My grandmother was born a hundred years ago today. Here’s something I wrote when she died ten years ago.


I didn’t know my grandmother very well.

She lived in Northern England, and I only saw her perhaps every three years — fewer than a dozen times, maybe, in my life.

I didn’t know my father’s parents very well either, but they were a bit easier to know. They were Americans. They were secular. Tessie was English and Catholic. Very Catholic. My mother was the oldest of seven.

Tessie’s oldest child, born during the war in the summer of 1941, got her nursing degree and went swanning around Europe and the Middle East — a good girl cadging rides on the back of young men’s motorcycles. After the Middle East it was on to America, where she found a nursing job in New York and reconnected with the good boy from Idaho that she’d met in Rome.

By 1967 my mom was the first of Tessie’s kids to marry. The service was in a Catholic church, but my mother and the priest were the only Catholics there. No family on either side could afford to make the trip. My dad — memory tells me — bought a tie and borrowed a suit. The wedding cake was from Carvel.

My grandfather died a few months after that, of a heart attack. He smoked. He was in his fifties. Several of the kids were still at home, the youngest just five years old.

When my mom came back to visit, she was a hippie, or so it must have seemed to Tessie. She raised three American children, smart and wild and uncouth.

I had no idea what Tessie expected of me. My parents talked to me as if I was an adult, and I talked to Tessie the same way. Tessie chastised me, and my mother chastised her.

When I was about five Tessie married Steve Lesnowski, and took his name. She had been born a Hartley, and married a Gittins. Her daughters were by then marrying Johnstons and Garveys and Brays. To my young eyes, Teresa and Steve Lesnowski were the most English of them all.

(Later, I would have their Englishness and their humanity confirmed by Billy Bragg, whose paean to young clumsy romance had a chorus — Adam and Eve are finding out all about love — that swapped out the Biblical names for “Teresa and Steve” the last time through.)

Steve was a good man. Good and funny and quiet. He loved Tessie and treated her well. John, the great love of her life and the father of her seven children, loomed large, it seemed to me, but I didn’t know much.

Tessie was sometimes hard to be around when I was a kid. She seemed constantly tetchy and often angry. She seemed to always disapprove, even when I thought I was being good.

But then… I won’t say here what it seemed the turning point was, because I’m not sure I’m right and I don’t want to say it and be wrong. But then. She relaxed. She calmed. She seemed to inhabit her position as matriarch of her great clan with an ease she’d never found before. At seventy she was difficult, but at eighty I looked forward to seeing her.

We chatted, in the last few years. About Casey, and about young Angus, and about her clashes with young Angus’s mom. About my father. About nothing at all.

As I grew to like her, I saw more of my mother in her, and that was a gift.

•          •          •

A few weeks ago, my mother told me today, Tessie fainted. When she was revived, she said she’d heard voices, and maybe seen lights. She felt like — in my mom’s quote or paraphrase — she was “being carried on a cloud of cotton wool.” She believed she was being taken to the cemetery where her husbands were waiting for her. She was, my mom thinks, a little disappointed to be brought back.

And then on Monday morning she didn’t come back.

I’ll miss her.