24 March 2011

Great Grandma Young

Lately, the world has been getting me down.  The attack on Libya, my inability to get jobs for which I'm qualified, money (doesn't it get EVERYBODY down), family drama, the ridiculous snow storm we just had yesterday... at the end of March, gas prices, everything happening in Japan-- we live in a harsh world.
SO, I'm going to ignore all that crap and write about a woman who always had a smile on her face and plenty of love to spread around even in the darkest of times: Great Grandma Young.  Yes, she was my great grandmother-- the sweet Matriarch of my German/Austrian family-- and I think it's time for reminiscing.  Just to clarify, Grandma went Home in May of 2007; I was fortunate to know her for the first 21 years of my life.  In fact, I knew 3 of my 4 great grandmothers... what a blessing.

Below is a picture of her with the old 1970's Chevy she finally sold several years ago-- that thing was a BOAT. 

And Grandma never drove it on the highway.  She would take the back roads from her bungalow in Chicago to the northwest suburbs for family events-- and there were TONS of those-- and this red monstrosity would inch its way along the streets at a steady pace.  I feel sorry for anyone stuck behind her; Grandma's driving motto was "We'll get there eventually."  She finally decided to give up driving at age 96.

Here she is in the kitchen of her home with some pretty cool people.  

The Chicago Bungalow was such a special place.  Though I don't have the memories of frequent visits, dinners, and parties that my mom has, my siblings, cousins, and I all spent a fair amount of time at Grandma's home that she had for well over 40 years... or was it 60? In terms of  today's style standards, the decor was outdated-- but who cares about that when the bathroom was done in raspberry (including the toilet and tub)!  Since my favorite color is pink, I loved it! Not to mention the second floor (a converted attic) with steep stairs up and too short ceilings-- a child's playground.  And the place had a cool basement with a bar, a bit musty by the time I was old enough to appreciate it, but the setting for many great parties.  My great grandparents we social people, not to mention they had a large family of German/ Austrian immigrants to entertain on the weekend.  

Most of our conversations with Grandma happened in her insulated back porch where she watched her "programs"-- it was common knowledge not to call her during shows like "Wheel of Fortune." And of course the kitchen, the epicenter of a German family.  You see, up until she died Great Grandma cooked bulk German meals of Rouladin and Stuffed Peppers for her son and his kids and their families, and her daughter and her kids and their families.  For years we benefited from the sales at Grandma's local grocery (being a Depression survivor, she wouldn't make Rouladin if the round steak wasn't on sale, for example).  In fact, even if she didn't eat a particular item of produce, many times she'd purchase it on sale and give it away to the Family or her neighbors.  Also, Grandma had a giant pantry the size of a generous walk-in closet... just one of those details I remember... oh, and ancient well-used appliances.  She loved to cook and she loved to eat, passing on those sentiments to her entire family. 

Once for Great Grandma's birthday, my grandma, aunts, and all of the great grandchildren met for lunch at the Bungalow to pick Grandma up and take her to a restaurant.  When we arrived the house smelled AMAZING. Instead of an afternoon out, Grandma surprised everyone by making a feast of German food (saurkraut, red cabbage, large red sausages, potato pancakes...) for everyone to share at her dining room table.  The kids (we were pretty young at the time) got to run around upstairs while the moms helped, talked, and laughed in kitchen.  There was always good-hearted laughter surrounding Great Grandma Young.

That was before Grandma started throwing a big party every year for her birthday.  At some point, I think around turning 90... or maybe it was 95, Grandma decided that every year both her son and daughter's family would gather for a banquet at the Rose Garden.  She wanted to celebrate annually as a way of bringing everyone together (we didn't see much of Great Uncle Bill's side the rest of the year) and cherishing each precious year furthering a long and fruitful life.  We would eat sub-par food like rubbery ham and steamed previously frozen vegetables, followed by the excellent cake supplied by the family bakery (started by my other German Great Grandparents) with a side of spumoni ice cream.  And of course, we'd sing.  God blessed our family with musical talent-- oddly enough Great Grandma Young was tone deaf though she LOVED music-- so we'd all sing a table prayer to the tune of Edelweiss and afterwards various family members would perform.  My grandma and I would sing solos with my mom accompanying us on her keyboard; my brother would play trombone; Cousin Rich and his wife would play guitar and do duets-- Grandma always liked "The Gambler"-- and everyone would sing a few old German favorites.

Great Grandma had such pride in her family: nothing was more important to her.  She attended every birthday party, Christening, confirmation, graduation, wedding, anniversary party, and rotated holidays. And at each gathering Grandma found a comfortable chair from which she could observe and smile over the family she'd created. Grandma once told my mom that's what she enjoyed the most: watching everyone have a great time, hearing all of us laughing and talking loudly, and enjoying each other's company.  It's not every day you come across a family that gets along even though they might disagree.  And if you haven't figured it out yet, our family is big on hugging, so when we arrived at parties, we each in turn greeted Grandma at her post with a hug, kiss, hello, and laugh about some joke she would inevitably make.  Laughter is just as much a tradition in my family as hugging.

But don't get the wrong idea: Great Grandma was more than a sweet, smily old lady.  The Matriarch of the family was strong, independent, adventurous, and even a bit devious.  As you can see in the photo below, if Grandma was physically able to try something then she'd go for it:

My grandma took Great Grandma on a cruise in the Greek Isles when GG was in her late 80's (maybe 88)-- I'll tell you about my world traveling grandmother some day in another blog.  Also, Great Grandma loved a good Vermouth Manhattan: she had one at almost every party.  No, she wasn't an alcoholic, she just liked a well-made cocktail once in a while.  A woman after my own heart.  And Grandma loved a dirty joke or two-- she would even kid with her granddaughters about a male neighbor that would help her with odd jobs around the house and a "quickie in the afternoon!"  One of the funniest moments at a party was when Grandma told me that she had been conceived illegitimately and that she didn't tell her daughter (my actual grandma) until recently because Grandma thought her daughter was a bit of a prude.  :)  Plus she had a tendency to joke about being... well endowed.  At one of her birthday parties we have photos of her chest covered in frosting after she bent over her cake to blow out the birthday candles.  She laughed her loud and familiar laugh.  How do you not love a woman with a wicked sense of humor?

In terms of being independent, that's exactly what Great Grandma was.  The bungalow remained her home until the day she died, where she resided by herself... but never alone-- she was surrounded by family photos.  Her mind stayed sharp, her memory intact.  We have strong women (and men) in our family due to her influence and strive to be as full of life in our 90's as she was.  Great Grandma made it through some of the hardest times in America's history and came out of it SMILING.

And she had a sixth sense-- perhaps that's who I get it from.  Shortly before being hospitalized, Grandma was at our family's annual Mother's Day party.  At one point during the festivities, I went over to talk with her and she made a point to tell me how happy she was for me (I was graduating from college and getting married in August), that she knew Michael and I were right for each other and that I looked happy.  Also, Great Grandma insisted to my grandma that she didn't need to buy a dress or shoes for the wedding as there would be no need for them. She knew it was her time.

Great Grandma Young passed away on May 25, 2007 after being hospitalized for only a few weeks. She was born in 1909 in Zlan, Austria and came to America when she was 4.  Though she didn't have a fancy career, go down in history, or publish her memoirs, Grandma Young did marry a wonderful man and had two children, Bill and Betty.  She raised them to love and laugh, and had many grandchildren and great grandchildren to integrate those values into a tumultuous world.  At the funeral, since most of us were 21, we toasted her memory with Vermouth Manhattans and laughed over memories of her.  How amazing, to have lived for 98 years and instead of becoming a cynic or bitter or depressed, Great Grandma only loved life more because she was grateful to LIVE.

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