by Jody Lannen Brady
My grandmother told me the same stories over and over. Many times she’d recount the tale of receiving her first paycheck and what she bought with it (a housedress for her mother and a shirt for her brother). She also liked to tell me how she’d caught her nephew Edward, who’d run away, by waiting with Grandpa in an alcove until Edward walked by on the sidewalk and Grandpa jumped out and grabbed him. Then there was the story of how Grandpa almost lost his construction business when a less than scrupulous business partner talked him into building laundromats.
My grandmother was the daughter of Irish immigrants, and the Irish have never been slouches in the storytelling department. My father used to find his mother’s story recycling exasperating. My mother thought it amusing. Neither of them understood what was going on.
I had an advantage: I’d studied anthropology for four years as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. In telling her stories again and again, my grandmother was both shaping and passing on her truths. She created and nurtured myth. “The oral tradition,” as we anthropology students called it, was something to be respected and preserved. With the running threads of her characters, my grandmother wove a tapestry of life as she knew it, as it had been told to her and as she wanted it passed on to the generations to come. After all, my grandmother, the daughter of Irish immigrants, had grown up with a kitchen-full of Irish women telling tales and reading fortunes in teacups.
Which reminds me of one of my grandmother’s favorite stories…
Once, when a friend of the family asked to have his fortune read in tea leaves, my grandmother’s mother foretold a car accident “within a week or two.” The prediction proved true, and the young man never let anyone tell his fortune again.
Though my grandmother was accustomed to teacup fortunes and card readings, it took a lot for a friend to convince her to go to a palm reader. And when the palm reader told her she would marry twice, she grew indignant and declared the fortune teller a fraud. “I’ll never marry more than once,” my grandmother said.
The palm reader, however, wasn’t wrong. My grandmother eloped with my grandfather (Irish Protestant and Irish Catholic families didn’t exactly encourage mixed marriages). When my grandfather’s mother found out about the marriage, she marched the couple to church, had the marriage banns announced, and eventually saw that they were remarried by a priest. “So I did get married twice, you see,” my grandmother would recount. “But both times it was to the same man.”
My grandmother was a book-keeping clerk with a tenth-grade education, and my grandfather was a construction worker with even less schooling. When the Depression hit, they found themselves out of work, with a newborn to feed. Construction projects were non-existent, so it was my grandmother who found a job, though she had to pretend to be single in order to be hired. Despite the desperation of the times, enough people had enough money to keep the hotel business in business. (Long after the Depression and long after they’d learned about her family, the staff at the Waldorf Astoria still called my grandmother “Miss.”) She worked each evening until she had her accounts balanced to the penny and, eventually, was promoted to head of bookkeeping. Oscar Tschirky, the famed manager of the Waldorf, often sent presents down to my grandmother to thank her for her work.
Though she worked long hours, my grandmother was never too tired for a good time. She told me about stopping on her way home from work to pick up ice cream packed in dry ice, about watching baseball games on Friday nights and going to the dances afterward, and about cooking steaks for all their friends in the backyard.
Without realizing it at the time, I was learning from my grandmother’s stories that effort is rewarded, that women are as strong as men, and that it’s possible to balance work with play.
I was learning, as well, what loyalty, honesty, and generosity meant.
I learned much from the stories of family pain. Of the day my grandmother found her teenaged brother Frankie dead in his bed. About how my grandmother’s sister-in-law, Lillian, died in the hospital after giving birth while my grandmother’s brother Eddie was at home getting things ready for the new baby, and how later Eddie refused an autopsy: “He said, ‘It won’t bring her back, will it?'” And, the story goes on, Eddie agreed to send his infant daughter home with my grandmother. They named the baby Lillian after her mother, and my grandparents gave her a home and shared her parenting with Eddie until the day he died, alone in his apartment after being hit by a car and stumbling home bleeding. My grandmother lost her “beautiful” Eddie, but she raised his daughter. “My angel,” she called Lillian.
Grandma had worn a black suit with a paisley blouse to the dance at the Waldorf Astoria the night that she met my grandfather. Two young men vied for her attention that evening: One was “the man with the brown suit,” and the other was my grandfather. By the time the dance was over, my grandmother had chosen. She was 18 years old when she married my grandfather, and she was 65 when she buried him. In the years between those two events, my grandparents created together the stories that were my grandmother’s favorites — stories about their friend Gene Krupa and parties at the Forty-Four Club, about their first trip to Mexico, and so many, many more. These are the kinds of stories we should know. They tell us who we are by telling us what has gone on before us. They are stories of joy and of heartbreak — often in equal measure.
I buried my grandmother last May. I can’t find words adequate to describe the loss. But I do know words that make the loss bearable; they are the words I heard over and over again. They are my grandmother’s stories, a gift she gave me to store away for the day when she wouldn’t be here to sit in her favorite chair and tell them to me.
Jody Lannen Brady is the granddaughter of Mae J. Lannen. She is a freelance writer and lives with her family in Annandale, VA.