Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Timing Was Off

“My name is Helen,” the student read, “I sort of like my name. Helen is unusual, but I just can’t find it on key chains and stuff, which I hate. I also don’t like it, because everyone’s grandma is named Helen.”

“My grandmother’s name was Helen,” I said.

“See what I mean?” she answered.

We laughed, but later when I thought about the conversation, I thought about my grandmother. I never knew her; she died ten years before I was born. When I was growing up, my father rarely spoke about his parents, and as children, we never asked. To us, they were black and white faces in a picture frame, and nothing more.

So here’s everything I know about my grandmother: Her name was Helen and she lived her entire life in Little falls, NY. She married my grandfather, Harold, in 1920, at the age of 20. They had eight children, seven boys and one girl. I have a photograph of the entire family taken in 1942 when my father, the second youngest, was seven, and they are a very handsome family, indeed. In 1928, when the Phoenix Underwear Company mill, of which he was a manager, moved to NC, my grandfather bought a funeral home and became the town’s Catholic undertaker. The sinks and slab were in the basement, the parlors and office were on the ground floor, and the family lived upstairs.

Helen was very permissive with her children—no matter what they were having for dinner, she always made a platter of hamburgers, in case someone didn’t like the meal, and once, when the boys were rough-housing in the dining room, they tipped her china cupboard out the second floor window. When he heard the crash, my grandfather came running from his office downstairs, furious at the destruction, but she stood in front of the children. “Harold,” she told him, “they’re just boys, and boys will be boys.” Then she went and cleaned up the mess, because none of the boys were ever required to lift a finger around the house.

She was diagnosed with cancer at the age of fifty and was bed-ridden for most of a year. Dying, she was determined to make it to my uncle’s wedding in December of 1951, and to everyone’s amazement, she did. My grandmother died in the first days of 1952 and was buried on my father’s 17th birthday, something from which he never completely recovered.

That's it. My dad, my uncles, and my aunt are all gone now, and with them went the chance that I'll ever know much more about her, which is really a shame for me, because now? I'm interested.


  1. Hm, now I know what you know -- but before this post I knew less than that. What a shame. I don't know much about grandma either -- maybe it's time for me to start asking.

  2. This compressed tale of a life is intriguing, sad, happy, and instructive. The china out the window and she was that calm? Amazing woman. You're lucky to have descended from someone such as this.