.
For more than ninety years, Grandma Ethel was an intrepid cleaner of all things soiled. Woe to the child who brought mud in on their shoes, or the man who thought he could sit down to dinner unwashed and wearing dirty work-clothes. Woe to anyone who sassed grandma—she had an Edwardian view of discipline.
Mothers and daughters don’t always get along. Grandma Ethel and my mother had a rocky relationship, rife with resentment (some justifiable) on my mother’s part and confused indignation on my grandmother’s.
I was often at odds with my mother, who until she defied Dad and went back to work in 1973, was the quintessential post WWII angry housewife. I embodied everything she despised about my generation, and she was articulate in expressing herself.
My grandmother, on the other hand, quietly despaired of my ever finding a dependable man, but believed I did my best and that was all that mattered.
The core of the strife between my mother and me boiled down to our radically different values and domestic styles. I grew up in the 1960s and had made a number of poorly planned relationship decisions that hadn’t worked out as well as I thought they would.
In the 1980s, I was the sole provider for my family, with three part-time jobs to hold down and no child support. Sunday was the only day I had for housekeeping. While the house looked great on Sunday night, by Friday it had become a disaster. I was married, but my ex-spouse’s role as stepdad and husband was like that of an ugly art piece given to you by a good friend. It takes up space on the shelf, and you keep it because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But it contributes nothing to the ambiance of the room, and you cringe whenever you dust it.
Surprisingly, despite the domestic free-for-all in my home, my staunchest supporter and greatest ally in the struggle with my mother was Grandma Ethel.
She was always there for me, a quiet force of nature. I could count on her to pick a spot and just begin tidying. She made it a game the kids enjoyed.
As she got older, Grandma lost her ability to taste food, and she stopped cooking, relying mostly on frozen TV dinners. She took the bus to Woolworth’s every morning, ordering toast and coffee in the coffee shop for her breakfast, and then treating herself by purchasing a small bag of menthol cough drops, thinking they were candy. She had a peculiar habit of sitting beside the fountain in the mall after she left the store, peeling the wrappers off each cough drop, leaving the wrappers in the Mall trash can. Once peeled, she put the drops back in their bag and put them in her purse.
She did this because “it saves time later.” Every afternoon, she sat in her chair reading a Louis L’Amour novel, listening to the radio and enjoying her “candy.”
Whenever we visited Grandma Ethel, my kids dreaded being offered a piece of “candy,” but they accepted it politely and thanked her. Once we were in the car and on the way home, the truth would spill out in that frank way children have, but I was proud of them—they loved her enough to be kind.
On Fridays, my mother bowled with a woman who worked at Woolworth’s. She told Mama that Grandma was known at Woolworth’s as “the cough drop lady” and mentioned Grandma’s habit of wrapper-peeling, saying it was “sweet.” Mama, of course, was horrified and embarrassed, and not very kind about it.
In her golden years, Grandma developed another fun habit. She listened to the local radio station all day, getting the news and singing along with every oldie or Top 40 hit of the 1980s. She knew all the words.
“Like a Virgin.”
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
Grandma knew and sang along with them all, but she adored Bobby McFerrin. In her last years, when she couldn’t remember anything else, she still sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and danced in the kitchen with my ex-husband’s red long-johns.
When she hit the age of about eighty-five, she lost that fire, that thinly veiled resentment of all things male that had kept her going for so many years.
By then I was a single mother again and determined to remain that way. During her final year, Grandma was my closest friend and companion.
She had become vague and was often unsure what day it was or where we were going. She’d always had a sneaky sense of humor, but she became both shocking and hilarious, saying what she really thought without thinking first, quite loudly. She did whatever she felt like on the spur of the moment.
I lost a friend when Grandma passed away. But by then, my mother and I had come to an uneasy truce and were actually forging a friendship of sorts.
Did I mention my mother was extremely competitive? “Competitive” is a weak word when describing how my mother viewed any game or contest. She outlived both Grandma and my dad, which meant she had won, and which was all that mattered.
She “loosened up a bit” too, as she approached sixty-five. Mama began having an occasional cocktail at lunch.
Occasionally, every day.
By 1990 Mama thought Cheech and Chong were a riot and loved the Rolling Stones, Mick the Stick in particular. 1989’s Steel Wheels was her favorite Stones album, and there was a time right after my dad died that if you went anywhere with her, you listened to Mick and the boys… over… and over.
The 1990s were her decade, musically. She loved U2, and Hootie and the Blowfish.
Music blasting, Mama drove her Aerostar like every road was a racetrack, and she was determined to win at any cost. Pedal to the metal, yellow lights mean “step on it and hang on to your hat.”
Mama loved jewelry, nice clothes, Mexico, and going on Caribbean cruises. She played cards twice a week with her girlfriends. She and my Aunt Lillian went to the casino once a week and played the slots like pros. At seventy-two, Mama found an awesome boyfriend and was in love for the first time in her life.
Once she turned eighty, she really began to have fun. When it came to restaurants and hotels, Mama expected a lot and usually got it. Waiters and cabana boys adored Mama because she looked far younger than her age, was an outrageous flirt, and tipped extremely well.
So now I’m the senior grandma–a responsibility I’m determined to fill well. With five adult children in our blended family to appall, I’m really looking forward to my golden years—I’ve earned them.
I’m not sure I can live up to the glorious examples set by my grandmother and my mother, but I’m an author so I should be able to come up with something suitably fun. I figure I have about fifteen years to work up an awesome shtick to trot out in my dotage.
In the meantime, I never forget the two women whose unique personalities and work ethics made me who I am. My motto is Don’t Worry, Be Happy and always tip well.
Credits and Attributions:
Three Women on board a Ship, ca. 1930 by Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons, Samuel J. Hood Studio collection. Sam Hood, photographer (1872-1953) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons