I’m celebrating my 60th birthday with 60 posts of gratitude for people in my life. Today, I’m remembering my Grandma, Mary Zugger.
I liked my grandma. She was the only grandma I knew, my Dad’s mom having passed away when he was only 16. Grandma would come from Buffalo, NY on the train. My grandpa had worked for the railroad for his career and earned her free rides on the train. My memory snapshot is of her sitting at our kitchen table with beer in a glass and a cigarette in her hand. She would send me to the neighborhood grocery store with a note giving the store manager permission to pick up her Lark cigarettes, a whole carton of them.
A couple of times I got to go visit her by myself, with no other brothers or sisters from among my 9 siblings, I would ride the train with my grandmother to spend a couple of weeks with her. Once, when I was 12, I got to go by myself. My mom put me on the train wearing my navy blue sailor dress and clutching a whole role of cherry lifesavers. It would take us probably 7 hours to get from Dayton, OH to Buffalo, then we’d catch a cab and ride to her house. When we got to her flat in the upstairs of the house where she grew up and raised her own 5 children, she would immediately make hot cocoa.
She would light up her old gas stove, lifting up the burner plate and striking a wooden match to spark the blue flame. She’d make the cocoa with milk, cocoa, and sugar. That was the beginning of the special things grandma would do with me.
We’d go to the band concert her son conducted. We’d walk to the 5 and dime where she bought me a doll. It was NOT a Barbie doll, which my mom would not approve. This was a Barbie look-alike, though. For the next week or so that I stayed with my grandmother I played with that doll. My play spot was a really neat closet in the bedroom adjoining the kitchen. It was two steps up from the floor and closed with a folding vinyl door. That closet became my doll’s world where I could give her a wonderful life. I made her clothes from scraps of fabric left over from a dress I had seen my grandmother wear.
My grandmother gave me a big challenge on one of those visits. The downstairs neighbors had taken me with them to their family beach outing. I had a great time and bounced up the stairs into the kitchen at the end of the day. Grandma, with her neatly combed grey hair, looked at me with a firm look, saying, “Did you say ‘thank you’ to the Biddles for that nice outing?” I looked down at the floor. “Well, you go right down there and tell them.” I was so ashamed and shy that I inched down the inside back steps to their kitchen door – and just sat on the bottom step. I sat for a good 20 minutes but I did not knock on their door. I never have understood my reason for refusing to thank the Biddles, but I just couldn’t do it!
Funny how this memory of my grandmother insisting on gracious behavior and me being ashamed and afraid of giving it, has stayed with me!
I’m grateful for my grandmother being a regular presence in my life. Because of her, I usually had a fully ironed blouse to wear under my high school uniform. She caught me one morning, running late with my morning dressing and rushing to get a blouse ready. “You need to iron the whole thing, not just the collar and front, Regina,” she said in that soft and commanding grandma voice. “But, Grandma, I’m wearing a sweater and that’s all that shows!” I argued. She didn’t need to say anything else, just watch me – as I ironed the rest of the blouse. I won’t claim to consistently iron my blouses to her standard after that, but I always heard her voice cajoling me to do it!
As a young adult, newly married and rehabilitating an old house in Covington, KY, my grandma visited me and my husband in our ramshackle abode, slipping between the stacks of drywall and happily chatting in the only finished room, the kitchen. Our entertainment for the Saturday she was there was to go to our rehabbing friend’s house to help bash old plaster off the walls. Grandma said, “Sure, I’ll come along. I want to meet your friends.” She perched herself on an upended barrel or something, sipped her beer, and smoked a cigarette, happily watching everyone for the few hours we were there. “What a cool grandma you have!” everyone agreed. She claimed to have had a good time too. That felt really gracious to me that she would do that!
When she was dying of cancer at age 80, I went to visit her with my oldest son who was four years old. I was pregnant with our second child. The last time I sat with her and talked I told her that I’d name this child after her. She smiled. I didn’t see her again, but I kept my promise and named our second son Adam Courtney Reiter, using her maiden name as his middle name.
So thanks, Grandma Mary Courtney Zugger for being a firm authority who was also gracious and generous. Thanks for showing up frequently in my life and giving me special attention and time on my own.