My maternal Grandmother was quite a woman for her time, or anytime, for that matter. Born into an Irish Catholic family in Chicago on June 18, 1888, she entered this world with a twin brother – she was named Rose and he was named Bud. They were inseparably devoted to each other.
Bud became a policeman, and while trying to save a boy who had fallen onto the electric train tracks, was himself electrocuted. Shortly thereafter, while still in her early twenties, Rose’s first husband died of a sudden heart attack.
Refusing to give up on love, Rose met and married Louis, a Jew. Both she and Louis were banished from their respective family’s good graces for daring to cross the forbidden boundaries of inter-faith relationships, and so set out to make their way on their own.
They prospered, and Rose gave Louis three children. When the third child (my mother) was barely 3 years old, however, Louis too passed away. Rose was left with quite a fortune for those days — perhaps over 8 million dollars. On the advice of a friend, she invested the whole bundle with a financial scoundrel who promptly fled to South America, leaving Rose and her children penniless.
The Great Depression had just set in, and Rose found herself scrubbing public toilets to keep her children housed and fed. She received no mercy from her husband’s family, who actually went to court to dis-inherit them and whatever mongrel offspring had issued from the un-holy union.
Rose’s family was equally remote, and so she began organizing a women’s collective for mutual support. This group expanded over the next few years, eventually becoming the Women’s Benefit Association, and was actually one of the precursors of the modern Women’s Movement.
Rose insisted that all of her children go to college, but when World War II came, her oldest (a son) ended up fighting in Germany. He was stationed there after the war, and when she traveled over to visit him, she was appalled at the conditions the Germans faced in the aftermath of the destruction. She immediately got involved in a kind of “black market” underground charity operation, smuggling foodstuffs and clothing to starving German families.
When her two daughters back in America began their contributions towards the post-war baby boom, she returned to the states to help out. Whenever a new child arrived on the scene, she was there to share with chores and act as a baby-sitter.
When I was about 3 years old, she was escorting me along a park path one morning when a huge dog suddenly bolted through some nearby shrubbery, knocked me down, and stood snarling and drooling over me – its face inches from my own. I was in somewhat of a shock at this until, with a loud Boom! she whacked the dog over the head with her purse and chased it away. After this incident, I began calling her Boomba, and the name stuck.
Rose was a very spiritual woman, and when I was growing up, she would often call me to her side and share with me her relationship to things Divine. She taught me how she prayed, which involved a widening remembrance – starting with her family, and then expanding out to include each person she had ever met, and finally embracing all of creation – submitted in Love to God’s Grace and Mercy. After that, she would usually enjoy a glass of port wine, and sometimes a cigarette.
There were five children in my family, and the last to arrive was Mary Rose. I was about 7 years old at the time, and when I returned from school during the first months after my sister came home from the hospital, I would sit quietly with my grandmother while she rocked the baby and hummed little tunes to her.
One afternoon, as I entered the sun room where she sat cradling my sister in her arms, my Grandmother looked up at me and softly said:
“Bobby, our precious little Mary Rose is gone.”
“But Boomba …..” I pointed, “she’s right there.”
No, Bobby – she’s gone to God.”
About 15 years later, my Rose herself had suffered a series of multiple heart attacks. One afternoon, as I visited with her by her bedside, she looked over to me and told me it was time.
“Time for what?” I inquired.
“Time to go to God.” She replied, and then smiled so sweetly at me, closed her gentle eyes, and breathed out into eternity.