I did not know my own grandmother due mostly to geography. My cousin, Sheila, however, grew up down the road from Gram’s house in Maine, and has written as essay about her that is so beautifully written that after reading it, I know not only my grandmother, but from where my mother came , and where parts of me originated, as well. My mother has numerous grandchildren, with the last count somewhere around 35. Many of those grandchildren did not know her as well as others, due again to the simple question of geography. I recently asked my mother’s grandchildren to write an essay that depicted their grandmother, and I was delighted with the results, for now those grandchildren who did not know her so well, as I did not know mine, can get to know her better through the words of their cousins, and see where their parents came from, and perhaps see a bit of themselves in her.
Essay by Morgan Kennedy
Among many memories of my Grandma, Bessie McLaughlin O’Dea, several provide a window into what she was all about.
Every late August, a week or so before high school started, I had soccer tryouts at Van Saun Park in Paramus. We had a morning session and a late afternoon session each day with a several hour midday break in between. With no driver’s license until late in my junior year, I rode my bicycle each morning for three years in a row from Tenafly to Van Saun Park. Between tryout sessions, I biked to and from 250 Mill and stayed with Gram O’Dea. A few times, I would simply stay overnight at Grams rather than bike all the way back to Tenafly.
How should a 67 year old grandmother entertain her 14 year old grandson for four hours a day during the hot dusty days of late August? While we played a lot of one-on-one Scrabble at the big dining room table, Gram had a better idea. Though I was 14 years old, three years away from official license eligibility, Gram offered to teach me to drive a car. Without ever considering the legality or wisdom of this decision, we sat in the driveway in her brown Chevy Nova and after a quick lesson to differentiate the gas pedal from the brake, she told me to take a spin around the yard. I did not disobey my Grandmother. I eased the car off the driveway and onto the grass and slowly cruised by the garage to my right, house on my left and drove a counterclockwise loop around the house.
While it must have been a jerky and harrowing experience for Gram, I don’t recall any white knuckles or panicky “watch outs!” I suppose that kind of cool comes after raising seven. After two or three chaperoned loops, Gram exited the car and set me off on my own to do loop after loop on the grass around her home. Gram would often sit on the side porch reading and wave each time I drove by. I must have done well over 75 loops over three years, eventually comfortable enough to roll down the manual windows of the Chevy Nova, elbow out, one hand on the wheel, cranking the AM radio…you know the look. I thought I was the coolest cat in Bergen County. God only knows what the neighbors thought. In year two, she encouraged me to drive down Oakland Ave on my own. Off I went, now really breaking the law and loving it. Sanctioned by Gram, how much trouble could I get in? Later on, likely bored and dizzy from watching my endless loops around the house, Gram suggested we go to town, to Conrad’s for ice cream, and that I drive “…it’s only a short distance, would you like that dear?”. I chickened out (afraid I’d have to parallel park in the middle of town) and declined but my respect for my rebel, law breaking, wife of the Judge grandmother went sky high.
Behind the wheel at age 14-16, I was in heaven. The great mystery of driving revealed to me by Gram O’Dea. It was a simple but fantastic gift, something a little dangerous and entirely unique, maybe the kind of gift only a grandparent can give. Credit to Gram for seeing the world through the eyes of a 14 year old and turning what could have been some drab hot August days of Scrabble into some slightly illegal and very memorable activity with my outlaw Grandma.
In August 1987, my sister Claire and I drove with Gram back to her hometown of Limestone, Maine. Gram insisted we take her Chevy Nova, by this point a very familiar car for me. She also insisted we drive (not that it mattered much to Gram, but at this point I did have my official NJ license) and that she sit in the back seat for the entire ten hour road trip to Aroostook County. She began the journey as her reserved self, quiet, observing and listening to our banter in the front. Grandma packed us all a homemade lunch of egg salad sandwiches and pickles. Yes, pickles. (I confirmed all this with my sister). We pulled off the highway and ate outside, picnic style on the grass under a tree, at a rest stop somewhere along i95. On day two of our drive, as the long hours on i95 dragged and we got further North, Gram became more chatty about her childhood memories, her/our family history that traced back to Ireland and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, and she shared anecdotes and memorable stories involving the many relatives and friends whom she grew up with in the small potato-centric community of Limestone.
To Claire and me, two young suburbanites, it all sounded so foreign, distant and hard to imagine. The names alone were of a different era but familiar characters in the snippets of stories we had heard at home: First names like Barney, Eva, Jerome, Althea, Verne, Vina, Viola, Hazel, Gladys and last names like McLaughlin, Dulaharty, Dorsey, Mulherin, Ludgate and Weatherhead. These were also many of the same names we saw etched on tombstones and plot markers during our first stop off the highway just before entering Limestone proper. Gram asked us to stop at the Saint Louis Cemetery and we obliged. She began to stroll slowly and silently, guiding us through the cemetery and pointing out a few headstones with familiar names…the same names she had been telling us about for hours in the car. Yes, we had come to Limestone for the purpose of enabling Gram to visit with and introduce her old friends and family. This, however, was not quite the setting in which we thought that would occur. It was an unexpected first visit.
Quiet, somber and macabre at one level but in another way, it was a welcome reception for Gram where she could visit, remember and connect with the spirits of those she loved. Gram was 75 and this is where many of her friends and family were, all conveniently gathered together in one place and waiting to welcome Bessie back to Limestone. We gave Gram space to move around the “reception party” on her own, to reflect and reconnect. Ironically, in that cemetery, the characters Gram had described in the car came to life for Claire and me. Their etched names and relevant dates in the headstones were like helpful nametags at a multi-generational McLaughlin cocktail party. Claire and I began introducing ourselves while picking weeds off overgrown gravesites of our distant McLaughlin relatives:
“…Oh, there’s Bernard “Barney” (1798b) and Mary Dulaharty (spelled “Delahenty” on her headstone)(1799b), Gram’s great-grand parents who emigrated from Ireland and over here are most of their nine children…”
“…Hey, check out their youngest son George (1839b) and his wife Margaret “Maggie” Ludgate (~1846b), those are Grandma’s grandparents, along with most of their eight children…”
“…So I guess among those eight children this is George, Jr (1876b), Gram’s father and his wife Susan Dorsey (1884b), Gram’s mother…”
It was a McLaughlin festival, like a 3D family tree. Today, according to online records, the Saint Louis Cemetery in Limestone has over 40 tombstones that bear the last name McLaughlin.
While we never asked, I suppose Gram stood among her extended family and reminisced about the hours of piano playing with her sister Eva during the long Limestone winter’s or eating her mother Susan’s homemade crabapple jelly or green tomato pickles that Gram’s niece Sheila recently recalled so well (now we know where Gram’s idea to include pickles in our i95 picnic may have come from), perhaps she envisioned all of these etched names alive and vibrant sitting on the big front porch of her family’s farmhouse in their rugged and weathered potato farmer gear during harvest season or in the house dresses, aprons and corsets of the era. Maybe she envisioned saying good bye to many of these same people as they appeared in 1929 when at age 17, Gram left Limestone for good and courageously headed to New York City to join her sister Eva at Mount Saint Vincent.
The first visit now complete, we left the party at the cemetery and Gram, now leaning forward in the back seat and clutching with anticipation the front seat headrests, directed us to turn here and there, recalling with precision the different Limestone landmarks we were passing. At the Four Corners of Caribou and Fort Fairfield Roads, she pointed out her childhood home and we pulled into the farmhouse driveway. Though we encouraged her to get out and have a look, she declined and quickly, definitively, decided it was time to go: “ok, let’s pull out now dear”. The serenity of the cemetery was replaced by nervous energy as we headed to the home of her childhood friends Althea and Verne Weatherhead. Grandma lit up like a child when we arrived. Our second welcome reception of the day, this one among the living, was warm and quickly familiar. Althea and Verne were just as she had described. Old school northern Mainers, genuine, hospitable and focused on Gram and on the pending potato harvest a few weeks away. Two septuagenarians from Limestone and two early 20 somethings from New Jersey was a coming together of two entirely different worlds. As the only link between the two, Gram managed the melding with ease. She was astute enough to know what would surprise and thrill us about Althea and Verne and I suppose vice versa. We heard a lot of stories over that week, mostly involving Gram and many of the folks we had “met” in the Saint Louis Cemetery. It was clear Gram was among her closest and dearest friends, living and otherwise, strolling leisurely down memory lane and it was a treat for Claire and me to be able to get a brief look into that part of her life.
One episode I regret with Gram was a time she was staying at our house on a weeknight to watch over us kids while my parents were away. I was in 8th grade and typically walked the 20 minutes home from the middle school with my buddies. I am sure Gram expected me home in the normal range of 3:00 – 3:30 when my sisters would also arrive off the bus from Holy Angels and my brother from the nearby elementary school. On this particular day, taking advantage of the fact that Grandma was staying with us, I decided to detour on my walk home and “hang out” in town for a while. This was not something my parents permitted and I am sure I was feeling very cool hanging with my buddies in downtown Tenafly. I eventually made my way home, probably 5:30 or 6:00 as Fall darkness descended, feeling very independent and bold. That bravado disappeared quickly as I was greeted by Gram O’Dea: “I am very disappointed” because she has been “worried sick” that something bad had occurred. There was no drama, screaming or threat of punishment, just that look and tone of disappointment that had the desired effect of shame and guilt. As a mother of seven, this was certainly not the first time Gram had been in that situation and she played it like the veteran catholic child raiser she was. I felt horribly guilty about it (clearly still do), knowing I had taken advantage and let her down. Once I went to bed, she never mentioned it again. No need. Move on. Next day was like it never happened. Even more telling about Gram, my parents never mentioned that episode either. Maybe this is the first time they’re hearing about it. Thanks Gram.
Belles of the Ball
At least one summer, my two grandmothers vacationed together in Spring Lake NJ. They shared a room at the Essex & Sussex Hotel, a grand old hotel where my sisters and I all worked. The hotel staff, all college kids and all our friends, knew these were our grandmothers and they turned on the charm with big warm smiles and personal greetings at every turn. From the elevator boy right up to the owners of the hotel, there was a constant refrain of “Good morning Mrs. O’Dea and Mrs. Kennedy, don’t you two look wonderful today.” The ladies were treated like Celtic royalty. While it may have been a bit uncomfortable at first to be the most popular guests in the hotel, particularly given the modest nature of each, they adapted and in their own humble way enjoyed pea-cocking around the grand lobby and the expansive front porch of the hotel. It was fun for us kids to have them there together and to see them enjoy being the Belles of the Ball. One oddity of the E&S Hotel was that it had no ice machines for the guests. The only way to get ice in the rooms was to request it of the bellmen who would hand deliver a bucket of ice to the room for the small fee of $2.00. This fee was of course never collected from the two distinct guests and I was never sure if the Grandmas simply wanted to see me and the other bellmen more often or if they really needed all that ice, one bucket at a time. They did arrive at the hotel fully provisioned with a bottle of scotch which they shared. I suppose the Scotch over all that ice made the constant adoration from the staff a bit easier to enjoy.
Every Memorial Day, Gram and Grampa O’Dea hosted their immediate family and grandkids, nearly 40 strong. It was an annual reunion that we, and I believe all the cousins, really looked forward to. One year, in 1972 or 1973, my paternal grandmother, Grandma Kennedy, bought tickets for me and her to see the matinee show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden in NYC. I presume it was a birthday gift and I was completely psyched to go, feeling special, and likely gloating to my siblings that I alone was “chosen” to go to the circus with Gram K. The gloating was short lived because what I did not know then was that the circus tickets were for the same day and time as the much anticipated Memorial Day picnic at Gram O’Dea’s. How my parents must have agonized over that conflict. The ultimate decision was for me to go to the circus and skip the picnic that year.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be the year of THE PICTURE. In this particular year, the entire O’Dea clan lined up for a massive outdoor family photo with all my siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and multitude of cousins standing around Gram and Grampa O’Dea who sat front and center. THE PICTURE was even published in the Bergen Record newspaper. I was crushed. At age seven or eight, while I had seen “The Greatest Show on Earth” with my Gram K, I had missed my chance for the fame and importance that comes with having your picture in the Bergen Record. More than that though, I felt left out. I wanted to belong. I wanted desperately to be a part of this awesome family of so many interesting people with outrageous stories. These were people I was actually related to, many around my own age, and they all came together for one special day from exotic and far-away places like Vermont, Pennsylvania … and Hackensack. And now there was a picture documenting for the entire world exactly who these people were. And poor me, I was not a part of it. My fourth grade logic convinced me that if I was not in THE PICTURE, it was as if I was not in the family.
Gram O’Dea, however, made sure that I was. If you look closely at Gram O’Dea in THE PICTURE, the queen matron of the clan sitting with a big smile front and center of the photo, she is holding up in her hand a small framed photo…of me. Despite all of the distraction and work of hosting this massive party and getting all the adults, kids, infants and dogs together for THE PICTURE, she made the effort to carry a clunky framed photo and to hold it up at just the right time, to remember me, to make sure I was included. I was in THE PICTURE, officially part of the O’Dea clan for all of posterity (and for the Bergen Record). Thanks to Grandma, I belonged.
Essay by Claire Kennedy
I have countless memories of Gram, but there are three exchanges that are particularly vivid right now, so here they are.
My earliest of them occurred on some warm weather road trip. There was at least one other car with us – maybe Uncle Art’s – but Gram was traveling in our car. We stopped and ate roadside picnic lunches. The adults were standing outside in the sun, but we kids had to stay in the cars with all the car doors flung open. Someone (not Mom) packed little oranges and I think we kids were getting whiny because the picnic was over except for the oranges. No, thank you. Brusquely, Gram sat in the shotgun seat and started rubbing orange peels on her face. She told us it’s an old beauty treatment, especially good for your skin. “That’s it. Rub it in! Just like that.” I continued to secretly smear orange peels on my face long after the picnic was over, determined to have beautiful skin for the rest of my life. I remember getting out of the car embarrassed by my face taut from dried orange juice and crusty with dried pith in my eyebrows. I also remember studying my reflection for any signs of improvement, wondering how long until it takes effect.
Another time, I must’ve been just shy of nine, she and I were standing at the side door and Gram told me “Nine is a very special age.” When I asked why, she only said “You’ll have to wait and see.” But wait, I had a lot of questions! Did the specialness of 9 reveal itself promptly on December 3, or would it pop up anytime over the next 12 months? Or would it slowly emerge over a year? It was clear, though, there would be no answers from her. I still don’t know what it was. Thirty-seven years later, I said the same thing to Meggie when she turned 9, and I asked her to let me know if she figures it out.
I’m also thinking about a time during my twenties. I worked in the city for Chase and from time to time I’d take the bus to Westwood instead of Tenafly and spend the night with Gram. She showed great interest in the my outfits, hairstyles, and jewelry. All of me was in keeping with the bank’s dress code, except my hands. I explained how my coworkers had beautifully manicured hands, which contrasted with my cracked cuticles and nubby nails. She took one of my hands into hers and studied it for a long time, turning it over and raising her chin for better focus with a downward eye. Eventually, she said “You can tell a lot about someone by looking at her hands.” I asked her what my hands said about me, and she said “I’m not ready to tell you.” The next time I saw her I wanted to know if she was ready to tell me, but I knew better than to be a pest, so I studied my hands myself and determined that I was either pretending to be a lady or I was a pragmatic, no fuss, hands-on kind of gal. I hoped Gram would say the latter.
Looking over these memories, I suddenly notice the thread. Gram always stoked my wonder. And now I wonder was it deliberate? And see, here I go again, wondering.
Essay by Brendan Boland
I have had a very difficult time thinking of something to write about regarding Grandma. Many of my memories of her are fragmented and without many words. I remember playing old maid in the dining room. I remember waiving good-bye once as we pulled out of the driveway at Mill Street. I remember having one Christmas at Mill Street and Grandma watching my brother and I unwrap things.
Then there are things that I think I have heard about Grandma over the years, but I can’t be certain if it is accurate information. For instance, I think someone once told me that when Grandma would hear a champagne bottle opened, she would say, “oh, they’re playing my song.” I don’t know if that is true. I might never know.
Another factor that has contributed to my writer’s block is that there seem to be different versions of Grandma floating around in the archives of O’Dea history. When I ask about Grandma, I get different stories depending on which generation I ask. The person who raised Anna Morris is different from the person who raised Susan Boland. Even with only two, it was clear my parents were a little exhausted after Brian left and I had a bit of a longer leash. Or maybe Brian was just an exceptional handful. I was always the good son.
The closest thing that I can think of that resembles something of a story about Grandma is this: I was having a tough time and my own mother knew this. She sent me a letter in the mail (I have tried to locate this letter to accurately quote it, but I can not for the life of me find it) and it said, approximately, Your grandmother never cared much for the catholic church, but she had a copy of this prayer hanging up in the house. Attached to this letter was a printed copy of the Saint Francis Prayer.
It is moments like that that make me upset I didn’t know Grandma better. I too care little for the Catholic Church, but that prayer also appeals to me in many ways. I wish I could have had the conversation about all of this with Grandma, but I was too young when she was here.
However, my mom sent that to me and she sent it because of her mother. Which I think may be my point. I didn’t have a very close relationship with Grandma when I was a kid, but the children that she raised and shaped have had a tremendous impact on me. Not just my mom either, but all of Grandma’s children have at some point or another said something or done something that has left a deep impression in me.
Much like that prayer passed down to me via my mom’s experience with her mom, I think I can relax and know that my Grandmother has shaped more of my life than I realize because she shaped the people who have helped me shape mine. I have a picture of Grandma in my apartment. She is sitting on the couch at Mill Street smoking a cigarette.
Essay by Terry Feeney
“Get in the car, we are going to Grandma’s.” Those were never unwelcome words. Going to 250 Mill Street meant many exciting things: grandma, aunts & uncles, cousins, grandma’s house to explore, chocolate cake with confectioner sugar icing, hopefully a candy jar, a piano, a Manhattan with a cherry and the list goes on.
Pulling into Mill Street was always exciting. From Mill Street was a huge front porch. A left turn onto Oakland was the key to look for a Brown (I believe) Chevy Nova. That meant the fun was home and about to begin! From the driveway, a quick run to the back door we would always be greeted by Grandma with a “Get over here and give your Grandmutter a kiss!” No problem, do I smell cake? Off to explore the yard and find plastic cigar filters, the old cabin foundation, the garage license plates, or scores to old Notre Dame/Navy football games.
Grandma O’Dea spoke French. I always thought that to be very cool, yet confusing. It was only when I was older that I would understand that living on the border of Maine meant proximity to French Canadians. Grandma influenced my decision to learn to speak French in High School. To this day, any word of French I speak or hear reminds me of my Gram O’Dea.
Off the dining room in Grandma’s house was her piano. She rocked the house and had that instrument mastered. Flipping sheets of music, while playing, while singing, while laughing. A true musical talent that was passed on to probably everyone in our family. With most visits to Mill Street meant some sort of treat. Candy was great but to this day Grandma’s chocolate cake sticks out in my head. The edges of the cake must have been coated with Crisco or some other nonstick concoction and the sweet frost was always a confectioner sugar approach that would not scare Betty Crocker. However, to me it was perfect.
A visit from Grandma was always fun. She drove a Brown Chevy Nova. Her license plate read 250 LBS which I later learned she detested which confused me because she was never close to weighing 250 LBS. The Brown Chevy Nova was ultimately replaced, but her grandkids were now doing the driving. In my early teens I was invited by my cousins Carol and Claire to join them and Grandma for a trip to Whimsy Farm. This was a jackpot invitation and my first road trip. Off we went. I sat in the back with Grandma and loved the feeling of independence and time with the ladies. When we arrived I learned I would be sharing a room with Grandma. As we unpacked, I realized I had forgotten my tooth brush and made the announcement. Grandma had that dilemma quickly remedied and reached into her bag and handed me her red denture brush that was well crusted up. Maybe Grandma was screwing with me? I do not know, it was not her style. So off to the bathroom I went to brush my teeth where I loaded some toothpaste on my finger. After watering down Grandmas brush, I returned with it in hand as evidence that it was appreciated and ‘used’. It gave her such a laugh.
I miss Gram O’Dea and I think of her often. Her picture hangs in my office and reminds me of my own mother and how loved she is by her 11 (soon to be 12) grandchildren. The memories and beautiful cycle goes on! Now, go give your Grandmutter a kiss!
Dorothy O’Dea Leach
My memories of Gram O’Dea are not countless. Our relocation to Vermont put a great deal of distance between where I grew up and Gram’s home at 250 Mill Street in Westwood, NJ. But I lived in New Jersey until the summer in between 2nd and 3rd grades (so I was about 8?) and to be honest, I don’t have a lot of memories of Gram during those early years. Perhaps the distance helped me pay attention when I did visit. I don’t know. I didn’t really pay much attention to anything as a child. I see my childhood through a haze. Now and then a memory pops into my head, playing like a little video clip with extras like smell and touch. They are random, and they are limited.
I remember being hot. Uncomfortably so. Sticky and sweaty and too too hot. Which suggests that we visited Gram during the summer. Probably during school vacations. We would sit on the porch at 250. Not getting any relief from the heat, we would move inside. I remember Gram trying to alleviate my discomfort by rubbing baby powder on my back. Her sterling silver bangle bracelets jingled as she massaged and she would whistle slightly as she breathed through her pursed lips. (I inherited her tendency to purse her lips and I wear the same wrinkles over my upper lip.) She told us at that time about the summers when polio was crippling children and the only way to keep them safe was to stay home all summer. No swimming. No air conditioning. Just hot summers where you had to lie quietly in front of a fan in darkened rooms. No wonder she pursed her lips. That couldn’t have been a fun memory for her!
Speaking of whistling…Gram was musical. She would sit at her piano and bang out a tune and sing along gaily at the top of her voice. As a student of classical composition I was always fascinated by her singalong style. It was lively. I think there as a lot of physicality to Gram. When she played the piano she threw her whole body into it. I wonder now if she might have been an athlete if she had grown up in another era.
One summer Gram took me to the Jersey Shore where she had rented a cottage. I cried too much from homesickness and she did her best to keep me busy so I wouldn’t be sad. That week at the Jersey Shore was an opportunity to get to know her but I was so homesick that I pretty much blew that opportunity. Maybe I was too young. But here’s what I took home from that trip. I learned how to analyze words. Breaking them down and looking for their Latin root. Gram spent hours with me on that vacation doing Reader’s Digest vocabulary tests and I became a vocabulary whiz kid. Seriously, I think I only got one word wrong on my SATs years later. The other thing I took home was an appreciation for Gram’s physical being. She wore pretty bathing suits to the beach – floral and skirted – and she wore sunglasses and a big stylish straw hat. She had prodigious varicosities (yes, I inherited those too) and a very large bosom (nope, did NOT get that…). She was agile and moved with a quickness and grace that, again, seemed athletic to me.
Many years later, when I was a mom, I visited Gram at 250 Mill Street. She was old by then. She had an air conditioner in her bedroom and let me and my baby set up camp with her so we could sleep comfortably. She had two twin beds in her room with a nightstand in between. I put Seth (he was a toddler) in a porta-crib and it was kind of like a slumber party. I remember Gram putting her dentures in a tumbler on the nightstand, and it reminds me, along with the polio story, that she had a life that was very different from the easy life of baby boomers. We don’t have to wear dentures – we had good dental care as children. We have anti-biotics to take care of disease. Girls can play sports. Those are the things I am grateful for when I think of Gram O’Dea. And I am grateful for her hospitality over the years. She was a good role model for me in that way as I have had to play hostess many many times over the course of my married life. And I have had to find ways to entertain myself to break up the hard lonely life on a farm. I love to sing and dance and read books. I know that Gram grew up on a potato farm in the most rural part of Maine. I think she had a lot of empathy for me when I married a farmer and took up that lifestyle. She was always kind to me. And that is the way I will end my essay on my memories of Gram:……she was always kind to me.