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Math Geek Mom: May You Live in Interesting Times
April 2, 2009 - 10:36pm

When the Titanic sunk on April 15 of 1911, I am sure that a young couple named William and Carroll living in the Italian section of Yonkers, New York, paid little attention to the news. They were busy with caring for their newborn daughter, my grandmother. She turned ninety eight last week, and a call from my daughter to her to wish her a happy birthday (“can we go to her party?”) led me to think about her life and of a Chinese proverb that wishes “may you live in interesting times.”

That little baby, born about the time the Titanic set sail, was a toddler at the start of the First World War and grew into a young girl during the “roaring twenties”. She saw the stock market crash as a teenager and spent much of her young adult life in the Great Depression, before seeing relatives serve in the Second World War. She worked for her father in a roadside market and was admired by a group of young men who had recently arrived from Italy. The story is that they had a bet among themselves to see who could ask her out first, and my grandfather won.

She was married in the middle of the Depression, a statement of hope in the face of a severe economic downturn, and immediately moved with her new husband to the suburbs of Connecticut, where she still lives. She was fond of saying that she was “still on her honeymoon.”

In the early 20th century, there were few jobs available for new immigrants, who could neither speak nor read English. One job that was available was that of hauling blocks of ice up the steps of apartment buildings to be used in the ice boxes of the time. All one needed to be able to do was recognize the numbers “1” and “2”, and bring the appropriate blocks. It didn’t matter if one read “1” and “2” as “one” and “two” or “uno” and “due”. And so, my grandfather first learned of the American dream by carrying blocks of ice up steep staircases. When he moved to Connecticut, he started his own business selling first ice and later coal, and then range and fuel oil. Grandma took care of the financial aspects of the business, becoming the glue that held it together and made it prosper. However, she would have always told you that it was her husband’s business.

The years she has lived have been full ones, as we moved from Model Ts to hybrid SUVs. She saw President Kennedy’s assassination, the Lunar landing, Watergate and the fall of the Soviet Union. And then, eight years ago, the woman who had once had one of the first television sets in town saw September 11th play out on her cable TV.

My grandmother played an important role in my life as she watched me as a young child while my mother worked. This allowed me to both have a connection with my history by being around my grandparents and a chance to see my mother model the new vision of a woman who worked for pay outside the home. When it came time to make choices in my life, having that model and that grounding played important roles in my own decision making processes.

Six years ago, when she was much healthier, she visited us soon after we adopted our daughter. I greeted grandma’s arrival as I placed the child in her arms, saying as I did so “you have always been a good grandma. Now you are a great grandma.” Thanks to my sister and her husband, another great granddaughter has since joined her.

I don’t know if she ever really understood me, that strange girl who found it necessary to go to school so far away when there were plenty of schools closer to home. And what was I studying, anyhow (or, as she and her friends liked to put it, “what are you taking up”)? Wasn’t economics about cleaning and cooking (home economics), two things that she knew I was not particularly good at? However, she sat in the hot sun in a crowded football field as I was awarded by Ph.D. and came with my mother to stay with me as I fought my way back from a life threatening illness. Today, as dementia ravages her brain, I know for sure that she does not understand me. However, on good days, she still knows who I am.

When I watched my daughter talk to her great grandma the other night, I had a sense of the 98 years that my grandmother has lived, and had a small glimpse of the years that stretched out in front of my daughter. Would my daughter’s own great granddaughter some day wish HER a happy 98th birthday, and, if so, what would the intervening years bring? I had an image of the phone being a long (wireless) number line, stretching out in both directions, with me at the value of zero. My grandmother got me to this point, and my daughter would continue on from here. May she also live in interesting times.


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