Spine of steel: My grandmother's legacy in death and life

Grandmom Helen at her 90th birthday

“Those were the Rommely women: Mary, the mother, Evy, Sissy, and Katie, her daughters, and Francie, who would grow up to be a Rommely woman even though her name was Nolan. They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices. But they were made out of thin invisible steel.” -- Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The blue-eyed teen -- Elena by birth, Helen in Americanese, Len to her four brothers -- wanted more than anything to sing. Blessed with a clear, lovely voice, she sang around the house, she sang at church, she sang in the hopes of being known for singing.

Her crowning achievement was having a solo lead in the chorus at Helen Fleischer Vocational School where she attended. The group was practicing extra hard because they’d been recruited to sing a jingle on the radio. A real jingle, for a real company. And who would be featured but Len herself?

Every week her older brother Joe, a pleasant and dutiful bodyguard, accompanied her on the trolley to practice where she let her voice soar out the open window on the assurance that her big break was coming. Every week her immigrant parents waved goodbye to her as she headed to Callowhill. Every week the chorus got better, and the recording date drew nearer, and Helen’s dream grew bigger.

But when the day of the recording finally arrived, Helen’s mother stopped her on her way out the door. “You can’t go,” she said in Italian.

“Why?” Helen’s hand tightened on the doorknob.

“Because you’ll be discovered,” her mother replied, “and then you’ll go into show business. So no. You will not sing today.”

Helen was the only daughter of immigrants, and only daughters of immigrants do not say no. So she stayed home, safe from the grasping clutch of immoral show business, wishing she were caught.


Over the years I heard my grandmother tell the story of her big solo many times. The budding writer in me detected (or likely added) a twinge of resentment to her voice; she could have been a star, after all.

In the space after the story closed, when Grandmom would bounce her hands in her lap and sigh in perpetual resignation, I always found myself willing her alternate universe to unfurl. I wanted Helen-the-teenager to sneak out of the house against her mother’s wishes, to catch the trolley without the aid of her brother, to burst into the studio just as the suits were threatening to cancel the whole deal, and to trill in front of her astonished and delighted classmates, “I’m here, gentlemen! Shall we begin?”

Cue music. Fame. Fulfillment.

Instead, she married at 18 and started having babies during wartime. She raised eight children, the oldest and youngest two decades apart. She worked nights at Strawbridge & Clothier to help make ends meet, and exercised her considerable sewing skills on the side. Even after her retirement, she cared for her dying mother and ailing brothers and boomerang children and my grandfather, always my grandfather, for nearly 70 years.

At her funeral service, the priest went into great detail about how Helen had done “exactly what God asked of her.” She worked hard, gave abundantly, loved evidently, kept the faith, and sacrificed. Sacrificed, sacrificed, sacrificed.

Then my father, her son-in-law, gave a lovely tribute at the luncheon: “Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.’ Helen’s family is her institution. All of us here are her shadow.” Shadow upon shadow upon shadow.

Behind him a projector screen scrolled through photos of her long life. Every time a new picture flicked up, I saw a different relative reflected in her face. In almost every picture she was laughing, smiling, playing at the beach, squeezing a baby. Baby after baby after baby.

Nona, Mom, Grandmom, me, 1983

More than anything, I want a four-generation photograph. My grandmother would be sitting in the middle, the place of honor. My mother and I would stand at her shoulders, looking over the baby girl she’d hold in her arms. My baby girl, the one who seems far from materializing at this moment in time. The one I haven’t met yet, might never meet, and that my grandmother will definitely not meet. Not now, anyway. Not on this earth.

My rational side chides me, You had 30 years with her! Most of your cousins’ kids won’t get to meet her either! But when I picture that never-to-be snapshot, that image which will never circle on a screen in front of people who ooh and point and say “she looks like...,” I see evidence. Evidence that I’ve married and procreated in a reasonable enough timeframe to enable such a photo in the first place. Evidence that I am fully participating in the proper generational channels. Evidence that I’ve done my womanly duty and entered the cycle of nurturing sacrifice.

Let the record show that my grandmother never put this pressure on me. She didn’t always directly grasp my single, educated, living-in-a-different-city life, but she supported me and took pleasure in my adventures. I alone am responsible for my angst.

And why do I torture myself so? To what end? When I look at my grandmother’s long life, I cannot recognize one minute, much less a day, when someone didn’t require her, a minute where she could escape for two seconds and be alone with her own thoughts and needs. A minute where she was wholly herself -- not a wife, not a mother, not a Helen, just her.

Do I want that? What if she wanted more, or something else? Did it keep her up at night? Color her days? Recast her goals?

In these wonderings, I could be projecting my own neuroses on a woman from a different generation who probably didn't have the time or energy to ask herself these questions. Or maybe they are the musings of someone overwhelmed by all the ways 90 years of life could go, and terrified she will end up on a path she doesn’t want, thwarted by bad timing, good intentions, or basic, run-of-the-mill fate.

Beach time with Grandmom, 1984

I sang at Helen’s funeral Mass, as did several of my aunts and uncles. Despite the earnest efforts of my crying relatives and the priest’s insistence on throat-closing incense, I kept it together throughout the service. Once the final organ chord faded, however, I stepped down from the altar and burst into the tears that had threatened since the moment I watched her casket closing and saw her favorite coffee mug tucked in the corner. One of my cousins appeared and let me sob and snot on her shoulder.

“You did a great job up there,” she said, handing me tissues. “It’s so funny -- everyone has the same voice. You can tell we’re related.”

Everyone has the same voice. That is, we have Grandmom’s voice.

Beach time with Grandmom, 24 years later

I will never know how my grandmother’s life would have progressed had she performed her solo. I know what her life ultimately did entail -- hard work, resilience, stubbornness, courage, sacrifice, faith, love. By all appearances she believed in herself and stood by her choices. Who am I, then, to take that from her?

I bend at my waist, not with my knees. I use everything I have until five years past the end of its given life. I cook all my meals from scratch. I sing with a natural vibrato. I firmly believe I know the best and most efficient way to do everything. I am, in genetics and practice, Helen’s granddaughter.

And the same self-belief that fueled my grandmother -- the same confidence in her abilities, even if the opportunity to exercise them isn’t always present or taken -- is alive and well in me. We can make anything work. Maybe that’s why I wanted my four-generation picture. To show my daughter what a steel spine looks like when it comes adorned with clear blue eyes.

Next time I’m at the beach or over my stove or on the porch -- all sacred spaces to a woman who didn’t often have space -- I will draw a deep breath and sing whatever solo strikes me. Whether I am single or married, published or well-traveled, content or seeking, I will take that moment on my grandmother’s behalf, for any and all moments she had to miss, for any and all moments she managed to capture, and I’ll thank her for showing me that I can become the woman -- the person -- I choose to be.

Prayer #275: Say Hi to the Ocean for Me

You are already far out to sea, the farthest I've ever seen you. As I watch you swim, I think of Esther Williams -- elegant, timeless, at home in a fluid, unpredictable world.

I haven't earned my mermaid tail yet, so I remain land-locked, a sub-par siren who shrieks at people she loves when she sees them dip beneath an unnerving wave the way you just did, dropping from my sight for a heart-halting minute.

The tides, in their wisdom, tell me I should let you go. But I'm afraid. Only a breath ago we were running our hands through the breakers, raising them high over our heads on our way back to the blanket, tucking into a cooler full of salami-and-Jersey-tomato sandwiches before our beach nap. Yet now the current flows between us with an undeniable strength only you are equipped to handle, while I am forced to watch and fret from shore.

Promise me that when you reach your destination -- the one you're stroking toward, the one I can't yet see -- promise me that you will turn around and wave, twice. Promise me that after all your deep breathing and disciplined kicks, you will pull yourself up to rest and bask in the magnitude of what you've accomplished.

I, in the meantime, will shade my eyes and follow you in memory alone, my gaze a lifeline you no longer need but will hold onto anyway, because that's what love is.