I was having lunch with my good friend Myra the other day. All we could talk about was the upcoming birth of her first grandchild. We were both so thrilled, but the conversation came to a dead halt when I said, “You must be so excited to finally soon have someone call you grandma”.
Silence. Myra looked down and then straight at me.
“They are going to call me Myra”.
I laughed. “Seriously, Myra.”
“No, seriously. Do I look like someone’s grandma”?
I had to admit that at seventy-one, Myra, a marathon runner, had the lean firm body of a twenty something and, with her latest facelift, a boat load of injectables, and her long, honey colored hair, lovingly created and cared for by an army of beauticians, grandma was not the first thing that sprang to mind.
“What does your daughter think about this? What did she say when you told her?”
“Well I texted her and she texted back a sad face, but a few minutes later she texted me a thumb up and a heart so I guess she is o.k. with it.”
We hugged goodbye and promised to get together again soon.
When I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about how Myra was rejecting the idea of being seen as a grandmother. My mind immediately flashed back to my own grandmother; a woman who, with no education, managed to survive in a strange land, marry, run a business, give birth to four children and live to meet and love eleven grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.
I sat down in the den and wrapped myself in one of grandma’s hand knit afghans and was immediately flooded with memories. Grandma, in her cotton housedresses and orthopedic shoes, probably looked like a grandma while she was still in her thirties. She never ran a marathon nor spent one hour of her life in a beauty salon, so what was it she did that made her so beloved?
Grandma Tatala knit. That’s what she did when she wasn’t stirring pots or kneading dough or chopping onions. Her gnarled fingers were never idle, so after a full day of cooking and cleaning, baking, polishing and raising four children, and then helping to raise eleven grandchildren, when she finally sat down in her mustard colored Barcalounger, she knit.
She was poor, so buying wool was out of the question. Instead, she managed with yarn that was given to her. Daughters and daughter’s in law, nieces, cousins, neighbors and ladies from the synagogue all knew what to do with the extra yarn they had accumulated in the back of their hall closets, or in the bottom drawer of their bedroom bureaus. Anyone with half a skein left over from a grandbaby’s blanket, or two balls of bright red wool from Uncle Herman’s Hanukkah sweater, all ended up in the S. Klein’s shopping bag in the entry hall closet of Grandma Tatala’s apartment.
She never used a pattern, she just knit. Mostly afghans, made up of brightly colored squares, hundreds of them, eventually sewn together to create odd looking, but surprisingly comforting, throws. Nothing ever matched or seemed to have any rhyme or reason but, if you knew Grandma Tatala, even casually, you would eventually end up going home with one of her blankets. She never knit for anyone in particular. She just knit until her handiwork became a blanket. She then stored it in an old cedar chest until she came across someone she deemed blanket worthy.
Grandma Tatala didn’t understand idle hands. The thought of a manicure, massage, or, heaven forbid, a vacation spent lying in the sun, doing nothing, was not only unthinkable, the very thought of it made her laugh.
She came from Poland as a twelve year old, knowing no one and speaking no English. She never learned how to read or write in her adopted language, but she knew how to work and work hard. Work was all she ever knew and work was how she judged and valued herself. When her children were grown and helping her out with money, she still couldn’t stop working. While she no longer went outside the home to work, nonetheless she worked.
Twice a month she would make strudel, but not just for her household. She made enough strudel for her children and grandchildren and upstairs, downstairs and next-door neighbors. She made so much strudel she had to store some of it in the bedroom bureau drawers. It was not unusual to reach into a drawer for a pair of socks and end up with a handful of sweet dough and raisins.
But even with all the cooking and baking and cleaning and baby-sitting, time still hung heavy on her hands and so she knit.
I pulled Grandma’s afghan around me more tightly. It still had the slightly musty smell of fifty-year-old wool and weighed warm and heavy in my hands. I tried to pick out how many different yarns had contributed to the whole, but stopped counting after forty-two. Some of the wool only lasted for a row or two and yet, even that small amount, made its imprint. Every inch of the afghan had been touched and retouched by Grandma Tatala”s hands and, as I draped it over my shoulders, I could feel her arms around me.
Grandma Tatala, unlike my friend Myra, never ran a marathon and never gave one minute’s thought to how he looked. She lived her life quietly and simply, loving and caring for her family and friends. While she never left behind a closet full of medals, a drawer full of jewelry, or photo albums of a glamorous younger self, the one afghan I still have is worth a king’s ransom.
Judi Sadowsky has worked as a sitcom writer and a staff writer for a network game show. She is currently at work on a book of essays entitled ‘I’m Too Old To Die Young.’