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Memories of My Great-Grandmother

A half-century later, one careless moment (mine) still haunts

By Jill Smolowe

My great-grandmother's birth certificate reads Bluma, a name she so loathed that she changed it to Blanche. But to the three generations spawned in her lifetime, she was adoringly known as Omy. According to family lore, that soubriquet (pronounced Oh, my) was born of my mother's garbled attempt as a toddler to say Oma, the German word for grandma.

Various small bowls filled with candy. Next Avenue, memories, great grandmother, grandparents day
As the country celebrates Grandparents Day on September 11, I am aware how fortunate I was not only to have known my great-grandmother, but to have had her in my life until I was 17.  |  Credit: Analia Baggiano

Despite her diminutive stature, Omy was a large presence in all our lives. Her sweet manner radiated such love and joy that none of us ever needed reminding who the family matriarch was. Her nine great-grandkids knew better than to bicker or fart around her. Her eight grandkids knew how to ease her out of her chair without pulling too hard. Her four children, many of them grandparents themselves, knew not to resist if she insisted they cover their shoes with rubbers before leaving her apartment on a rainy day.

Despite her diminutive stature, Omy was a large presence in all our lives.

To be around Omy was simply to be on your best behavior. (Well, except once in my case. More about that in a minute.)

As the country celebrates Grandparents Day on September 11, I am aware how fortunate I was not only to have known my great-grandmother, but to have had her in my life until I was 17. While demographers now speak of a "great-grandparent boom" that is soon expected to touch the lives of an estimated 70% of all 8-year-olds, my three siblings and I were virtually alone among our friends to have a living great-grandparent.

Visits with Omy

When we were growing up, the announcement that Omy was coming to visit, or my parents were driving us into Manhattan to see her, ignited excitement. Though her two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side was small, there was always room for the six of us, plus the gathering of grandparents, great-uncles, and uncles that our visits usually occasioned.

For me, the best visits were the solo trips that included a sleepover at Omy's. My parents would put me on a commuter train from the Connecticut suburbs, Omy or one of my uncles would meet me at the other end, and then I'd get to be a plus-one in the widowed life that filled her later years. There was always Jimmy Durante to watch (and Mrs. Calabash to bid goodnight, wherever she was). Bland cookies to eat (that tasted wonderful to me). And her weekly card game (bridge, I think, but it may have been canasta).

Together, we'd move around her apartment, getting the card table set up, the folding chairs unfolded, the small candy dishes filled and carefully placed. As we made her preparations, she'd talk excitedly about "the girls" coming.

According to family lore, I once famously asked, "Why do all the girls have grandma faces?" That was a reasonable question, given the 70 years that separated me from Omy and her friends. In truth, with her slow, careful gait and her outsized black lace shoes, designed for support, not style, Omy always seemed ancient to me.

I once famously asked, "Why do all the girls have grandma faces?"

But that didn't matter in the least. When I was with Omy, I was entranced by the youthful twinkle in her blue, blue eyes, her soft kissable cheeks, and the ever-present lavender scent of her Shalimar perfume. Come bedtime, she'd instruct me how to help her out of her girdle, or more precisely her "neshama kvetcher," a colorful Yiddishism that means soul squeezer. (Upon release from its constrictive clutch, she always emitted a groaning sigh understandable in any language.) 

Then we'd cuddle up in her double bed, surrounded by her whimsical collection of tiny troll dolls, and giggle about the rainbow assortment of frizzy hairdos that sprouted from the tops of their heads.

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Only once do I recall having an "adult" conversation with Omy. I knew she'd lost her first husband after a long first marriage and then remarried. "Did you love the second one as much as the first?" I asked.

Her answer was succinct and matter of fact: "Oh, no."

At the time, I was too young to grasp her meaning. I did not yet know that Omy had been 59 when she'd lost the man who was not only her husband of 38 years, but the father of her four children. Her second marriage, which would leave her widowed again at 72, had not occupied a similar space in her life—nor, judging by her tone, had she expected it to.

I would have appreciated Omy's experience and wisdom at that moment. Two widows just hanging out and talking things through.

Her answer would come back to me decades later after I, at 53, lost my own first husband and subsequently found myself considering a second marriage. I was particularly concerned about its potential impact on my teenage daughter, Becky (whom I'd named in Blanche's honor). I would have appreciated Omy's experience and wisdom at that moment. Two widows just hanging out and talking things through. But by then, Omy, who died in 1972 at 86, had been gone almost four decades.

I wish I could leave my memories of my wonderful great-grandmother at that. But in truth, the memory that has the strongest hold is one that has burdened me with a regret that, a half-century on, still tugs at me from time to time.

A Memory I Regret

I was 9, maybe 10, and had enjoyed one of those magical overnights with Omy that always left the two of us singing, "Que sera, sera." (She adored Doris Day, second only to Durante.) To send me back to my parents, she accompanied me to Grand Central Station to put me on a train — no small feat, I now appreciate, for a woman pushing 80.

As we shuffled at Omy-speed toward the train platform, she reached for my arm. Annoyed, I shook her hand off. I remember, vividly, the thought that crossed my mind: Don't do that! I'm not a baby!

Years, decades passed. Then one day my mother indicated that Omy had shared that moment with her. "Whatever possessed you to pull away from her?" she asked.

"I didn't like being treated like a little kid," I said. "I didn't need her help."

"What are you talking about!" my mother responded. "Omy was having a heart palpitation. She needed your help."

Thunk.

There, the matter has rested for decades, or rather has refused to rest. Every now and again, it gnaws at me. Pops up at the top of the list when someone asks, "Do you have any regrets?" Reminds me how self-absorbed and unwittingly unkind I can be.

In hopes of laying this memory to rest, I am marking this Grandparents Day (an occasion that many of my — lucky! — friends now celebrate as grandparents themselves) with a heartfelt apology: I'm sorry, Omy. So very, very sorry. I love you. I loved our special nights together. If you're out there, I hope (with a nod to your beloved Jimmy Durante) you can hear me: Goodnight, wherever you are.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit jillsmolowe.com. Read More
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