Friday, January 11, 2013

Grandma Helen

When I was home on winter break during my sophomore year in college, just a few weeks after turning nineteen, my grandmother died.  Her name was Helen McDonald Lynch, and she was my father's mother. She had been suffering from emphysema for years, and then got lung cancer.  Yes, she was a smoker.  If you were born in 1910, chances are that you were a smoker.  She had not had an easy life, but she certainly enjoyed her life.  She was sweet, and kind, funny, enjoyed reading mysteries, but she wasn't your average grandmother.  She really knew how to get dolled up and had great style.  She cooked a fantastic Hungarian goulash, and great lasagna.  She played Sophie Tucker songs on the ukulele.  She enjoyed her cans of Rheingold beer.  She was the life of the party -- hell, she was the party.  Grandma Helen had what they used to call "moxie," a word which means "the ability to face difficulty with spirit and courage."  She suffered no fools because she had had the misfortune to suffer one particular fool for far too long.

My Grandma was a gorgeous redhead when she was young--she was a gorgeous redhead when she was older too--and as a teenager caught the eye of a man whom I only can describe as a scoundrel.  He was, purely, in terms of my genealogy, my paternal grandfather.  This man was a true bastard.  He was a drunk, a gambler, a womanizer, a slaggard, and an abuser.  By the time Grandma was twenty-three, she had three children--Helene, my father Danny, and Jimmy.  It was 1933.  The Great Depression was well into its fourth year.  FDR and Congress was working hard together (imagine that!) to pull the United States out of economic devastation.  However, in Richmond Hill, Queens, New York, a young mother of three, with a man who came and went, took, and did what he pleased, had to earn a living.  So my Grandma became a Ma Bell switchboard operator.   Someone had to bring home a regular paycheck and put food on the table.  Since the man spent whatever wages he managed to earn on whatever pleasures he sought, the duty fell upon Grandma.

What was "Ma Bell," you ask, kids?  This was the Bell System which, between 1877 through 1984, provided telephone service to almost all of the United States and Canada.   Ma Bell also was virtually the sole provider of this utility.  We would call that a monopoly, and I'm not talking about the board game.  You do know the board game Monopoly, yes?  Well, anyway, that's another story.  So Grandma Helen, like all switchboard operators, manually put through all telephone calls.  M-a-n-u-a-l-l-y.  That means "by hand."  There were no computers, see?  Nobody could make a telephone call unless a switchboard operator inserted a pair of phone plugs into the appropriate jacks.  You can look it up on your search engine on your tablet.  My point is that she had a very stressful, physically demanding job.  And she did it with pride and supported her family.  She would tell me stories about some of the perverts who would try to get fresh with the switchboard operators.  "That's why, honey, it's always a good idea to have a police whistle hanging around your neck.  Because, if a man starts with smart talk, you blow that whistle long and loud.  I promise you, he will NEVER try that again.  Haaa!"   What she did not tell me about was how most of the supervisors were men, and that quite a few of them were "handsy."  If you were a single mother supporting three kids, you really couldn't afford to speak up or speak out about what we now call "sexual harassment on the job."  You needed to keep your job.

When my father Danny was ten-years-old, he saw the man hit his mother and his older sister.  He went over to the man, and punched him right in the nose.  The man was clipped pretty hard by the kid, and he was stone-cold shocked.  The man left and never came back to the house again.  It was 1941.  By then, Grandma Helen had her mother and her grandmother living with her.  Her mother's youngest brother, Uncle James, was actually closer in age to Grandma Helen.  He did what he could to help out, but he had a wife and four kids of his own.   Still, Grandma Helen had good kids.  They all had jobs after school, they basically stayed out of trouble (save for a few escapades by the boys), and they each grew up to be fine, responsible adults with families of their own.  

By 1965, when the age expectancy for a woman in the United States was seventy-three years, Grandma Helen retired from Ma Bell.  She spent the next seventeen years enjoying her family, her nine grandchildren, her friends at the Senior Center, and even had a few "gentlemen friends."  She was a practicing Catholic, and although she was separated, she never divorced the man.  She died five weeks short of her seventy-second birthday.

A couple of years later, when I was involved in some lofty, academic discussion in college, the participants (all of us over-educated and inexperienced with the real world), both young men and young women, were bemoaning the fact that they did not have many "female role models in the career force."  Many of us, being Baby Boomers, had mothers who had stayed home to raise their families.  They were "homemakers" or "housewives."  A few had mothers who had "professional" careers, being physicians, attorneys, bankers, scientists, artists, educators, and executives.  Suddenly, it dawned on me that I did have a very important "female role model in the career force."  When I graduated from college, and entered the work force, I too faced sexual harassment.   One or two male supervisors even tried to get handsy.  I reminded myself that my Grandma Helen had not worked hard her whole life and raised her family so that some man could make her granddaughter feel less.  So I blew my police whistle long and loud, in my own way.  And, I promise you, they NEVER tried that again.

1 comment:

  1. Your evocative essay brought your Grandma Helen to life and she will reside there forever in my mind and the thoughts of your readers. I'm in awe of you. You got to know your grandparents. What a colorful crew they were. I look forward to reading the book that may tell more of the story.