Happy Birthday Grammy

Johnny Eva.

My southern grandmother – who was born and raised in Tennessee – had a boy’s name first and a girl’s name second. But everyone called her Eva. Apparently this was customary at the time (1892) in USA southern states. She had a sister named Jimmy Ruth. Her brother’s name was Creed.

Johnny Eva was Grammy to me – my paternal grandmother. As a child, I was somewhat mystified by her. She had very long dark wavy hair – almost down to her waist. I’d sit and watch her comb it out, coil it up and then secure it with combs or clips. I never knew another older person with such long hair. Not one for makeup and frills, she wore sensible dresses and sensible shoes. We had that in common.

I only saw her sporadically when I was growing up because she lived in Ohio and we lived on the east coast. After my grandfather Papa died unexpectedly in 1964, Grammy would come and live with us for a month or 2 several times a year.  She didn’t always have alot to say, but she’d look over your shoulder to see what you were doing and comment. (As I recall, this did not go over well with my mother!) An excellent seamstress, she repaired anything that needed mending…and sewed dress-up dresses for my sister and me. And fancy clothes for our baby dolls and Barbies.

She loved to watch The Lawrence Welk Show on TV and rarely missed it. Frugal to a fault sometimes, she would insist on buying day-old produce and bread when she went grocery shopping with my mother – even if the quality was poor.  She was always generous with her family though; slipping me a few dollars when she thought I needed it. I never took advantage of this; but it was comforting to know that she “had my back” – and her help was always offered without judgement…an unspoken underlying connection between us.

Grammy012
Grammy and me

I often wonder now if she had some undiscovered underlying medical issues. She would often disappear into her bedroom to “rest a spell” during the day. I also suspect she may have suffered a level of chronic depression that only worsened after Papa died. I often sensed a real melancholy about her.

When I told her I was pregnant with my son – our second child – her reaction was…”why? why bring another child into this terrible world?” Needless to say, that’s not the kind of congratulations I was expecting; but I was not altogether surprised and I wasn’t upset with her. Unfortunately she passed away the week after he was born, at the age of 95.

Grammy013
Grammy and me

I had forgotten how much she kept in touch with me.

In my treasure trove of letters I have found dozens from her. I don’t think she went to school after the 8th grade, but her letters were full of detail & vivid descriptions. And, most importantly to my childhood self, full of genuine interest in and love for me.

She wrote the following letter 2 years after Papa died, when I was 12. It was near Thanksgiving. She was staying in her childhood home, where her sister was still living in Tennessee. Apparently with no heat.

grammy letter 1966 pg 1

grammy letter 1966 pg2
From Grammy – age 74

 

It was expensive to make long distance phone calls when I was a child, so letter writing was the only way to stay in touch.  And I am so grateful she did.

Growing up – and into her adulthood years – she loved to go fishing.

It’s August 9th…Happy Birthday Grammy!

Grammy014
Johnny Eva aka Grammy

 

 

Happy Birthday Opa

Beefeater’s martini straight up. No ice. Lemon peel on the side – if I wanted lemonade I would have ordered it. 

That’s how Opa ordered his drink – the first order in the first round of drinks – when he took our family out to dinner when I was growing up. It sounds kind of rude, but I would imagine if time after time he got the lemon peel in the drink…well, he ran out of patience. I would wait with great curiosity to see what the waiter or waitress would bring. The fancy stemmed glass filled with a clear liquid served on a small plate…where a few slices of lemon peel hopefully (!) would rest. I don’t remember where the olive was supposed to go. Worst case scenario: a glass filled with ice AND lemon peel AND the gin. High drama for us kids.

Next up was ordering off the menu. We could all order what we wanted. No children’s menu. I always felt so grown up learning the fine art of “find out what goes with the dinner.”

Split and toasted!

When the inevitable basket of dinner rolls arrived to keep us fed while waiting for the meals to arrive, Opa would send it back to the kitchen. Please have these rolls split and toasted! And they did and they were amazing and warm and crunchy with butter melting all over.

The bunny!

While we crunched on warm, toasty rolls, Opa made magic happen with his white cloth napkin. He turned, napkin hidden, to the side – carefully rolled, then twisted the cloth and…turned back to face us. And there in the crook of his left arm was a napkin “bunny” – that kept “hopping” up his arm as he patted it with his right hand. All the while he would be talking to it and to us. We’d stare and stare. Wow. That’s entertainment.

The bra!

As we got a bit older, the bunny didn’t capture our attention like Opa’s napkin bra could. He’d quick fold up his napkin, pull the corners and briefly hold it up in front of his tie and pressed suit jacket. Ta Da! Opa had a bra! Hysterical and ridiculous every time. This napkin trick embarrassed my mother immensely but thoroughly entertained his grandchildren. How did he do this? Simple (but I didn’t figure it out for a long time):

  1. Fold napkin so that the 2 sides meet in the middle.
  2. Fold the opposite way so the open edges are on the outside.
  3. Grab left corners with left hand and right corners with right hand and pull.

 

Sparklers!

When it was someone’s birthday, there was a cake brought out to the birthday girl or boy. A cake with a lit sparkler! The cake could be seen from across the dining room shooting sparks into the air.  As it was set before you everybody sang Happy Birthday to You, You Belong in a Zoo….

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I am honoring my Opa’s memory on June 26th – what would have been his 112th birthday – by sharing his restaurant tricks & talents. Valuable hints for grandparents everywhere. How to continue embarrassing your children and endearing you to your grandchildren forever.

Happy Birthday Opa!

opa&me

 

The Whole darn Bunch

Opa never told me about his drawings.

I found one in a box with a stack of his and Oma’s old photographs. A small rectangle of cardstock – measuring about 6″ x 2 1/4.”  Drawn in ink, perhaps with a fountain pen. My mother had written on the back…identifying it as Opa’s handiwork.

 

opa oma friends 1926005
circa 1926

Who are these people? I recognized two names: “Hank” is Opa and “Ruth” is Oma.  The details make me smile. Cowlicks. Curly hair. Twelve friends holding hands and grinning. Each person just a bit different from the next. Whimsical and sweet and young and happy.

And then I found these photos tucked in with the drawing.

opa oma friends 1926002
Labor Day 1926 Loveland Park, Ohio

I can match two of them…Hank and Ruth are second from the right. The rest – I can only guess; although “Andy” in the tank top could be a close bet on the far left.

Oma was 19 and Opa was 20 years old in September, 1926; as I imagine most of these young people probably were too. Were they all childhood friends? I have no idea. All the photos tell me is they were enjoying the day and each other. Celebrating a day off from work together.

How Opa & Oma loved their friends! They traveled with them. Exchanged letters for many years. Went out to eat. Visited both near and far. Opa went on numerous hunting and fishing trips with his buddies. Oma went along on at least one hunting trip that I know of, but I think the black flies put an end to that. They traveled to Florida for deep sea fishing trips with lifelong friends. They both made friends most everywhere they went.  Opa was an open, gregarious man who relished the art of conversation. Oma was a bit quieter, but ever present with a twinkle in her eye and a sly comeback.

Opa traveled in Europe quite often in the 1940’s and 1950’s for business. He once struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to him on a long distance train in Switzerland. Opa’s soon-to-be new friend happened to have twin daughters who were the same age as his daughter (my mother). The twins became penpals with my mother and eventually emigrated to the United States a decade later. Fast forward to my childhood — they became like family and shared many holiday celebrations with us. One twin became my sister’s godmother. I am still close friends with the surviving elderly sister, who now lives back in Switzerland. Look what a chance meeting on a train led to.

I wonder what happened to my grandparents’ friends after this Labor Day in 1926. Their friends from before marriage and children and, in a few years, the Great Depression.  When everything changed.

opa oma friends 1926004
Labor Day 1926 Loveland Park, Ohio

I am glad they had each other…The Whole darn Bunch.

 

 

 

 

Grammy and Papa

Weeeeellllll, I sure like those crispy things!

Grammy, my paternal grandmother, was born and raised in Tennessee. She often unwittingly entertained me with her distinctive southern accent…and dietary habits. And observations about life. She loved to fish, pick walnuts, hickory nuts, berries and eat fried food (especially at the Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips near my home)…hence the favorite crispy things/bits left on fried fish. Oatmeal bread was too “rich” for a slice of toast. The best part of a leftover roast from dinner was what rose to the top in the broth amongst the congealed fat — which, once cooled, she poured over cold cereal for an evening snack. An expert seamstress, she sewed Barbie clothes for my sister and me; as well as long colorful “dress-up” dresses embroidered with rick rack and lace. She crocheted orange coasters for my wedding gift in the 1970’s. And over many years, she mended our countless “holey” socks, ripped seams and torn play clothes when she visited.

Grammy and my grandfather Papa, lived in Cincinnati, Ohio in a large house (or at least it seemed large to me) set on a hill. We made the trip from NY and NJ several times in my early childhood to visit them and my mother’s relatives as well. It was always an adventure: my sister, brother and I stretched out in the rear of the station wagon – back seat flattened out – supposedly to sleep during the long trip. We would leave around 9:30pm.  This was the 1950’s and 1960’s when the risk of kids flying through the air from a sudden stop wasn’t on the parental radar. Not sure how much sleep we actually got amidst the rolling around and poking each other. I do remember being somewhat awestruck by seeing the stars in the night sky out the window. The worst part of those trips: when I threw up out the window due to my tendency to get car sick. (at least I hope it was always out the window)

grammypapaandrea013
circa 1956-57 Ohio
grammypapaandrea012
circa 1956-57 Ohio

 

Papa was from the Chicago area, and met Grammy passing through her small country town on a train while working as a lumber inspector. He wooed her to Cincinnati, but she forever missed her southern home. And she missed her sisters and brother and fishing holes and woods.

The last time I saw Papa was in 1964 after one of those long car trips.

diary july 1964

Several weeks later he died unexpectedly at the age of 78.

What do I remember about my Papa?

He was a quiet man with kind eyes. He took me – just me! – for walks down his street when we visited (perhaps to buy the newspaper?). During one of those walks, he stopped, plucked a wide grass blade from a nearby patch, positioned it between his thumbs and showed me how to whistle through it. I was amazed. He plucked one for me and waited patiently until I was able to whistle all by myself. He taught me how to play chopsticks on their piano. And in their kitchen, we’d sit across from each other by the window and play double solitaire.

papaandrea
circa 1958-59 New Jersey

 

 

 

 

 

 

school pictures

My Opa and Oma grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was aware of that from a very early age. We traveled many miles by car and by train to visit various relatives there when I was young. It’s where my parents grew up too. Baseball meant the Cincinnati Reds – Opa’s favorite team. Both my brothers wore the requisite Reds baseball hats and jackets, even though we all lived on the east coast. Oma sometimes reminisced about the sales job she held (until she married) at the Wurlitzer Company in downtown Cincinnati. I remember stories about riding streetcars and shopping at Kroger’s.

Opa and Oma were very proud of their childhood beginnings…and the schools they went to. I’m not sure if they attended the same grammar schools. I wish I had asked more questions about their earliest years. Opa did mention some hijinks involving a piano in the music room which I won’t go into here; but suffice it to say he was a prankster. And proud of it. Which doesn’t surprise me at all.  The class pictures I found – some over 100 years old – make me wonder…what happened to all those children? What were their lives like? What were their stories?

Below is Opa’s kindergarten class (he is identified by the arrow).  I wonder how long those 5 year olds had to stand or sit still for the photographer. First or last day of school? Was that one class or 2 together? What a group…all those hats!

 

Opa age 5
1911 – 23rd District Kindergarten – Cincinnati, Ohio

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Below is (what I assume to be) Oma’s Kindergarten class. Unfortunately this photo has deteriorated and there is no mention of what school it was (although I suspect it might be the Kirby Road School – it seems similar to her 8th grade location in the next photo). She is 4th from the right in the second row (black mark pointing her out). Oma told me how much she loved the big bows she wore in her hair as a child.

1911? oma
circa 1911 Kindergarten? Cincinnati, Ohio

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Next is Oma’s 8th grade class photo. There she is in the front row, still wearing a big bow in her hair.  She went to the Kirby Road School, which is now listed on the “National Register of Historic Places” in Cincinnati, Ohio. It has been (or is planning to be) converted into apartments – 50,000 square feet of them; most complete with original chalkboards and wood floors & trim! I can just imagine her reaction to hearing that news. Perhaps a sly grin and a shake of the head….

1920 oma 8th grade
1920 – 8th grade – Kirby Rd. School – Cincinnati, Ohio

 

Another Kirby Road School class picture is in the form of a postcard. It is not dated, but appears to be 1914 or 1915 judging from how old the children look. Oma would have been in the 3rd or 4th grade; still wearing the bow, but not looking too pleased this time. She had written the note on the back of the postcard, shown below.

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Kirby Road School – circa 1914 – 1915?
Kirby Road School – circa 1914 – 1915?

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This is my favorite.

Opa’s grammar school class – not sure exactly which grade. Look at all the children carefully posed at their desks. Holding books open as if the photographer was interrupting a reading lesson. Library books are listed on the blackboard, so perhaps that explains the reason for the photo…promoting library books? Something new for the school? The flag draped on one desk – which seems odd, but there may have been some tie-in to the book theme.

They all look so serious…except Opa sitting in the back with a big grin on his face.

Opa at school
date unknown (1915-1916?) Cincinnati, Ohio

Opa

He made me laugh.

He loved me unconditionally.

My maternal grandfather was a character. In the real sense of the word. I called him Opa; the German version of Grandpa. He was very proud of his German ancestry. I called my grandmother Oma, in deference to his wishes I imagine. I saw Opa and Oma frequently throughout my childhood. They only lived an hour or so away.  [My paternal grandparents lived farther away & unfortunately I rarely saw them]1956 opa and me copy

We “clicked” – Opa and I – from my earliest memories of him. He “got” me in ways no one else did. He embraced the tomboy in me and loved to boast about my supposed skills on the softball field. “How’s my favorite shortstop?” he would greet me when I was 13. He encouraged me in all my interests. He did not, however, always approve of my choices of television shows and later…my politics. The thing is, we could always agree to disagree. I could speak up to him and it was okay. Never any love lost.  More on that in the future…

He called me his “#1 Granddaughter” (I was the oldest), but he would always be sure to add…”but I love all my grandchildren the same.”

He was smart, funny, strong-willed but fair. As a child, that’s how I knew him. He could also be difficult, abrupt and demanding. But never with me. More on that in the future as well… His sense of humor bordered on the – shall we say – inappropriate at times, but I always loved feeling like I was in on the joke.

Opa and I became “pen pals” when I was about 10 years old.  I still treasure those letters, so carefully written in his distinctive script. Sometimes on fancy stationary from fancy hotels when he was on a business trip or vacation. They always made me feel more grown up than I was…

1964 opa letter pg 1 edit
page 1 – November, 1964

 

1964 opa letter pg 2 edit
page 2 – November, 1964

He died over 25 years ago and I miss him still.

He believed in reincarnation.

He left me with so many unique memories – along with his letters, home movies and photographs. So many stories!

Stay tuned.