I remember coming home from school one day and, as usual, grandma met me at the door with a hug and kiss. I could see that she had been crying.
I went into the living room to sit in the big reclining chair and began to consider which part of my homework I would start on first. This was my daily ritual. As I sat there, grandma would come in to ask me what I would like for dinner the following evening. I was the family’s menu planner.
But that day I saw the source of her tears. On the table in front of the couch was the picture of grandma and grandpa that had been taken on their wedding day. To my knowledge, it was the only picture of them together that had ever been taken. Here was my grandfather – the only image of him I would ever see – and the only man that my grandmother ever loved.
As I said in an earlier post, grandpa was a common laborer. He earned one dollar a day for his work – and even in the early 20th century that wasn’t a lot. Although he was only in his early 30’s he developed what we would today call a brain tumor. This caused him to have dreadful headaches.
While the doctors of that time didn’t have a specific name for his condition they had a prescription to alleviate the pain – that being morphine. But the problem was that one dose cost him a day’s wages – and when he took the drug he couldn’t perform his job – thus he risked being fired. Such was the state of healthcare at the time. I don’t think that health insurance had been invented – but had it been, there’s no doubt he would not have been able to afford it.
One day grandma came home from work to find the police at their building. My grandfather, Frank had jumped to his death from the roof of their building. He left a note to my grandmother, mom and aunt. He explained that he couldn’t go on with his pain – and he couldn’t face his family without the ability to support them. He felt worthless as a provider and he hoped that they would forgive him.
Despite the official position that the Roman Catholic church held regarding the disposition of suicides, grandma who attended church regularly, was able to convince one of the priests at the church of St. Jean Baptiste that she attended to allow him burial in consecrated ground. She was an indomitable woman and would go to the mat for something or someone in whom she believed.
So grandma, my mother and aunt moved on with their lives. And then came the Great Depression.
By that time, grandma had moved from her position at the restaurant which began her career and had become the cook for a wealthy woman who lived on Park Avenue. Her employer, Mrs. Henderson had avoided the stock market and was well enough off to survive the financial disaster that befell most people in this country. Grandma had a secure position and was able to provide for her family as a single parent.
Mrs. Henderson was very generous to grandma. She would tell her to buy more meat than was necessary and instruct her to take some home for herself and her two girls. Grandma, although proud, was practical and she never turned down one of these hand-outs her employer provided.
Though there was seldom enough extra meat to make a main meal, there was enough to use in soup. That’s where this “extra meat” went. From both grandma’s and mom’s telling of the tale, soup was how they were able to survive the Depression.
Whether it was because of her humble status, her innately generous nature or both, if grandma saw someone who was unable to get work and needed a good meal, she would invite that person home for a “soup dinner.” Mom told me that there were strangers who showed up at their little apartment three or four times a week – people whom grandma had met on her way home. Total strangers.
When mom asked grandma if there would be enough for all of them, grandma replied, “Just add a little water to the soup.”
And that’s what they would do.