Noblesse oblige

Reflections written and shared by Jorinde van den Berg

[Noblesse oblige is the moral obligation of those of high birth, powerful social position, etc., to act with honor, kindliness, generosity, etc. {French origin; translation: “nobility is an obligation”}]

Jorinde's grandmother

Jorinde’s grandmother, Oma Heuvelink-Heckhausen, age 90, and “still a lady.”

I see her through the window pane of the door, her head slightly drooping. She has the same trouble as I have with my neck. So much pain concentrated in that one point; c1, that little hard bone at the top of the spine. She used to be so straight and just as tall as I am. Yes, I remember that everybody looked up only a few years ago when my grandmother would glide by on her bicycle, stately as a queen, straight as an arrow. It was actually amazing… I mean for her to start cycling again after she had fallen on that patch of ice in front of the church and broke her thigh. At first, I thought that was the end of it….. She started seeing leprechauns at night. Well, you know what time it is then. But no, she recovered miraculously after we organized that show and party for her eightieth birthday when we did that song about the German Fraulein in the mountains. I was dressed up in this crazy-looking dirndl, the Alpine dress with tight bodice and cute, white blouse with puffy sleeves and my cousin wore a huge, fake nose and mustache and lederhosen. Aunt Millie laughed so hard she almost fell off her chair. We also did a rap song about how “cool” our grandmother was, and she loved it so much that she started hugging us and had our make-up all over her face.

Oops, duck….. She’ll see us. It has got to be a surprise! Sssshhhh, she knows I am in the Netherlands, but she doesn’t know that we are right at her back door. She’ll be so happy! Oh, and me too! I would never have thought that I would see her again, but she really is a “tough one;” lived through two world wars. We have this song in Dutch about a really tough cowboy, and she calls herself “the ol’ tough one” after the song. I felt bad that I could not fly over for her 90th birthday or Christmas.

Her eyes are sort of turned inwards now. She doesn’t really seem to see anymore- The blue almost turned to gray. Her eyes are soft now instead of sharp. Her whole body and soul lost the sharp edges; she mellowed a lot. But she will always remain one hell of a lady whether she lives in this little condo, or on the large estate in the mansion where she grew up. Her hair is always done up. She always wears nice dresses – classy, elegant….even on her worst days. That’s when she gets moody, and starts complaining about her sister next door, or that too many ugly houses are being built in the village. She has an opinion about everything. She even collected signatures from neighbors to prevent the little post office from closing down. She subscribes to any church magazine or charity. Oh..and don’t forget the animals! She has saved more stray cats that anybody on the planet! That big, red fuzz ball in the corner behind you is her latest addition.

It is hard to believe that this lady I am now so diligently hiding from is from an era when a class system put her in the upper echelons of society. Here I am, hiding in her minuscule patch of a backyard behind her tiny, two-room condo connected to a hall that leads to the nursing home where she could -if she so chooses- eat dinner with what she disdainfully calls “those old people.” I am not sure if that is a euphemism to my ninety-year-old grandmother for “common, old people” or not. Of course, I am one of those commoners…… The blue blood that runs through her veins somehow got watered down significantly, and by the time it reached my veins it had turned red. I am a struggling immigrant in the USA, and although I am all for the “power of the people,” when I am tired of fighting, I am sometimes nostalgic for a time when things were clearer, more defined, and more stable. In this rapidly changing world of technology and terrorism, where I sometimes fail to recognize where I am or who I am anymore, it is so very comforting to stand here and look at my grandmother, Oma Heuvelink-Heckhausen. She cannot be accused of being “old-fashioned.” In fact, when my sister wanted clothes that were “too modern” for my mother, she would ask “oma” to come along to town with us to go shopping because she would convince our mother to buy that fashionable item, or those trendy shoes. Despite this, my grandmother did like the classics – We were united in our love of High Teas and sappy movies; when I still lived here, we used to spend many hours each week together swooning over this movie star or that dramatic plot – We’d sing “Edelweis, edelweissss…..yaaa-ti-ta-ti-ta-daah-dah,” while a man in a funny-looking too tight dark-greenish suit crooned ogling the camera, his eyes as blue as the Danube River, teeth sparkling white as the white flower he sang about on top of the snow-topped Alps. “Such a good face,” my grandmother Von Heckhausen would say, conveniently forgetting that Christopher Plummer usually played horrible Nazi villains in other European movies at that time.

She did not forget her fellow-sufferers, however; during the Second World War, it must have been hard for her to turn against the country of her ancestors, but she was clear about what was right and wrong. She made a very clear choice to help the allied forces, to support the resistance (of which her husband was a prominent member), and to invite the “Tommies” into her home for Christmas, even though she would have preferred the much classier, German Weihnacht celebration with the more reverent carols, Glüwein, and refined decorations to the rowdy songs, beer, and Christmas crackers of the boisterous British soldiers. True to form, she did insert just the slightest little bit of class even into that celebration….. My mother told me that one of the most magical moments in her life was when she saw her parents dance the tango. Sensual and subdued – with a volcano of passion right under the surface, those two completely mismatched adults were only united in their love for the tango, their children, and their garden.

Standing in her tiny garden now about to see her just one last time, I remember her large, glorious garden behind the old house – Not the extensive orchard, stables and estate of her childhood, but still a good size garden coveted by many villagers who enviously called the area where she resided the “Gold Coast.” It was true; she had been fortune enough to be born in a family of means and good breeding, but that also meant that she was obliged not only to carry on, but to do so in style while taking care of those around her — In other words, the gardener has a responsibility to tend to the garden. It was not a question of whether one wanted or not; one was obliged to. Her garden was beautiful….. Paradise lost. It was hidden behind the imposing house. A real house of bricks and mortar, large and firm, three stories high with an attic and a basement, a parlor for polite company, a dining room, enough space for a good size family and a maid –- who coincidentally all (over the years she had a few) adored “ma’am.” Those were Houses -Not the crackerjack boxes she and I are forced to live in now. That solidity is gone. Things have become flimsy. They are not durable, but change with the speed of lightning. Estates are sold off and subdivided, large Houses are gutted and turned into little cells for little lives, and gardens –- not just “yards” or ugly stamp-sized slices of sod, but real gardens with gargantuan trees, shrubs, flower beds, a carpet of green grass have all but disappeared. I still see the old garden with my grandmother picking snowbells at the foot of her old pear tree – Who will bring them to us to announce spring when the cycle of life has ended for her?

Through the window, I see her back turned towards me as she takes something that she just baked out of the little toaster oven because she was not allowed to bring her big oven from the old house. Her kitchen there led straight into her garden, where I had spent every Sunday of my life and many weekdays as well. That is where I was free to play anything I wanted, life was full of possibilities, and the sky was endless.

The hot pie is on the rack ready to be eaten by a grandchild. She turns around, shuffles to her large chair, and sits down. Looking at the TV guide in her lap, she looks down, wondering if they will be able to watch The Sound of Music one more time. Softly, I open the door and sneak in.

She looks up and throws her hands up in surprise. She is speechless, yet she tells me all I need to know; it does not matter that she hasn’t got long on this earth nor that she lost her estate, her husband, her house, and her garden, she is still a lady because Noblesse Oblige.

Mi Abuela

monarch butterflyReflections written and shared by Maria G. Hessie

I would like to talk about one of my experiences with my grandmother. This beautiful experience happened a long time ago….

When I was very young my mom told the family that it was time to visit my grandma. I didn’t remember too much about her because I was very young when we moved to the city. And it was a long time ago. The plan sounded so thrilling, not just because of the trip, but because I was going to see my grandma again.

My grandma was still living in the same place where my siblings and I grew up. It is a typical rural town in the state of Durango, Mexico.

The idea of visiting my grandma was so exciting that I couldn’t sleep. I packed all my belongings two weeks before our departure, I didn’t want to forget anything for this adventurous trip to my grandma’s house.

Finally the time to travel arrived. We took the bus, and it took us approximately 10 hours to get to her town. It was so rustic that she didn’t have a telephone, so we couldn’t call ahead of time to let her know about our visit, consequently it was going to be a big surprise. However, in our family’s customs, we do not need to be invited. Even if we visited without any notice we were always wanted. When we arrived at her house, wow!!! Nobody was in there to open the house for us. I confess now that I was a little bit disappointed, but my mom told us: “don’t worry, I know where to find su abuela.” So, we walked a very short distance, and there she was… still working in her little diner. When she saw her daughter with four of her grandchildren, my two brothers, my sister and I, she was amazed, she couldn’t believe it, her pretty hazel eyes were wide open, her beautiful smile, her kisses and embraces made us feel very welcome, then her eyes got full of tears…. Until then, I hadn’t understood that we can also cry when we are happy. I learned that those tears were because she was happy to see us again. There is no more wonderful love than the grandmother’s love.

It was a great experience to see my grandma again, she looked like a scene taken out of a fairy tale, although her skin looked a little bit different, her hair was gray but her eyes were still so beautiful. She was so proud of her daughter that she introduced us to her clientele and told them that she was sorry but needed to close because she wanted to be with us. I couldn’t believe it, my grandma closing her only financial resource, and she was planning to close it just for us??? “Oh No!!” My mom said, “You can’t do that mom, we can wait for you at home.” My grandma responded, “You will eat here at the diner and I do not want any interruptions, you are my family and family is first.” I learned right there in that moment how important her family was to her. I also understood that my mom had raised us the same way. I understood that FAMILY IS FIRST. “Yay!!” I said.

We had the most delicious meal ever. After a few hours, my grandma closed her diner and we went to her house, I was amazed the way her house was built, it was simple but cozy. It was very nice to be in my granny’s house again.

At the sunset, my mom and granny went to rest, and they were talking until they fell asleep. It was a long day for everyone, but it wasn’t an early bedtime for the youngest. We stayed awake. My uncle, my aunt and her little young boy (my cousin) were living with my grandma, so, that night we had a lot of fun. My uncle and aunt set up a bonfire and all of us were sitting around it. I had never been around a bonfire, not in the city of course. My aunt was telling us a lot of kind of stories, but the most fascinating were the stories about ghosts. We were all scared, but we loved them. One of the funniest moments was when she was talking and suddenly little frogs were jumping very close to us, we didn’t see them before and we got very scared because we thought they were ghosts. My aunt was amused when she saw us very scared. She thought it was very funny. The nicest thing about the little frogs was that nobody hurt them, it seemed that they knew that they were part of the family. It was almost midnight when my mom woke up and called us to go to bed…Oh No!!! We didn’t want this beautiful moment to end, but we had to do what my mom said.

The following morning, our uncle woke us up very early in the morning, before the sunrise. He wanted us to go with him in his big truck to dispense sodas to the little stores around town. When we were riding in my uncle’s truck it was still dark, and little by little the sunrise showed up, the cool breeze on our faces was a very nice experience. That was one of the most beautiful mornings I have ever had. Although my uncle was very serious and didn’t like to talk too much, he made us feel very important taking us with him. The trip to dispense sodas took us at least 3 hours, when we came back, my granny and mom had the breakfast ready and waiting for us to eat together.

After we finished eating breakfast, my grandma asked us to help her at her diner. I was so happy to help my grandma in her business that I wanted to stay with her forever and help her.

I was observing my grandma for a moment, when she was serving food to her customers, and I perceived how generous she was. For instance, an old man came to eat at her diner, and he said to her that he didn’t have money to pay for his meal, but he was very hungry. My grandma fed him for free. Although my grandma was a strict old woman, she had a very good heart.

The summer of 1969 was the most beautiful vacation ever, because I could visit and spend time with mi abuela. During this short visit to my grandma’s I learned a lot: how important family is, that we can cry even if we are happy, and the importance of generosity. I understood my mom more, and I enjoyed the simplest things of life.

My grandma is gone now, but because of all the beautiful moments that I lived with her and all the good memories that she left us, it is like she is still with us.

Grandma Angie

Angelina Placente

Angelina Placente

Reflections written and shared by Denise Galt Tims

I would love to tell you about my maternal Grandmother Angelina Placente. She was born in Bristol, PA to Italian immigrants who came over from Italy in the early 1900’s. They brought one child and would go on to have 6 more after arriving in America. She was such an amazing women that even though I only had her in my life for 12 years she has left a lasting impression that I will carry on with me the rest of my life. I was born in New Jersey in 1963. I have two sisters and one brother. We fortunately lived only a few minutes from my Grandma.

We called her Grandma. Or Grandma Angie sometimes because my Father’s mother lived next door when I was growing up

She spent a lot of time over our house which I loved. Even more than that I loved going to her house and especially sleeping over. As is custom with most Italian Grandmothers we always were fed very well. She was an excellent cook and always had a huge container of pizzelle cookies for us. They are a type of Italian cookie made with an cooking iron in various flavors. I loved to sit on her lap and eat cookies and sip her coffee. We use to say she liked a little coffee with her cream and sugar.

Because my Grandma had so many siblings there were always lots of people coming in and out of the house. They would sit around the table and tell the best stories. I really her stories, sense of humor, and all the laughter of those times.

In 1970 my grandparents moved to Florida which is pretty common for the older generation who do not want to deal with winter in the north. I was so sad even though we would take the long car rides to Florida and they would come visit. In 1972 my health in New Jersey was poor and the doctor suggested we move to a warmer climate. So off we moved to Florida and I was again back with my Grandmother. She adored her grandchildren and thoroughly enjoyed every minute with us. She taught us how to play so many games. She especially loved to play cards so we did a lot a card playing in the evenings. After all in those days we didn’t have cable TV. I wouldn’t trade those hours of interaction for anything. When we were small, we played card games like Go Fish, War, Slapjack, etc. but as we got older we played Rummy, Gin Rummy, and poker. She had a whole bowl of pennies to bet with.

She also was our savior from our Mom. Having four kids in my family we could get into some mischief. If my Mom was on her way dole out some punishment she would get there ahead of her and warn us to run.

When I was in 6th grade my Grandma had a heart attack. After that her health continued to fail and we found out she had an inoperable brain tumor. These were hard times for us. She would have horrible headaches and lost her ability to speak. I would go over her house everyday as soon as school was over and rub her head or do anything I could. I remember her telling me she never had a doll as a child because they never could afford toys. So that Christmas I bought her a doll. That spring she passed away. I still have that doll and keep it as a remembrance of her, but my favorite remembrance is my daughter Megan Angelina.

Trace your roots

Tulips around a tree trunkWhether you and your grandparents lived under the same roof or never met, you might enjoy learning more about them by conducting a family interview with your grandparent or with someone who knew them. If you can interview several people about your grandparent, you are likely to gain a more multi-faceted story, based on the varied memories that most deeply impact different people. Here are a few suggestions for learning more and conducting a family interview, including lists of questions to ask:


The Herb Lady

Diantha Grant's photo of flowers at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

Diantha Grant’s photo of flowers at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Reflections written and shared by Diantha Grant

My grandmother, Hazel, was a woman ahead of her time. She was my father’s mother. And it wasn’t just my grandmother; her three younger sisters were also quite progressive. All four of them went to college and became teachers at a time when few women went to college, let alone four sisters who then became educators.

The family tree goes back several generations to The Mayflower.  We are proud descendants of those who left the religious repression of England, battled life-threatening and life-taking perils both at sea and in the untamed new Plymouth Colony. I’ve always said we come from good New England stock and my grandmother Hazel certainly epitomized that heritage.

Hazel Manchester was born in 1894 and died in 1996 at 101 years of age. She married Howard Hawkes in 1918 and had two sons: Robert (my father born in 1921), and H. Theodore (who was 5 years younger). She was a wife, a mother, a sister, a teacher, a grandmother, a voracious reader, a historian, and a well-known herbalist. She had amazing gardens and was well-known in the garden circles of Southern Maine as the Herb Lady.

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, but I was quite the tomboy and didn’t appreciate all of the vast knowledge that she held. Lord knows she tried to teach me about bird identification and flower and herb identification, but truth be told, I was happier climbing a tree, swimming, or skiing. Fortunately for grandma, my cousin, Pamela, was the bookish, nature-loving granddaughter who soaked up all the gardening information that was lost on me.

The summer I was 12, my parents went to Europe and left me with my grandparents. Little did any of us know at the time, but I was to discover boys during their absence. Poor gran!  I was off with my girlfriends and new-found “boy” friends and she tried to keep tabs of me.  She knew the boys we were hanging around with, so that wasn’t the problem. She only knew how to raise boys and I was her oldest granddaughter.  I think she was flummoxed by how to handle my new-found independence.  I was always an independent child — good natured and never in any trouble. To my horror, she grounded me! Neither of us could wait for my parents to return.

My mother, bless her heart, thought it was funny, but, REALLY, did I have to discover boys while she was thousands of miles away? It took a while, but my grandmother and I did make up and had a wonderful relationship.

After my grandfather died in 1972, I spent part of a semester with her while I was student teaching. She loved my company in the big old house that no longer had my grandpa’s huge presence. She had dinner ready every night when I got home from school, exhausted from chasing elementary school kids all day in physical education. She was a good cook and made terrific apple pie. It was a special time.

The one pursuit that we did together (none of the other grandchildren did this) was to buy her pretty dresses and hats. It started as Christmas gifts, but then she would ask me to take her shopping. She loved my taste and I always seemed to find just the right outfit for church or the garden club or another event. Even better, were the compliments she received from family and friends. It made me proud to know that she like my style.

A couple of years later, she decided to downsize and move to an apartment. I helped her decide what to pack and what to sell and what to move. When we arrived at her new place, I helped her arrange furniture and put away her things. She always remembered how, unbeknownst to her, I had gone upstairs and made her bed up with fresh linens. It was important to me that she feel comfortable and cozy in her new home that first night. It was something so simple but meant so much to her.

Over the years, I became a really good granddaughter because of her. When I married Don, she thought I hit the jackpot. She could see how special he was. We got to see a lot of her because she lived with my parents for six months each year for about 10 years.

She lost her sight due to macular degeneration and it really narrowed her visual world, but not her world view. She listened to books on tape and she really enjoyed my dad reading to her. She listened to the news and McNeil and Lehrer and talked intelligently about world affairs. Hazel saw my mother, her daughter-in-law, as a saint, not only for the love she had for her oldest son but for being like the daughter she never had.

My grandmother was a remarkable woman. She lived an amazing life as a young girl; an educated woman who married a wonderful man who served his country; who loved her family, her heritage, and her country.

From spoiled to spoiling…

Star and Lila

Samantha Star Straf (age 50) and Lila Skaer (age 97) in Alexandria, VA.

Lila Cherry Blossoms

Lila gazing at the cherry blossoms

Reflections written and shared by Samantha Star Straf

I grew up an only Grandchild, with all the spoiling that implies.  Although there might be a request attached to something I asked for (Only if you bring home at least 3 A’s on your report card) I pretty much got everything I asked for (Except the pony, but I got horseback riding lessons).    I got a lot over the years from Grandma Lila but mostly I remember things like reading my school books to her while she baked cookies or her wonderful dinner parties where I was treated as an adult in the conversation like everyone else.

Two years ago after a handling a number of ER trips via phone that were results from medication mistakes the decision was made that she should move from her independent living situation to an assisted care facility with medication management.  Friends on the Kansas end of things (where she was living) helped get her on a plane for a visit to us here in DC and while she was here we looked at two such places in the area here and she agreed that as long as she was moving she should move here.

There have been ups and downs and times that she regrets moving and times that she doesn’t know where she is or who I am, but overall she is happy with the move and being close to family again.  And my role has changed from spoiled grandchild to the one doing the spoiling and I now understand her joyous feelings all those years ago.  Yesterday I braved the stand still traffic to drive around the tidal basin to let her enjoy the Cherry Blossoms out the window and the people and the ‘being in the center of it all’, we take annual trips to see the Washington Nationals play – she has no idea what the score is, but loves being at the ball game.  And this summer will be her first trip to the Atlantic since she was 20 when we take her out to Rehoboth beach for a weekend.

Sometimes she argues with me that I do too much for her and I remind her of taking me to dinner in Paris, or the beach in Acapulco, or sewing me a new dress.  It is nice to finally being able to pay some of that debt.


Postscript: Watch Lila Skaer aged 97 talk about being a grandma:

“The Look” from Nana Johnson and Nana Neagle


Nana Johnson and Nana Neagle

Nana Neagle

Nana Johnson and Nana Neagle

Nana Johnson

Reflections written and shared by Terri Neagle Donaldson

I was fortunate enough to have known both of my grandmothers as I was growing up. I am the youngest of nine children and my parents were in their forties when I was born. Though they were up in years Nana Johnson, and Nana Neagle were a vibrant and colorful part of my childhood. We often visited my mother’s mother, Nana Johnson, on Saturdays in their Manassas, Virginia home, a small farm house she and my grandfather retired to. Nana Johnson did not drive and as my grandfather grew in age it was necessary for us to take the long drive to Manassas for weekly grocery shopping trips or anything else Nana needed. My father’s mother, Nana Neagle, lived a short distance from us with my aunt and uncle in Rockville, MD. Both grandmothers were in and out of our home and we were back and forth in theirs.

Though these two women raised their families close to each other in Washington D.C., they could not have been more different. Nana Johnson wore a dress every single day of her life, and wore her long hair in a bun. Nana Neagle had her hair “done” and for as long as I can remember, she wore the same rhinestone cat eyed glasses, with style.

My Nanas saw and experienced a generation that shaped their spirit and ours. They experienced things I have only read about. They saw horse drawn carriages blur into highways, they fed their families through the great depression, they sent their sons off to war, and they buried their husbands and continued on.

Never had two women been more different in personality, or appearance, and yet they both had fine tuned, the art of, “the look”. “The look” consisted of a strong chin, raised up slightly into the air and a sideways glance of the eye. They did not need to say much. “The look” said it all. “The look” was a nod to an assurance of what you knew deep down inside already. “The look let you know you were deeply loved and they were either proud, or displeased in what you had done, but never in who you were. It gave you an inkling inside, and you knew they were praying or hoping for your future. It summed up every part of your being and confirmed without a doubt, you were part of a family bond that could not be broken. It was “the look” that reminded you of who you were and what the generations before you had given so you could become it. You knew you were part of the hopes and dreams that came before you. It was the expression that conveyed you were part of something bigger than yourself. “The look” encompassed you in a circle, fiercely wound together by, family, faith, Love, and life. I am currently perfecting “the look” and I hope to give it to my own grandchildren one day.

Laszlo and Olga

Andrea Gabossy's Grandparents ("Laszlo and Olga") & Dad, 1946.

Andrea Gabossy’s Grandparents (“Laszlo and Olga”) & Dad, 1946.

Reflections written and shared by Andrea Gabossy

I think about my grandparents a lot and who they were… the grandparents on my dad’s side.  Laszlo and Olga.  The names probably are a dead give-away as to their nationality – Hungarian.  Both were born in the early 1900s in Hungary and grew up in the old country.  My grandfather was a colonel in the Hungarian army; he commanded a cavalry unit.  They emigrated to the United States in 1951 (I found the actual immigration record on!) and settled in Maryland, eventually also living in Virginia and Washington, DC.  My grandfather worked for the Federal Government as a cartographer until he retired in his 70s.

When I was born, my grandparents doted on me; I can tell from my childhood photos.  Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away when I was 2 years old, so I do not really remember her.  But, I do remember my grandfather.  Habits from being in the Army never died; he always dressed impeccably, in trousers and a dress shirt.  His shoes were always shined.  Shaved every morning.  On cooler days, he wore a long, black wool overcoat and fedora.

I have many memories of ‘Nagypapa’ (Hungarian word for grandfather)… memories which evoke a warm fuzziness… that of comfort and security.  What I remember the most is that he had a seemingly infinitesimal patience for all my crazy shenanigans!  I remember going to Palisades Park with him on summer weekends… attending mass on Sunday mornings… watching Lawrence Welk and the bubble machine on TV… picking honeysuckles… laughing at the opening sequence of The Partridge Family where the bird kicks the eggshell… swinging in the swing on his porch… visiting Hungary in the summer of 1975… listening to a recording of my grandmother’s voice every night…

He never remarried after my grandmother died, and after reading some of his memoirs, apparently never got over her passing in September 1967:

Dear Son:  Since I lost your dear mother, my life has been nothing but misery and an overwhelming longing for her.  Over the past few days I have felt as if I was losing vital blood drop by drop, little by little. The feeling of loss for your mother is still too strong and aching in my soul and heart…

As an adult, I have come to greatly respect this soulful, lonely, somewhat melancholy, yet disciplined man of integrity, and only wish that he had been around longer in my life and that I could have had more time with both my grandparents.  I could have learned so much from them.  I do hope that they can see me now, and that they are proud of the person I have become and how I have lived my life.

Our Grandmother’s Gifts

Grandmother of Marylee Graffeo Fairbanks

Grandmother of Marylee Graffeo Fairbanks

Reflections written and shared by Marylee Graffeo Fairbanks

My grandmother, Clara, wanted to travel, sing on stage, and live in a big city. But, she never did.

She was 21 years old on Black Tuesday, and she spent the early years of the Great Depression, letting go of her dreams– doing what needed to be done for her family.

She worked as a sales clerk in an elegant department store in Boston. She was as beautiful as the co-star in a movie, and good at her job. But, life was difficult for a single, young woman.

She married my grandfather at the age of thirty, unheard of in the 1930’s. She stayed at home and raised three children. Simple things satisfied my grandfather: talk over family dinner, freshly harvested vegetables from his garden, or refinishing an old picture frame he found in the alley. He never wandered far from home. It grounded him, but frustrated Clara.

She was practical, formidable, and sharp-tongued. She occasionally splurged on chocolates, let me rummage through her dresser for Dentine, and loved to sing. She told me stories of her Uncle Jack, a Vaudeville star, and expressed regret for never having traveled. She lashed out when she felt misunderstood.

Clara loved my pumpkin pie and taught me to make a perfect stuffed artichoke. I spent many afternoons in her kitchen taking orders on how to cook and clean. I now have her pans in my kitchen.

She came to see me sing when I was twenty. I performed ‘Steps Of The Palace,’ from Steven Sondheim’s musical, ‘Into The Woods.’ The song conveys Cinderella’s confusion and struggle against the lure of Prince Charming.

Clara sat in the front row. She pressed her arthritic fingers hard together, in front of her heart, as if in prayer.

The show finished; she remained seated and stared up at the stage. I helped her to her feet. She held my hand in hers and hugged me. She smelled like mothballs and powder.

“Don’t get married.” She whispered. “Be a showgirl.”

Read more at:

Po Po: This is the only name I know of my Chinese grandmother.

Po Po (Terry Kim's grandmother)

Po Po (Terry Kim’s grandmother)

Reflections written and shared by Terry Kim 

This is the only name I know of my Chinese grandmother.  It simply means grandma.  My brothers and sister and I would get dressed up on a Saturday once or twice a month and make a trip in our white station wagon in what seemed like an eternity for a 6-7 year old. Today I know it as an 85 mile car ride from where we lived in San Jose, CA.  This photo is not what I remember about her.  It was taken when she arrived here from the Canton region.  She was in her early 20’s and had brought two children across the ocean by steamer to be with her husband who had come a few years earlier to get established in Colusa, CA. She would eventually have 8 children with my mother being the 4th eldest.  My mother and my aunties told me that she was a strong woman, quiet and maternal. She took care of the kids with the help of a woman whom we now know as my grandfather’s concubine who came over with him to provide comfort.

I remember being sad every time I saw her. She was always dressed in a drab grey dress with beige hose covering her legs and large black shoes with one buckle pulled across her instep. She often had a grey shawl to cover her shoulders whenever we went outside with her. Her hair was turning grey and her eyes seemed to carry the baggage of sadness I would learn about as an adult.

After her last child was born Po Po withdrew and became despondent unable to quell the pain that no one understood. With the family unable to provide any comfort from the Chinese doctor they turned to Western physicians who despite their attempts were unable to find a cause for her sadness. They eventually diagnosed her as catatonic.  Today we know it as post partum depression. She was committed at the age of 32 to Napa State Hospital where she lived until she was in her late 70s. When the hospital was closed my mother brought her down to San Jose to a skilled nursing facility so she could be close to her. She eventually died in her early 80’s never once having a conversation with us, only a few words in chinese here and there and intermittent smiles when we offered her candy that we had brought or when we pushed her from the stale room she had lived in for most of her life outside to the lawn in the middle of the hospital.  As I write this I feel a deep sadness for not truly knowing her beyond what I have recounted here. There is no connection to Toishan for us. There are no relatives of hers or of my Gon Gon’s ( grandfather) family that we are aware of. We are Hom’s in China and Tom’s in the US. I was told to look in the directory online of the Tom Clan, that I might be surprised by what I may find.

I was once in Chinatown in San Francisco when a very old man stopped me and asked me if I was from Toishan. He spoke in Chinese repeating over and over that he knew Gon Gon and Po Po, that they had grown up in the same village back home. He was emphatic and demonstrative. I did not believe him. I wish I had though I knew very little of my grandparents to make any sort of connections or relationships with him.  Even though I did not really know the trueness of my grandmother, the beauty she possessed and the life she committed to with her children I find some comfort in knowing that part of her calm and strength resides in my mother.

[Hey Rebecca. I woke at 3 am to find your message and promptly wrote this as a free writing exercise unedited. Thank you for the opportunity. Your prompt got me thinking about my roots. -Terry Kim]

Terry Kim's family

Terry Kim’s family