Lizanne died in 1959, her eighty-third year.
In my memory she did not grow old – to a toddler, all adults are old, some just more so than others. From beginning to end, I remember her as the quintessential ethnic grandmother – a bit bent perhaps, but not stooped. White hair gathered back in a bun, loose strands emphasizing that this was merely a matter of daily routine, certainly not an attempt at fashion. Pale blue, watery eyes. Oval face, its light skin thin and weathered as befit her years and hard life. Black the predominant color of her clothing, as though always prepared to lower yet another family member into an early grave.
Elizabeth Anne O’Keefe was born in Conception Harbour, Newfoundland, a small fishing village some miles from the capital city of St. John’s. According to family lore, she was a sickly child, and doctors warned her parents she was unlikely to survive into adulthood. This was the reason given us that, unlike her siblings, she never attended school, and thus remained essentially illiterate throughout her life.
Although an apparently weak constitution deprived her of the basic education that was part of her birthright, it did not protect her from the life-long labor that formed the other part. From her earliest years, an ever-increasing share of household drudgery fell to her. Perhaps it was by choice that, early on, she gravitated to cooking. This did not relieve her entirely from the more onerous tasks, like scrubbing floors on hands and knees, but it may have served to lighten the load. At the age of seven, she produced her first loaf of bread, a skill she never lost. Oral history does not record when her first apple pie appeared, but by the time I came on the scene, they were the stuff of legend.
By her early teens, she was working on the docks, mending net and doing whatever else would help put food on the table. Around the age of twenty, she began going out on fishing trawlers as ship’s cook, although family stories are not clear as to whether this was a long-term occupation or just occasional fill-in employment. Either way, it was a damp, bone-chilling, arduous, even dangerous life, and one deeply formative of the woman I came to know as “Gram”.
In her early twenties, Lizanne jumped at the chance to join her brothers, who had earlier emigrated to the Philadelphia area. There, she met another “Newfie” who had left to seek a better life in the States. His name was Charlie St. John. They were married in 1902, and the children started coming. Eventually Lizanne gave birth to nine, one of whom was my father. Tragically, two died in childhood, and a third at age forty of cancer.
Life in an ironworker’s family – especially one so large – was not easy in those years, but at least there was work, and, after Newfoundland, nearly anything looked good. But in the early 1920’s tragedy struck once again. As Charlie was helping unload a shipment of steel from a flatbed truck, the load suddenly shifted and fell directly on him, badly mangling his leg. Although he eventually recovered his ability to walk, painfully and with a pronounced limp, he was never able to work again. Workers’ compensation was minimal in those days, so the paychecks soon stopped. Luckily, some of the children were old enough by that time to get work and keep the family afloat.
Although I joined the family in late 1934, my memories only date back to about 1938. Lizanne – whom I soon dubbed “Gram”, as “Grandmom” seemed too big a mouthful and her given name too familiar – was a big part of my life from the beginning. I didn’t realize it then but, as the first son of the first son, I occupied a highly favored position in the family hierarchy. Although we had neither property nor position, the ancient principle of male primogeniture was alive and well among the St. Johns. Dad could do no wrong in Gram’s eyes, and she doted on me, as indeed did my four aunts, two uncles and even my two older cousins who, as mere daughters of the oldest daughter, my arrival had relegated to lesser positions. I quickly learned to milk this unearned status and, truth be told, developed a bit of an entitlement complex.
Consequently, whenever I think of Gram, I usually recall her with a smile on her face. Not everyone remembers her this way. She had a sharp tongue, and her temper could be volatile. Aunt Agnes, who died last month just three weeks short of her hundred-and-second birthday and the last survivor of her generation, told me “She was hard on us girls; your grandfather was the soft one. He let us get away with anything.” Aunt Dot, the youngest sister, often recounted the story of the day when, as a small child, she tracked dirt onto the kitchen floor that Gram was down on her hands and knees, scrubbing. In a flash of anger, Gram picked up the heavy brick of Octagon soap she had been using, and threw it at her. Dot ducked, and the missile hit Uncle Bill, the youngest boy, squarely in the face, bloodying his nose and knocking him cold. “Omigod”, she wailed. “I’ve killed him!” Bill survived that, however, and many worse things, including four years with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War II.
Although I too felt the lash of Lizanne’s tongue more than once, my memories of her are almost entirely happy ones. Many of them center on holiday dinners, most of which were held at her house – undoubtedly because of the much larger labor pool available there. We tend to forget how labor-intensive food preparation was in those days. I recall many times when, no sooner had we finished lunch than the aunts busied themselves shelling peas or trimming string beans for that evening’s dinner. None of these were “gourmet” affairs, at least not in the sense I understand the word today. I would call them “Norman Rockwell” dinners; indeed that iconic artist could easily have used Gram’s kitchen and dining room as the model for some of his famous paintings. Even during the war years, when various scarcities arose and two of the family’s providers were away in uniform, there was plenty.
Since Gram had been willing to go out as a cook on commercial fishing boats in her youth, it should perhaps not be surprising to find that she had an adventurous side. I was a young naval officer when, in 1957, I came home on a few days leave driving my brand-new Triumph TR-3 sports car. Dad was aghast; “You spent almost $2,000 on a toy car?” he asked. Gram, however, just asked for a ride. As I was helping her into the car, Uncle Bill hopped into his car, and asked – challengingly – “Do you think that thing can keep up with me?” Well, a dare is a dare, but with Gram riding shotgun, I had misgivings. Serious ones. Uncle Bill drove almost sedately through the neighborhood until he reached a turnoff onto an unpaved back road I had never seen before. Then, foot to the floor, he took off around hairpin curves, over ruts and through dry creek beds. Concerned about the wisdom of all this, I glanced at Gram and backed off the accelerator. She looked hard at me, also with concern I thought, but what she said was, “Can’t you make it go any faster?” So I did, and we stayed right on Bill’s tail all the way home. As I eased into the parking spot, Gram smiled and said, “Let’s do it again. This time, faster”.
Although I find it reasonable to draw a connection between Gram’s adventurous approach to my sports car and her days on the fishing boats, I feel certain she never did. In fact she made it amply clear on several occasions that she felt no nostalgia whatever for her early life. When asked if she ever considered going back to Newfoundland for a visit, she said, “Indeed I do not. I t’anked God the day I left that Godforsaken isle. Why would I ever want to go back?”
If anyone had ever thought to ask Gram what was the most difficult of all the obstacles she had faced in her life, I suspect she would have answered without hesitation, “My sister-in-law, Nell”. Helen St. John, Charlie’s sister, was a well-educated woman who became extremely successful selling entire libraries to the super-rich for their mansions in New York City and Philadelphia’s Main Line, as well as, in some cases, their “cottages” in Newport and Bar Harbor. She affected an upper-crust accent that grated upon blue-collar ears, and clearly believed that Charlie had married beneath himself. She did not, however, let this interfere with her frequent extended visits to his and Lizanne’s home, during which she expected to be treated as though she were in a fine hotel. To me, and perhaps to my aunts and uncles, she was politely patronizing, but she seldom tried to disguise her disdain for Gram. On more than one occasion, I heard her interrupt Gram in mid-sentence to say, “Elizabeth, e-nun-ciate your words!” Each time, Gram, obviously hurt, replied, “I’s talkin’ like I always talks.”
One day when I was about six, sitting in Gram’s parlor reading a comic book, Aunt Helen came in and struck up a conversation, the crux of which was that I should not be polluting my mind with this sort of reading matter. She asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought for a moment, and replied that being a newspaper reporter sounded interesting to me. She was obviously surprised, as well as immensely pleased, to hear this and spoke for several minutes about what a commendable choice I was making, what sort of studies I should pursue in the future, and what type of reading material would better prepare me than comic books.
She would have done better to stop right there, but then she asked, “Why did you decide you want to be a reporter?”
“Because Clark Kent is a reporter,” I responded.
She looked puzzled. “Clark Kent? I don’t recognize that name. For whom does he write?”
Amazed at her ignorance, I said, “Aunt Helen, everybody knows who Clark Kent is.” Picking up my comic book, I pointed at the Caped Crusader on the cover, and told her, “Clark Kent is Superman!”
Possibly for the first time in her life, Aunt Helen was at a loss for words. As she rose and walked away, her face said it all; exasperation, frustration, resignation.
Eventually – and fittingly – Aunt Helen got her most memorable comeuppance from Lizanne herself. Somehow, I had never heard this story until my brother included a more detailed version of it in one of his own writings.
On a bitterly cold and windy day in the 1930’s, with no one but herself and Aunt Helen in the house, Gram needed to go the store for some small but essential item. Asking Helen to do the errand was obviously out of the question, so she bundled herself up, made certain to leave the door unlocked, and set off. The store was only about two blocks away, but the cold was intense and the row houses on narrow Howland Street formed a sort of wind tunnel that magnified the piercing arctic gusts. By the time she got to the store and back, Gram was shivering uncontrollably. She grabbed the doorknob, twisted it, pushed, and… nothing. The door was locked! She rang the doorbell, and rang it again. No answer! She pounded and pounded on the door until her knuckles almost bled. Still no sign of life inside. “That goddam woman!” Gram must have thought. “She locks me out of my own house, and now I’m going to freeze to death on my own front doorstep.”
At last, Helen appeared, opened the door, and began to berate Lizanne for interrupting her afternoon nap. Once again, history does not record precisely what ensued, but I feel confident that – rather than “talk the way she always talks” – Gram dredged up every nasty word and expression she had learned in her years on the docks and at sea. Helen fled to her room in tears. When my aunts returned from work that evening, they asked, “Mom, what did you say to Aunt Nell? She’s in her room, crying.”
“Well, good”, Gram replied. Then just the hint of a satisfied smile crossed her lips as she uttered the words that, in the unlikely event I ever attempt to write her biography, I would use for the title:
“The more she cries,” Lizanne declared, “the less she’ll have to piss!”