This portrait of my grandmother may partially fictional and based on reimagined mementoes. But I'm pretty sure she grew up on an estate called Cremona. Her father was a General and her mother was a bipolar. I wish I knew more about my great grandmother but I think the only other aspect of her life I know about is that she jumped to her death from a window. Could this be true? Her father apparently was a genial old fellow but my grandmother is doting and surely like most kids brought up in the era where saying I love you was nonexistant. She was the middle child in effect and probably the most ignored. Her older brother Stuart was the star and her little sisters were twins and the babies. I think this is where my grandmothers independent spirit came from. She smoked and went to vassar for art history I think. Then she must have met my grandfather and married. I think my grandfather maybe was a friend of Stuart's from Harvard. Jolly old boys those two. My grandmother tolerated my grandfather for a while but I'm not sure why they got divorced. He was impossibly self involved. It's also possible they met i the OSS the pre CIA where my gandfather was a spy and she was, naturally, a fucking secretary. It's possible that she got the job is the oss after hey married to get away from her children. But she did have children, obviously and my father was the first born also prone to self obsession. Isabel was next. The independent. And then bull and Lila ten ears alter. This seems to have been common at least in D.C. To have two sets of kids ten years apart. They moved around the world while my grandfather did his "diplomat" duties. Namely in Japan, where my father was born, and Iran, where they fled, and London where my dad learned a few words he still pronounces with a British accent including the word kahki which he disturbingly pro ounces cocky. Back in D.C. Grandma divorced, started an art magazine and hosted a lot of artist in her pool house. She photographed everything and bought herself a house in the country and rode horses to her hearts content. For years she would only come to town for a massage and aerobics class. She belonged to Sulgrave club and preferred their peppermint ice cream with chocolate sauce. She would eat candy in the middle of the night and wear polo shirts with spandex pants and sneakers. She wore her hair short. One time I begged off going to bed pleading for a glass of water, an apple, chocolate. My dad refused to let me procrastinate and sent me to bed. Minutes later I emerged with face smudged with chocolate. My father accused my grandmother and she said, "Byron what do you think grandmothers are for?"
Granny and the Major's House, A World Away
My siblings and I loved visiting our grandmother, Mary Frances Amoury (“Granny”), from childhood into our thirties. She and my grandfather, Charles Anthony Fager (the “Major,” or more often just the “Maje”), owned a duplex on Staten Island at 10 Howard Court. They lived for much of their adult lives in Brooklyn in an apartment on South Prospect Park Avenue where my father grew up. Moving to Staten Island was a step up and we kids loved riding the ferry.
What made the visits so much fun was that my grandparents were both full-blooded Arabs. They were Lebanese Christians, or sometimes Syrians, depending on the context because the families had immigrated in an early wave of Arabs, before there was a country named Lebanon. Years later I realized that they considered Lebanon a Christian place and Syria, then Greater Syria, a Muslim and Ottoman country. The village my grandmother’s family came from, Hasroun, is in Lebanon’s North Governorate, near the Syrian border. Though they now spoke English as natives, they easily lapsed into Arabic. Later, well into her nineties, when she had become senile, Granny only spoke to me in Arabic and laughed when I told her I could not understand her.
My mother was a WASP and we were raised as Protestants in the suburbs of Boston, a world away from the festivities at 10 Howard Court.
We could not get enough of Granny, her food, and all the Arabic delights that came with it. From the time we were little kids, we stuffed ourselves on olives, bread, raw lamb, pickled turnips and beets, stuffed squash, meat and spinach pies, baklawa –whatever she served, we devoured it. At the table, she would admonish us for using silverware. “Just use your fingers,” she would tell us. But who cared what we did with a steady stream of friends and relatives filling the house, especially at mealtime. We never wanted to leave.
My Grandmother Sonia
My grandmother was born in South Africa in 1914. The oldest of four or five children, she was several weeks premature at birth, and kept in a basket next to the stove — the incubator of the day — and dressed in doll clothes as a new born.
I know nothing of her childhood, except for a few photos I've seen of her on holiday in Cape Town, including one of her and her sister playing with monkeys. She attended secretary school and worked as a legal secretary (also my first job), where she met my grandfather who was a clerk for one of the firm's clients.
He was leaving for America, and so they decided to get married after three weeks of dating, so she could move half-way around the world with him. The family settled in Los Angeles. She had three children: my two uncles and my mom.
That's what I know from family lore. In my first memories of her, she would have been in her mid 70s. Like a stereotypical grandmother, she was a kind woman, incredibly sweet with a penchant for knitting and a solid sense of humor.
She passed away in 2013 at the age of 99. In my day-to-day life I think of her often. Especially a few sayings of hers that I tend to quote, including one about near-misses and adversity: "Let life be a lesson to you."
I would love to say I had the quintessential grandmother; somewhat portly, gray haired, smelling of talcum powder and freshly baked cookies. I did not have such a grandmother.
Much like my own mother would announce to me as soon as she found out I was going to have a baby, my own grandmother refused to be called anything that even came close to sounding like Grandma. No Nana, no Grandmother, no Granny. She was having none of it. The name Nano came from my grandfather's family and it was the one name she found palatable.
In her youth, my grandmother had been a ballerina. Not a famous one, or even semi-professional one, but the grace and poise she learned through dance followed her until her last days. She was always "dressed", regardless of whether or not she was even going to leave the house that day. Wool suits, panty hose, and small, block heels were her wardrobe. She insisted on getting her hair and nails done weekly, even after the stroke and her arthritis meant she was hiding her hands more than she showed them.
It was from this woman that I truly learned right from wrong. There was, of course, a right way to do something and the lazy way. If one was going to bother to take the time to make a bed, then goddamnit you had better get those hospital corners tight and be able to bounce a quarter off the sheets. If you were going to cook, then you cook, from scratch, everything you need. She even made her own mayonnaise for most of my childhood.
But Nano was not snuggly and warm. She was not the person to go to when your heart was broken by a boyfriend or a best friend. She wasn't cold but believed it was not proper to show too much emotion. Emotions were messy. Emotions were time-consuming. Though not officially British, I believe she found kinship with the Brits and their stiff upper lip approach to life.
It wasn't until I was much older, and she was reeling from the effects of her stroke that I ever learned much about her. Those lessons really helped me see who she was and why she turned out the way she did. After learning that her father never called her by her name, but rather Jim because he had wanted a son, the fact that she was never one to succumb to feminine histrionics made so much sense. Perhaps it was the stories, or perhaps it was simply a matter of my own maturation, but imagining how things might have been for her allowed me to forgive her any transgressions I may have held against her. Just like the rest of us, she was always doing the best she knew how.
My mother's mother was one of the prettiest girls in town. I know this not only from seeing her myself, and from photographs, but also because there is a newspaper clipping with a picture of her, the caption of which says something to the effect of, "The attractive daughter of Fount and Margaret Kimmel..."
She was an only child, born near the beginning of Prohibition to parents who didn't seem to heed the new law much. While I was charmed by my great-grandmother, she was hardly an adult herself when my grandmother was born, and I'm left with the impression that there was a lot of drinking, some disappearing. Her father disappeared for good early on. When she was 19 she got word that he'd died in Indianapolis and went by herself to ensure that he was buried because there was no one else to do it.
It is hard to overstate how movie-star glamorous she looked, so much so that I often wondered how I can possible have any of her genes. And yet that beauty didn't really translate into actual confidence in the way that I would imagine attractiveness does. When she was in her 90s and I visited her at the Splendido retirement center in Arizona, she told me how nervous she was moving to Indianapolis later with my grandfather. "I was just a small-town girl," she told me.
My mother's mother was born in Uniontown, Alabama. That's the first thing that comes to mind, although she lived with my family as I grew up so I knew her well.
Second thought: She was born in 1896, though she told people she was younger -- born in 1898. This strikes me as funny, that someone would think the difference between 1896 and 1898 was enough to make her seem young.
She played bridge, she danced, she drove a banana-yellow Mercedes that she would brake in time to music as she shuttled us around (making us somewhat carsick), and she dominated my mother, her only child. She seemed to have arranged the mugging in Birmingham that might or might not have taken place that led her to decide at the last minute to join my family when we moved by train from Birmingham to Washington; otherwise my mother would have been free of her mother's constant demands (or as free as possible, given she had married a man who was equally demanding).
Monny is what we called her. She read constantly, and wrote -- was from a writing family. Coming home late one night from a bridge party, wearing a bright green dress, she laughed in her deep Southern accent as she walked in, "I'm a bit pixilated."
Pixilated. You can look it up....its old meaning. From 1898. Or '96. Monny added color to our lives, and vocabularies, until the day she died.
Like many people, I had two grandmothers, although one was my mother's step-mom, so I'm not sure if she was a grandmother or a step-grandmother.
One of my grandfathers died before I was born and the other soon after, before we could meet, so these two women were the only grandparents I ever had or could remember. Both of them, I'd say, were based in Minnesota, where my parents came from, but by the time I was born they'd been living in Los Angeles for fifteen years or so and were pretty much the only ones in our family to do so.
Everyone else, all the aunts and uncles and cousins, lived in Minnesota, although one family tried living in LA for awhile before moving back.
My mother's step-mom, I think, came to visit us once or twice and I don't remember ever visiting her back in Minnesota or seeing her when we went back there on vacation. I wasn't all that interested in my extended family, and I'm sure my lack of interest in my mom's mother hurt her.
No, I don't know how or when my mom's birth mother died.
My father's mother, the one I called The Grandmother, as a mark of affection, didn't have a home of her own but stayed with one of her children after the other, rotating between them for a year or so. My dad had three sisters, so every three or four years The Grandmother would stay with us and spent a lot of time tending to our yard, picking up "slips" of plants from the neighbors and transplanting them onto our property, and knitting things for all of us.
Each year she was staying with us at Christmas, I'd get a pair of Muk Luks, a knitted slipper, and occasionally an Afghan. One year she bought us carpeting, but I mostly remember her as getting all dressed up each morning, including a dress and hose, to do her weeding in the yard.
She rescued me, once, from an accident at school, and I was home alone with her when she had a stroke. Some years later, when she was in Minnesota, she passed away and I'm not sure I made much of an impression on her.