03 January 2006

Grandmother worship

You know, it could take me decades to figure out my relationship with my mom, God rest her soul—and I think I will probably opt not to figure it out, ultimately. I'm cool with that balance of good and not-good...it defined us.

But today I realized that my grandmothers are a completely different story. I openly adore them. In fact, I emulate them. This will be a story with pictures, because part of what I love so much is their demeanor as young women.

Herewith, my nanas:

Theresa, who went by the nicknames "Tut" and "Tutta" all her life:

and Hazel:

These serene-looking young women were both of French Quebecois families, although their lives could not have been more different. Tutta was the "spoiled," cherished youngest of seven children in a small Maine town. Hazel was the eldest of a broken family in Lowell, MA. She and her 4 sibs were frequently shunted to orphanages, despite the fact that both parents were living...they just perenially ran out of money or, I have been told, just decided they were tired of dealing with their kids. Those orphanages were even worse than you think they were.

And yet...and yet, Hazel was a young woman of surpassing optimism, supreme flirtatiousness, and high spirits. Just like her counterpart, Tutta. You could not call either woman complicated. The love they radiated to their families was all-encompassing, and both of them worked diligently without complaint (despite the myth that American mothers never worked until the 1970s. Puh-leeze.)

Tut was a telephone operator. As such, she had her finger (or, in this case, her ear) on the pulse of her small hometown. Knew who was calling whom, and sometimes knew what was said. She was mischievous about this info, but never malicious. And my grampy fell in love with her because every time he tried to place a call through the sweet-voiced operator in his newly adopted town, she sent him astray. He'd call and say, "Connect me to the railroad station," and she'd hook him up with the fire department. Or he'd ask for the grocery store and get a priest. He acted all put out, but inside, he was impressed as hell with her gutsy humor.

When they met, my grampy Fred just melted. She was red-headed and fearless. Eight years older than he, she was also a full foot shorter, and acted younger than he did. And she had long since decided she would never marry. He took four years to persuade her.

This image demonstrates what a spitfire she was. Tut's third from the left, the spunky one. The others in the pic are childhood friends:

Fred and Tut stayed married until her death in 1986. I took this picture of them, and it says it allthe respect, the connection, the fun they shared:

Hazel, meanwhile, toiled at various difficult jobs—nursemaid, textile factory worker, waitress. The man she married was considerably less respectful than Fred, unfortunately, and he drank too much. There was never enough money, there were fights and separations and reunions. When they finally split for good, it was in name only—their hearts stayed intertwined, I'm told. This is the beautiful girl my grandfather Frank met and fell for:

What sass! What shape! I completely admire Hazel when I see this photo.

As she reached midlife, I'm told that Hazel dreaded aging. But she kept her optimism—one friend of hers told me that she was "full of hell," all twinkling eyes and hip-shimmy. And like Tutta, all of Hazel's paramours were younger than she. I recently found this photo of Hazel from the 1960s:

Hazel held me as an infant, and she gave me beloved presents as a toddler. But I cannot remember her. She was killed in a New Jersey bar one night, on her way home from a late shift waitressing at the country club. It was a very famous crime, but I'm not interested in rehashing the gruesome, disputed details. Instead, I concentrate on her spirit: the belief in herself that brought her out of orphanages and sadness, and into determination and fierce love of family.

God blessed me with Tutta throughout my young life. She died when I was 22, and I'll never get over her absence. She was my guiding, calming influence, the teacher who never lectured.

I didn't know anything substantive about Hazel, ironically, until right after Nana died. That's when my father and I spoke for the first time ever in my life, and started exchanging letters. Soon after, his brother Larry gave me the treasured young pictures of her, above. Larry and Dad have both passed away, but I immersed myself in knowing them while I could. Becoming one of them, after years of not knowing that side of myself. Moreover, I now knew whom I most closely resembled.

I guess my grandmother worship comes down to this: I should be so lucky as to have half the integrity of these remarkable women. And how impressive is it that just the sight of them, in photos, suffuses me with love for them all over again?

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