April 11, 2009

My One and Only Grandmother
Peggy Duffy

My grandma was not my grandmother. She was my mother’s aunt, my great-aunt, but in the absence of any living grandparents of our own, she served as a surrogate to my sister and me. She was the real grandmother to my two cousins who lived in New Jersey, about a half hour’s drive across the George Washington Bridge from our New York home.

Home to my grandma was a one-room garden apartment with a couch in the living room that converted into her bed, a small kitchen, and a large closet you passed through to get to the bathroom. Visits were always day trips. We’d park on the street and walk up the cement sidewalk to her front door, the farthest one from the road. After a short while, we’d all pile back in the car and drive over to the adjacent town where my cousins lived.

My cousins and I liked grandma’s apartment, so different from our more traditional style houses. We also liked that she was born in 1900, making it easy to calculate her age. Although she was just in her sixties, she was very gray, very wrinkled, and extremely dowdy in both dress and bodily shape. This is not just in memory. I have the pictures to prove it.

In the pictures, she looks traditionally grandmotherly, but in real life she didn’t fit the mold. She couldn’t cook. Once when I stayed overnight, we made beef stew, a meat and potato concoction boiled in water. Her baking wasn’t any better. She served the same hard, tasteless dough balls she called sugar cookies whenever we saw her.

I saw her every month or two, and sometime during my teens became aware of our family lineage. She was the sister to my mother’s father, the man whose wife was my true grandmother, a set of grandparents whose images were preserved in a few old sepia photographs. But my grandma was the only grandmother who’d ever instructed me in the kitchen, although she hated to cook, or attempted to teach me to crochet, a skill I couldn’t master. Not being authentic did not make her any less real. She had no culinary abilities, but she fed me a lifetime of memories that would last.

The last picture I have of my grandma was taken in early 1981. She is sitting in my mother’s living room chair cradling my newborn daughter in her arms. She looks frailer but otherwise as gray, wrinkled and dowdy as I’ll always remember her. She looks very grandmotherly.

—originally appeared in A Bouquet for Grandmother


Peggy Duffy's short stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Newsweek, Notre Dame Magazine, and Brevity. She has an MFA from George Mason University and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website is here.

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