My grandfather was a prisoner of war for eight years in WWII. My grandmother’s family farm was on the front lines in Italy, and her stories of the war are just as vivid and horrifying as his. My grandfather came to America after the war to work, leaving my grandmother and their two small children. Years later, when there was enough money, she crossed the ocean on a boat with my mother and uncle. They had been booked on the Andrea Doria, a ship that ended up sinking in the New York Harbor, but my mother had been sick and so they postponed the trip. My grandfather worked construction around New York City and used to show me the pillars in bridges where his friends fell into the concrete mix. How many bodies are in the walls of the bridges, tunnels, highways? My grandmother was a seamstress for most of her life, and ended up working for Adolfo, making coats, once for Nancy Reagan (she is very proud of that.) They had an arranged marriage, and fought violently, almost constantly. But she would never leave him, because you don’t leave a marriage.
They taught me about fairies, magic, hard work, food, trauma, stories, music, mental illness, anxiety, manipulation as a way to get by, they gave me the good and the bad, and they inform almost everything I write.
I find myself constantly writing about the stories of my grandparents. Our Entropy contributors offered such beautiful and bountiful stories of their grandparents that we are going to split this list over two weeks.
My grandma was a first-generation American. Her parents were from Norway and Sweden and settled in Oklahoma during the wheat boom that immediately preceded the Dust Bowl. She won Jeopardy! every night from her living room and made candy every Christmas, and there was absolutely no way to sneak anything past her. She was equal parts too hard and too soft, and I was fortunate to have (almost) always been on her good side.
I only know the bits and pieces and stories passed down to me.
On my dad’s side, my grandparents were born in North Korea. While my grandfather was away on a business trip, my grandmother had to take the children and cross the border when the war started. My dad was 4 at the time. My grandfather came back and attempted to cross the border with a friend of his, with just a large sewing machine on his back that they had gotten as a wedding present. The border had now gotten much more militarized so my grandfather’s friend was killed during the crossing but my grandfather made it across. That sewing machine allowed them to start a tailoring business and my grandfather put any spare money into stock at a flour and sugar company. He eventually moved to the US in hope of trying to contact his family in North Korea. It was decades later when he was able to reach anyone, when I was a little girl. The heartbreaking news that his entire family had been murdered shortly after he had left broke him. Though I didn’t learn the truth about his death until I was older, he killed himself in the bathtub.
I know very little about my mom’s parents. Her father died when she was very young. He traveled a lot and was fluent in many languages, and taught her to read and write some Japanese and Chinese. Her mother visited the US and stayed for awhile just after I was born, but I don’t remember her. I’ve only seen pictures. When she passed away, we didn’t have enough money for my mother to travel back to South Korea and attend her funeral. I think it was one of her biggest regrets. When my mother died, no one from her side of the family attended her service.
My grandmother worked at a men’s maximum security prison in Michigan as a librarian. She was one of the first women to do so, possibly THE first woman in the state. Over her long career, she built up a program that taught Braille to lifers and long-term inmates; when she retired, this program was one of the major producers of books for the blind. The inmates she worked with made a good wage, and they left prison with valuable job skills; several went on to found their own company producing Braille books after they left prison. She still keeps in touch with many of her former employee-inmates and counts them as friends.
My Dad’s Dad was 6 foot 6. When he graduated college he rode a bike across Europe with 5 bucks in his pocket, working odd jobs along the way. He was a philosopher and engineer. On St Patrick’s day he died his hair green and made a feast of food for whoever in the neighborhood was hungry and sat with it all day. Dad’s mom, you knew she was buzzed when she taught you charleston lessons.
Mom’s mom was the kindest person ever. The son of a great photographer asked her hand in marriage twice to no avail. She taught piano, had a best friend who only spoke Korean and for 40 years they taught each other how to cook different meals. Mom’s dad was a mean old man but had invented a radio held in the ear in the 50’s and got screwed on the patent.
My grandmother was a little baby when they fled Italy and failing farms to Brazil, worked for nothing picking coffee beans. They were tricked and only escaped after a huge snake almost ate her in the crib, she was saved and a baby pig was found alive in the snake belly. They bred pigs and waited till the armed guards passed out drunk on payday and walked 2oo miles to a major city and fled to America. After working on the transcontinental railroad they came to Compton in 1905, her brother made olive oil in the inland empire, her other brother briefly became a great painter then walked away.
My maternal grandma is English, and worked her whole life until her health began to fail her in her 70s. She also swam laps everyday and lived in a council estate in North Hampton, England. She immigrated to the U.S. 7 or so years ago so my mom could take care of her at home; she has a heavy case of Alzheimer’s now, and doesn’t recognize any of her family. She lived in London during the WWII bombings and took up smoking while hiding in the underground during raids. Her name is Patricia and she loves animals. My maternal grandfather died before I was born.
My paternal grandma is Western European Jewish and now lives in San Diego. Her name is Selma and she was a statuesque redhead who used to teach ballet before marrying and having three children. Growing up I loved to read her National Enquirers and sleepover at her and my grandfather’s apartment on weekends. My grandfather is Lithuanian Jewish; his family came from a shtetl and ended up in South Africa when they boarded a boat that they were told would take them to America (it didn’t). He left school at 14 to work to support his mother and siblings (their father dipped out when he was a baby) and eventually bought a gas station. Jump some years forward and he ran much of the auto industry in South Africa. His name is Percy and he also has Alzheimer’s; his great pleasure now is to watch old westerns.
My Mom’s parents were divorced, so I grew up with 3 sets of grandparents. My dad’s parents lived in England but we saw them frequently when my sister and I were kids before they passed. These days I talk to my granny (my mom’s mom) more than I talk to my mom.
By the end of her life, Baba hoarded everything. We never went over to her house as kids, because there was no room for us amidst all her stuff. The towering junk, things she’d gotten on sale or salvaged from somewhere–it was a fire hazard to be sure. I realized as I got older that she’d lost the ability to tell the difference between treasure and trash. In her later days, she wanted to hold onto everything forever no matter what it was. Baba hoarded stories too, stories she’d tell us at the drop of a hat–she’d corner us at a family party to share one long memory about her childhood in Oklahoma or about raising her children in Okinawa after the war, stories we’d heard before, stories we too knew by heart, stories that overflowed with love and ended happily enough, because she wanted to assure us, and really deep down just remind herself, that everything matters and as if by magic has brought us here, together.