Today, my grandmother would have celebrated her 97th birthday. Ninety-seven, the number alone sounds impressive, considering how much has changed since she was born in 1916, it’s nearly impossible to grasp. By today’s standards, people lived in the Middle Ages at the height of WWI. Technology and everyday amenities were still in their infancy, at least in comparison to our technified lives. In the past 97 years, progress has been made on the expense of tradition and time. Depending on your preference, those changes have improved our lives or deteriorated them. No matter how you feel about this development, there’s one thing you may not even have noticed: we as humans have changed, too. And while I still grew up with grandfathers in hats and grandmothers with luscious curls, today’s children rarely get in contact with a generation who still dared to grow old with grace. Personally, I loved having grandparents who had clearly aged. Two people who loved spending their time with me without constantly rushing away. A grandma who cooked, a grandpa who took his afternoon nap in his favorite wingback chair. Two people from a different generation who, from time to time, demanded quietude and patience, but made me laugh like no one else. They taught me things my parents couldn’t, spoiled me without forgetting to remind me of their rules and instilled the desire in me to be a better person. As a child I remember seeing many other sets of grandparents like mine in the streets. Old ladies with handbags full of helpful necessities and grandpas who used their umbrellas as canes until it started to rain. Today, I miss seeing that image: old ladies dressed to a tee, their hair as perfect as their demeanor. I can honestly say, I never heard my grandma using foul language or swearing, no matter how bad a day she may have had. I know that’s an ideal memory but also the childhood I was granted to have. It may be a special bond only grandparents share with their grandchildren, dulcified by the touch of an outgoing generation who grew up in a time so different from the world we are now living in. All those gentlemen and ladies, with their attitude, lessons and style, I love them dearly, the few representatives who are still gracing us with their presence. I really wish we would listen to them more closely and wouldn’t allow their children to take claim to all the positive changes we’ve benefited from in the past decades. So, on my grandma’s birthday, here’s my toast to all my much-admired ladies, those who are still with us and those who live on in my memories. Although today it isn’t always easy to see through, you have taught me so much about being a lady – how to present myself to others and myself, and most importantly, how to be modest in bad times and grateful when the sun is shining again. It’s something I value more deeply the older I get, a lesson I hope to be able to pass on to the next generation with the same kind of love, respect and dedication I was given by my grandma, my all-time favorite lady.
In 1916, my grandma was born. August 18th was her birthday. Gregory Peck was born that year, so were Kirk Douglas, Betty Grable and Olivia de Havilland. WWI was haunting Europe, leaving an entire generation lost and scarred. Radio was the connection to the world and newspapers the main source of information. Irving Berlin was a big name in music and Cole Porter presented his debut, See America First, on Broadway. Al Jolson was big in show business, as well as movie stars such as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. James Joyce published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while Claude Monet and Henri Matisse created some of their most beautiful paintings.
The world my grandmother grew up in seems so different now from ours and yet I always felt our souls were one and the same.When she entered her teens, she was affected by the Great Depression like everybody else. Those years shaped her understanding of money and security, and made her frugal despite her generosity. When she was barely of age, the world was shaken by another World War, a catastrophe that shaped her decisions about marriage, family and friendship. When the war was over, the world changed yet again, with women (despite their inferior legal status) struggling to juggle their jobs, children and returning soldier men. In the 50s, my grandma couldn’t afford to live the dream of a housewife, she had to work to support her two children because her husband’s salary alone didn’t suffice. She worked in a field she had been trained in with her father’s permission before the war and stayed with the same company until she finally retired at sixty. It took her years to afford a washing machine or other amenities, her household eating up much more time, without the help of her husband. I don’t know how she did it, but she cooked every day and created delicious meals on a tighter budget than I am scraping by today. She was a beloved host and as a child I always aspired to get as much praise for my cooking as she did.
It is her discipline, warmth and love I remember the most, the everyday routine she kept even after she had long stopped working. Her closet always looked impeccable, with neatly folded sheets and her well-groomed wardrobe. Her clothes were ladylike, her hair curly and naturally gray. When I close my eyes, I immediately see her in the kitchen, an apron safely tugged around her waist and her glasses steamed up from adding a secret ingredient to my favorite dishes. I often wonder how she would feel about my vintage life today and remember the feeling of reaching for the phone to ask her for a recipe or some advice long after she had already passed away. Sometimes I hear her voice in my dreams and I see her face smiling at me. When I wake up, I always feel blessed but also lonely for her presence, then I realize how many of the things I love were cherished and celebrated by her in a humble way. She read whodunits, loved music, embraced solitude as well as company and liked to talk to me at least an hour every day. Like me, she also loved Perry Mason and when I look at Della Street in her senior years, I always feel reminded of my grandma and what a gift it was to have been loved by her.