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.”