Nellie wasn’t a looker.
A photo of her at 40 – gray hair unevenly cut like a boy with an errant lawnmower. Wrinkles, double-chin.
Oh but that smile. In 1974 at age 40, she looked 70.
Nana was what you called a ‘custodian.’ At my Brooklyn New York public school.
PS 215. Gravesend.
Custodian: Fancy word for janitor.
She cleaned toilets. She would wave to me in the halls and I’d purposely evade her attention. Occasionally, I’d flash a courtesy furtive grin in her general direction.
But grandma? Her wide smile never quit.
I loved my grandmother. It doesn’t sound like it, but I did. With everything I had. As a boy under the childish haze of immaturity, I was embarrassed.
As an adult, I realize she was the wisest person I’ve ever known.
I’m thankful she loved me so much.
Grandma’s life lessons stick with me. At five-years-old they went in one ear, rambled around between my ears. Over time, they found a place in my brain to settle, take root. Frankly, I think her wisdom is cordoned in a mental space not even dementia could set its long, dead fingers.
So, here’s to the grandmas.
- SCREW STEREOTYPES – Nellie loved people for who they were, not their appearances. Many days I recall her providing food to families at the school who were having financial difficulties. Often, she’d provide lunch money to students who forgot theirs at home. Grandma held fundraisers for the less fortunate and ironically, she was one of the less fortunate.
- BE NURTURING TO CHILDREN – Nellie would dress as Santa every year, saunter down the school halls in full beard, drag a sack and hand out pounds of candy to the kids in every classroom. The students and teachers loved her for it. Even the principal. Can you imagine someone dressing as Santa delivering candy at a public school today? So politically incorrect. You’d be fired – possibly arrested.
- BE PROUD OF WHO YOU ARE – Grandma dressed matronly, slovenly at times. Yet her heart was thread in gold. I’ll never forget her battleship gray and white-collared school uniform that made her appear twenty years older. People couldn’t care less. Neither did she.
- MAKE A KILLER BLT – Grandma wasn’t a cook, she was a worker. She helped support a family – brothers and sisters at a young age. She owned businesses, made dolls, spent hours on charities. But those BLTs. To die for. I know her secret to a mind-blowing sandwich and I’ll take it to the grave. Cook or make sandwiches for the ones you love.
- SMILE & SAY HELLO – Nellie’s bedroom window faced a busy street. It was a little, unassuming house in a row. Today, all gone, replaced by a high-rise. One of her favorite pastimes was to sit on a high stool at the bedroom window and listen to a beat up AM radio and her favorite station (1010 WINS – GIVE US 22 MINUTES, WE’LL GIVE YOU THE WORLD). She’d watch people walk by. There was always a wave, sometimes a hearty hello and a smile. Even when people didn’t return the courtesy.
- SAVE, SAVE, SAVE – Grandma was a Depression-era kid. Nothing went to waste. She wasn’t a hoarder; she just found a use for everything. My grandfather abhorred how she’d have him pull over the Ford Maverick because a salvageable treasure in a neighbor’s garbage out by the curve caught her keen eye. One year she found the coolest red wooden sleigh complete with ornate wood-carved reindeer. We had to lug it ten blocks to her house.
- EASY FORGIVE – My dad was always out on the town with some gorgeous woman two decades younger. He’d tell grandma he was coming by and never show. She would shake her head and lament that’s my Benny, smile and move on. She told me – ‘you can’t control what others do. Only what you do.’
- ENCOURAGE – Grandma always told me I could do what I want. I was smart enough. I could be the first in the family to attend college. She owned multiple businesses in the 1950s – a laundromat, a candy store. It was rare for a woman to take the bull by the horns. I think unfortunately, grandpa killed her spirit so she relented and gave up the businesses. Men weren’t excited about their wives doing better than they were. Unfortunately, I think that’s somewhat true today.
- BE A GOOD FRIEND – Nellie was a loyal and loved her friends. She listened, supported and engaged. And most important…
- TODAY IS EVERY DAY – Grandma’s shot at Stoicism. She wasn’t educated but she was wise. This lesson remains the most challenging and the most valuable. If I talked about my future or grew frustrated by my current situation, Nellie advised me to make the best of it, learn from the experience.
Today is all that counts.
Today is everyday.
Then she’d give me a hug.
And a BLT.
Sometimes, all you need is a hug and a sandwich by loving hands.
To make it through the school of life.