My Grandmother

Mary Kuzma, my paternal grandmother, as a young girl.

Mary Kuzma, my paternal grandmother, as a beautiful young girl.

My grandmother was one of the most important people in my life. When I was born, Grandma was 48, which seems so young to me now, but she was of the era when women started looking old by the time they hit 35. The mother of two sons, I was not only her first grandchild, I was a girl. Grandma treasured and adored me and I returned her love with every ounce of my being.

Her home in Sewickely, Pennsylvania was my idea of heaven. It was immaculate, perfectly organized and well-stocked with homemade nut or poppyseed roll, pizzelle cookies (which originated from the Abruzzo region of Italy, where my grandfather – her husband – was born), and all the fixings for elaborate ice cream sundaes. My divorced single mother of three was so busy working multiple jobs, returning to school to earn her Bachelor’s and then Master’s degrees, struggling to make ends meet, dating, and getting us through school that our home was chaotic, messy and usually absent almost any parental oversight. The order of my grandmother’s home made me feel safe and calm. Now that I am a middle-aged woman and homemaker in my own right, I try to emulate her.

As I age, I appreciate my grandmother in new ways.

My grandmother in the white dress, surrounded by her parents and siblings.

My grandmother in the white dress, surrounded by her parents and siblings.

Her parents were poor immigrants from somewhere in the Austria/Slovenia area, and her world was limited in more ways than I can imagine. She had to drop out of school at age 12 to work as an au pair for the children of wealthy families in the area. It was the only “career” or expression of her intelligence, creativity, ambition, or self worth that she ever had, other than housekeeping and working as a crossing guard. I took high school, college and a year studying abroad for granted, but despite her intelligence, determination, strength and myriad abilities, she saw them as unattainable privileges.

It is heartbreaking for me to think of how she must have felt — muffled, stifled and unable to fully blossom. When I see these photos of her as a young, beautiful girl, my heart melts and I want to take her under my wing and give her all the opportunities she never had.

My grandmother as a young girl on the right, standing with her older sister Ann, and her father, John.

My grandmother as a young girl on the right, standing with her older sister Ann, and her father, John.

My grandmother is on the left, and I love how delicately she is holding her hair back with her hand.

My grandmother is on the left. I love how delicately she is holding her hair back with her fingers.

Grandma on the far right, as a young single girl - during the Great Gatsby years.

Grandma on the far right, as a young single girl – during the roaring 20’s.

Grandma with two of her charges.

Grandma with two of her younger brothers.

"Gumdaddy" (my childhood version of Grandaddy) and Grandma, on their wedding day. They were both 20 years old.

“Gumdaddy” (my childhood version of Grandaddy) and Grandma, on their wedding day. They were 20 years old.

Grandma, with her husband and mother-in-law, Concetta Polidora.

Grandma, with her husband Vincent James (Gumdaddy) and mother-in-law, Concetta Polidora.

Grandma on the left, with her siblings and mother.

Grandma on the left, with her siblings and mother.

Nearly all of us have grandmothers who were thwarted by the world in which they lived. Even if they had wonderful and happy lives, they were often denied education, inheritances of money and or property, and opportunities for personal, creative and professional expression. If my grandmother lived in the world I grew up in, I think she would’ve pursued a big career. As my Dad liked to say, she was “strong, like bull.”

I love thinking of her. She took great pleasure in beating her grandchildren at Chinese Checkers, Monopoly, or Gin Rummy, showing no lenience for our youth, lack of experience, or our tendency to whine. If she’d met my husband, she would’ve adored him, and he would’ve made her laugh, just like Gumdaddy did. She introduced me to the soap operas Days of Our Lives, and The Guiding Light, which she had followed since its days on the radio. If we were out shopping (an activity for which her endurance was legendary) and one of the soaps was airing, we’d head for the TV department and stand and watch, so as not to miss an episode. She loved sweets, and always had a box of something fancy on the highest shelf of her bedroom closet.

Despite a six-year battle with cancer that she waged alone after her husband died, she never failed to find the energy to make homemade nutroll for me when I visited. Grandma had a bench swing in the backyard and I’d lay my head on her lap as we sang “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and other heartbreakers. Despite trying to teach me how to knit and crochet countless times, she often had to unravel and redo all my work because I never stayed focused enough to count my stitches.

Dining out was never enjoyable for my Grandma because she knew she could make everything better at home, and for less money. She loved to laugh. One night Gumdaddy came home and turned on the black and white TV to find it was in color. His wife – my grandmother – had saved up all her winnings from her weekly poker game with her girlfriends and purchased a color TV for her husband and had it delivered as a loving surprise.

Growing up, her family was unable to provide well-fitting shoes so Grandma had horrible, painful problems with her feet and had several surgeries on them over her life. Her hands were so strong from a lifetime of cooking and cleaning that when she held mine, she unwittingly nearly crushed them. We both had the same favorite cake: angel food with chocolate frosting.

Gumdaddy and Grandma as I will always remember them.

Gumdaddy and Grandma as I will always remember them.

Tell me about your grandmother – what do you miss the most about her?

A few links I hope you enjoy:

Did you see The Great Gatsby? I did and here’s the trailer. My grandmother lived in those times, and I wish I could talk with her about them.

NPR is offering the entire soundtrack for The Great Gatsby here. Wow. You won’t recognize Back to Black, and I loved Florence + the Machine’s “Over the Love.”

A great review of a book about the pioneering female journalist of the Victorian age, Nellie Bly.

A great reminder to claim what you love about yourself. For me? I love that I am always trying to learn something new.

I love coffee, and I love Jerry Seinfeld. Here, I can have both.

A sad, but incisive story about a beautiful home and failed marriage.

Hilarious.

I will never stop missing my Grandma. XO

14 Comments

14 responses to “My Grandmother”

  1. avatar Mary McEachern says:

    Ligeia,

    Wonderful post. Beautifully written. Our grandmothers were in a league of their own. They epitomized grace under pressure and knew that they were the heart of the family. Completely unselfish strong in mind and will.

    All the best,

    Mary

    • avatar Ligeia Polidora says:

      Thank you Mary. Yes, a generation of truly fierce women. I lost my Grandma when I was 22, how lucky you were to have yours so long! Thanks for sharing her story.

  2. avatar Jennifer Hainstock says:

    My Mimi was the most important person in my life. She was always there with a hug and words of encouragement. When I gave her the book The Greatest Generation I thought she’d love it. However, she didn’t – it didn’t mention the war effort of the women. “We ran this country, and the war effort at home, when the men were away. And when they came back we went back to our housework.” She was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known. I miss her everyday but feel blessed I had her for 46 years.

    Thanks for the blog. It’s a beautiful tribute to your beloved grandmother.

    • avatar Ligeia Polidora says:

      Your Mimi was right about what the women at home did to win the war. Thank you for sharing her story.

  3. avatar Rose says:

    Nice one, Ligeia. And the family photos! Love that you could scare those up.
    I have the same fortissimo feelings for my Oma.
    From a life of privilege as a physician’s wife, to a prison camp in Germany for 3+ years, to starting over in America after the war, I have enormous respect for her strength, her vision, and her keen intelligence. A voracious reader of everything from Barron’s to Art in America, she championed of emerging contemporary artists, and as an active member of the League of Women Voters. When I visited her as a teenager, we would huddle on the sofa and watch Washington Week in Review for her, and Wheel of Fortune for me (she was endlessly entertained by my folly). She comforted me the night Reagan won, me slack-jawed and appauled, her insisting that the pendulum would swing back. She championed social justice, supported the NAACP, and was, most of all, the matriarch of our family.
    Thanks for this lovely piece, Ligeia. A brilliant way to start the day, with the beacon of our grandmothers before us! xo Rose

    • avatar Ligeia Polidora says:

      Rose – I wish I could’ve met your tiger of a grandmother, Oma. Her story is astounding… maybe you could do an illustrated book about her life?

  4. avatar Tamra Cloud says:

    Thank you for your beautiful tribute and wonderful photos of your Grandmother!
    My Mom passed away the month after I turned 7. I was passed around for 2 1/2 years to aunts and uncles until my Grandparents finally got their way and began to raise me!
    My Grandma was very organized and was an amazing cook and baker. She was born in 1908 so she was also a roaring 20’s girl and lived through The Great Depression. She was raising 6 children during the depression ad a widow when she met my Grandpa. They married and moved to a small town where they would later raise several grandkids, with me being the last lucky grandkid to live with them. Grandma taught me to cook, bake, sew, clean, and organize. She also taught me a love for language by means of her favorite game Scrabble!
    I could go on forever about Grandma Otela, the youngest of 11 children(the eldest was an only boy, Uncle Harlan), but the most important detail about her is her endless love and patience that gave her little orphan granddaughter security and purpose in life.

    • avatar Ligeia Polidora says:

      Tamra, This is such a beautiful message about your Grandmother, I am so moved. Thank you for sharing your story. I wish I’d known her. Your description makes her come alive.

  5. avatar Lisa Polidora says:

    Ligeia,
    Wow! I know it’s a year later but I just found your blog entry about our grandma! It made me cry! The color picture of her and Gumdaddy is exactly how I remember them. When my girls and I swing on the back porch guess what we sing?….. My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean and I tell them my grandma taught me that! Kevin was almost 6 when she died and I was 11. She lived in our neighborhood then and my brother would go over there while I was at school and eat 15 slices of bacon, she ALWAYS had bacon for him and he still remembers that! Me. I remember the swing and My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean!☺️

    • Hi Lisa – It’s wonderful to hear from you and hear about your memories of our Grandma. It’s so sweet that both of us remember her singing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” so much and that we continue to sing it to the children in our lives. I also loved the story about Kevin and Grandma’s bacon. I still miss her and have realized I always will – weren’t we lucky to have her? xo

  6. […] that I get to love, and care for, to teach, to share with, learn from and delight in. In addition, my grandparents left me a profound and lasting legacy of love that still feeds my soul […]

  7. […] written a few posts on this topic in the past, about Heroic Aging, a piece on My Grandmother  and a brief post about my Mom. As time passes, I find myself more drawn to this topic and am eager […]

  8. avatar Rayetta says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your grandmother Ligeia.
    I was born in California and my maternal grandparents lived in New Mexico so I saw them once a year. My mother had a special relationship with her mother because she was the baby of twelve! I remember grandma cooking on a wood stove and her food being so delicious. Every Christmas,she would send my brother and me a shoe box half filled with dried venison jerky and pinon,(roasted pinenuts)…Yum
    Because my grandmother lived so far away I was not as blessed to be as close to her as you, however I did enjoy seeing the relationship and closeness of my mother with her. Mom changed and became soft with her mother where I was more use to seeing a disciplinarian.I was intrigued at watching them interact.
    Thank you Ligeia for reminding me of these lovely memories.

    • Dear Rayetta, Thank you so much for sharing your stories about your grandmother. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to watch her cook over a wood stove. I can imagine her making your dried venison jerky and roasted pine nuts, and proudly packaging them up for your Christmas gifts. What a sweet memory to watch your Mom change and soften in front of her mother – I can imagine it captivating your imagination. Things can be so mysterious as a child. I think just the idea that your all-powerful parents were once tiny little children is totally mind-blowing.

      By the way, I must’ve been a little misleading in my blog post, because my grandmother didn’t live near us at all. We grew up in Wisconsin, and my paternal grandparents lived in Pennsylvania. It was a 10 -12 hour drive to visit her, and sometimes we even took the train. I hated that they lived so far away, and loved them beyond reason.

      Thank you again Rayetta for sharing your lovely memories.

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