Three Years

My grandparents married in 1929, not the best time, financially,  to start a new life. I don’t know what kind of work my grandfather did when he was single, but shortly after they wed, he lost his job.

He was out of work for three years.

My aunt told me this a few weeks ago, and I was struck by how vast that stretch of time must have seemed to my grandparents.

They moved in with my grandmother’s family and spent thirty-six months fearing that a new job might never surface, one hundred fifty-six weeks begging relatives for help, one thousand and ninety-five days trapped and crammed into a tiny back bedroom in a Philadelphia rowhouse. First two people shared that narrow dark space, then three, then four, as my aunt and father made their appearances during those years.

My grandmother cried each time she had to go to a relative for help. They both fretted about a job, oh,  any job would do, and finally it came, and I don’t know what it was, but this is what my grandmother said to my grandfather: “You take that job.”

And he did.

By the time I came along, several decades later, my grandfather was a retired carpenter. Over the years, he made enough money to support his wife, two daughters, and one son. My grandparents eventually bought their own rowhouse around the corner from Mom-Mom’s family. They lived there all their lives. They owned one car. They went on vacations down the shore. They were never rich, but they didn’t starve, either.

Learning this bit of history made me understand why my grandparents’ refrigerator was always littered with tiny globes of tin foil and small packets of wax paper. If you pried them open, they contained the smallest crumbs of food. A morsel of turkey. An unfinished soft-boiled egg. Nothing — nothing — was ever thrown out. If Mom-Mom made me chocolate pudding, and I left a spoonful or two in the bowl, the pudding went into the refrigerator, and it was dessert the next day.  The blue and white can of lard in the fridge might look empty, but if you scraped at the sides with a utensil, you could gather a spoonful or so. The cutlery might be scratchy and tinny, but it served its purpose.

There it was: use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

If you live a long enough life, like Mom-Mom who died at 92, then three years is a small chunk of time. But it’s a long enough period to shape the rest of your life, so that you never conquer the fear that those dark times could return.

If they hadn’t started life together at such a tough time, would they have been different people? Less frugal, not only in the way they spent money, but in the way they approached life? My grandfather was a quiet man. Mostly I remember him retiring to his green chair after dinner and immediately falling asleep. I don’t remember him ever saying anything other than hello and goodbye. Maybe he would have been loquacious and outgoing, like my father, the life of the party. Maybe my grandmother wouldn’t have  always been so quick to wrap up the bread and rolls and leftover food at restaurants — hiding it in napkins that quickly went into her pocketbook.

When my father died, my siblings and I were cleaning out his house, and I found a worn and rusty hand plane. My father was the opposite of a handy man, and I knew it wasn’t his. I figured it was my grandfather’s or something Dad had picked up at a yard sale.

I took it as a keepsake. It’s the only thing I have of Pop-Pop’s (I’ve convinced myself it’s his), a man I barely knew. I don’t have anything of my grandmother’s, though a few years ago I spotted my aunt cooking pasta in Mom-Mom’s old dutch oven. It’s so worn it’s practically transparent and doesn’t sit level but spins on the burner when you stir its contents.

I’m guessing it’s the only dutch oven my grandmother ever owned. I bet she got it as a wedding gift and kept it in a box those three years they were living with her family, waiting until she could use it to cook her family a meal in their own house, in her own kitchen.

I’d love to have it. I’d put it on the bookshelf next to my grandfather’s hand plane and there they’d sit, the two objects, communing side-by-side for years to come.


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