One of my most cherished possessions is my grandmother’s small 1980 datebook. It lists the birthdays of all her children, their spouses, her grandchildren, their spouses, and her great-grandchildren. All of us could absolutely count on a card from Grandma on our birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations. She always enclosed a dollar for her grandchildren and great grandchildren; she was on a strict budget and we cherished her generosity. If you hadn’t received a card from Grandma Nolan, you must have gotten confused about your birthday She had 8 children, 31 grandchildren, and 23 great-grandchilden when she died at age 86 in 1985.
Mary Catherine was born in 1898 and left school after eighth grade. One of her first jobs was to mount women’s combs on cards. She married my grandfather, James Nolan, a widowed lawyer with a toddler son, at age 22. She had seven children, four sons and three daughters; she raised her stepson as her own. Tragically one daughter died before she was two. Her husband died when she was 40; her children ranged from 17 to 2. He had been sick for 7 years; his chronic illness made it impossible for him to secure life insurance. After his death, she discovered his filing cabinet was full of unpaid bills from poor clients. Grandma had lost her parents the year before. Abruptly, they were very poor She collected rent from three small apartments in Brooklyn, but the apartments were the source of endless headaches. She worked in a laundromat. The older children helped support the family. My mom had to attend secretarial school rather than college.
Grandma was a very loving, giving, ingenious, frugal single mother. All her children turned out well–two lawyers, two teachers, a nurse, a social worker, a computer programmer. She was unavailingly there to help out when babies were born, when someone was sick, when someone was in crisis. A very religious woman, she was empowered by her deep faith. A lifelong Democrat, she voted in the first election open to women. She was always fascinated by world affairs and extremely knowledgeable about them. I could talk to her about anything.
In Becoming Grandmothers, Sheila Kitzinger describes the grandmother’s role as the “kin-keeper.” I have been understudying that role since my family lived with my grandma during the first two years of my life. I am the oldest girl cousin, just like my mom and grandmother were the oldest girls in their families. Grandmothers do emotional work. They sustain and nourish the family’s kinship, keeping everyone connected with one another. This is a greater challenge now when families are far-flung and both parents are working grueling schedules. There is very little time left over for extended families.
I take absolutely seriously my commitment to follow my grandmother and mother, two strong, loving, generous matriarchs. Grandma knows the family’s addresses, phone numbers, birthdays. Grandma informs the family if anyone is sick or in trouble, is engaged, lost a job, is pregnant. In the event of a family death, she alwasys knows the funerael arrangements. Grandma opens her house for family parties and reunions, no matter the state of her housekeeping or budget. Grandma can always identify the people in those old pictures and knows where the family skeletons are buried.
I have 5 brothers, 5 sister-in-laws, 11 nieces and nephews, 5 of whom are married. I had a 8 grandnieces and grandhephews.. Twice a year I revise the extended family directory, prying the information out of everyone. We established a family email list, sharing news and pictures, so we all know what is happening in our lives, even if we don’t see each other often enough. I do more of the communicating than anyone else, but I consider that my responsibility. My husband and I are the only family elders on Facebook; we have discovered that is how to keep track of our neices and nephews and see their latest pictures..
I have seen both my mother’s and father’s formerly close knit family disperse once the family matriarch dies. My extended family is scattered all over the East Coast, from Maine to North Carolina, so it is a challenge to keep us close. Fortunately, we have had six family weddings since my mom’s death, so they have been family reunions as well. I still grieve that my mom didn’t live to meet her 13 great grandchildren.
When I was taking care of mother 24/7 during the last three years of her life, I scanned thousands of old family photos and slides. My husband, a computer programmer, wrote software for many family picture sites. His software enabled me to caption the photos and arrange them in chronological order. Pictures that family members had never seen were freed from boxes and closets and available to everyone anytime.capacity. At my mother’s wake, we were able to show a slideshow of her life, with pictures from 1921 to 2004.
As I learn to grandmother, my Grandma Nolan is my inspiration and role model. Looking through her date book always brings back new memories of love, humor, kindness, and understanding.