When I was little, we lived across the yard from my father’s parents. In the morning, I would burst out the backdoor, run across the small but immaculate vegetable garden my grandmother faithfully tended, and jump through my grandparents’ front door in search of hugs and cookies. Ignoring my mother’s moratorium on 8 am sugar, there was always a plate of Stella D’oro cookies on the table in the foyer.
Mary was as close to the personification of Mother Nature that you could ever hope to find. It was a weekly routine to find her hunched over a shoebox in the the garage tending a sparrow’s broken wing, or setting a saucer of milk on the back porch for the neighborhood cats. In my mother’s house, a spider in the bathroom would receive a shoe, a spray of water, or a loud scream- but across the yard in my grandmother’s home, the same spider would find herself gently ushered out into the yard. “It’s bad luck to kill a spider,” she would tell me. “They are protectors.”
A deeply religious woman, she would talk to the statue of the Virgin Mary that presided over her flowerbeds every morning, asking for her blessing in continuing to care for her family. Or in the case of the burglar who stole my aunt’s jewelry from her hotel room during my sister’s wedding, asking for Jesus to consider breaking his legs. She had no problems asking for a little Godly wrath if need be- but only for the wicked.
As kind and as gentle as she was, she also brooked no nonsense from kids misbehaving. She would march out the front door in her babushka and her hand-sewn shift and turn the garden hose on the neighbor kids if she caught them throwing rocks at one of the neighborhood cats. “How you like it if I throw rocks at you next time?” she would say in her accented English, shaking her fist. They believed her (as they should.)
She had a beautiful tree in the front yard with huge, fan-like leaves. One humid afternoon as I stood in her driveway waiting for the ice cream truck to roll down the street, I tore a leaf off to fan myself with. The front door flew open and out she strode, wagging her finger. “That is a living being,” she admonished as I stood in horror, the disembodied leaf hanging limply in my hand. “You can’t go ripping things off willy-nilly. You hurt that tree.” For weeks after, I walked gingerly around the tree, wondering if it would grow a mouth and start throwing apples at me like in the Wizard of Oz. It never did, but I never touched it again.
I never got quite how hard her life was until I was older, only later in life learning about her time in a work camp in Germany during World War II, the family she left behind to start anew in the States, and the amount of work she and my grandfather, himself a concentration camp survivor, had to put into building a new life in a foreign land.
Despite the horrors she endured long before my birth, she embraced the joy in life and the pleasures of taking care of her family, tending her garden, and finding the good in everyone. Uncomplaining and possessed of a serene gratefulness for her life, she was the glue that held our family intact. From her, I learned how to tell if a cucumber was ripe, how to approach an injured bird, and the old school method for how to tend a bee sting (for the record, a slice of white bread in milk applied directly to the sting.)
Later in life, when Parkinson’s took her ability to garden, she would sit in the living room and look out the window at the small patch of grass where her garden once stood. Though her shaking hands would cause the milk to slosh over the sides of the saucer, she would continue to place the milk out for the kitties, since they were counting on her.
I look back on the path my life has taken and I know without a doubt that who I am and what I believe in is the flowering of the seed she planted in my soul those days in my youth. My life today I owe to her.
She died on Saturday.
No small part of me left that day as well.
Mary had the pageant pose down pat, always- hip turned out, shoulders angled. Here she is in front of one of her many gardens, with her omnipresent pink flamingoes. I don’t know why she loved the pink flamingoes so, but she did.
Sometime in the late 70’s, my grandmother helping me pick blackberries from the rambling bush in the backyard. (Also the first and last time a photo of me in a swimsuit will be on the blog. Just sayin’.)