Almost every time our family gets together around a table, my grandmother is mentioned, and before we know it, we’re all laughing with appreciation for the unique woman she was and the place she held as the anchor and matriarch of the family.
She would take no sass from anyone, but was oozing with it herself. Knowing what I know about her life before she was a grandmother, I imagine that her spunk served her well as she navigated her life from childhood to a young woman. Her story isn’t tragic, but it’s telling and a testament to her times and her station in life.
Mary was the oldest of six girls in an Irish Catholic family. They were poor. Like many men during those years, her father had difficulty finding work. She and her sister Ruth attended the Susan Blow School in Carondelet, which was the location of the first kindergarten in the country. She finished the sixth grade, but quit after that, so she could work to help out the family.
After quite some time working in a factory, she landed another job, one that didn’t get mentioned much until after she was gone. I’ve actually written about it before, but it’s so delicious that I find myself going back to it again and again.
She was a model. A lingerie model. Think pretty nightgowns and slips and bed jackets. It was the classy stuff that could be purchased at expensive stores like Scruggs Vandervoort and Barney Department Store in downtown St. Louis. Mary was pretty, but she would not have made it in today’s modeling circles. Lots and lots of curves, which surely caught the attention of many young men, including my grandfather.
Mary could never have afforded the clothes she modeled. When her job was done for the day, she put on her own dresses, something quite likely made by her mother or one of her younger sisters. I never had the chance to ask if that it bothered her, to slip out of silk back into rough cotton and scratchy wool every day, but I have a feeling it didn’t.
This young woman didn’t expect fanfare. It just wasn’t part of her experience, even for events that beckoned some frills and ceremony. She and my grandfather got married on their lunch break and then promptly went their separate ways to finish out the day’s work. There are no photos. The only remaining remnant of her wedding day is a very thin wedding band. Even that, she was willing to part with, handing it to me when she learned I was getting married.
She and my grandfather doted on their only child, my dad. You can tell from the photos that he was their greatest delight. They worked hard to give him everything they could, and then some. And then they became grandparents.
We became her world, and she ours. She liked to walk and read and bake bread. She served as my working mother’s backup plan when we were sick. She never learned to drive, but was generous with instructions to others on how to do it. She used cuss words and had a bit of a bawdy sense of humor. She still didn’t have much money, but was generous with it in our birthday cards each year. Each year, she did treat herself to a trip somewhere with her five sisters, who were all just as sassy and funny as she was. I think for her, it was all good enough, perhaps even more than she expected.
When I look through an Oasis catalog, I see all kinds of programs that sound compelling and fun. I catch myself earmarking classes that my own parents would really enjoy if they lived just a little closer to a center. And I’ve even caught myself marking with a pencil one or two that would have brought pleasure to Mary. I wonder what my little lingerie model might have chosen to explore if given the chance? It's fun to think about, almost as fun as imagining her wearing elegant clothes that a girl like her could only dream about.
Oasis offers a wide variety of classes and programs. To learn more, check out the catalog for the Oasis center near you. Find something you like and sign up!