My grandmother lied about her age. She had just turned 106 when she passed away in 2003, but we thought she was only 103. She would have been 113 this month.
Her birth year is listed as 1900 on her death certificate as well as the crypt that holds her ashes. But several months after her death, I found a baptismal certificate that revealed she was born in 1897. Even my mother had never seen it.
My grandmother shared her birth year with Amelia Earhart, Frank Capra, Thornton Wilder, and Walter Winchell. In the year she was born, Gustav Mahler became director of the Vienna Court Opera and Johannes Brahms passed away. Scott Joplin and John Philip Sousa were composing. Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt were painting. George Bernard Shaw and Edith Wharton were writing. Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac premiered in Paris and the Eiffel Tower was only eight years old. Thomas Edison patented his movie camera. Spain granted autonomy to Puerto Rico and Brooklyn officially became part of New York City.
My grandmother’s name was Maria, but the family called her Tata. I lived with Mom and Tata until I got my own apartment as adult. In our bilingual Puerto Rican household, Mom called us The Three Musketeers or Los Tres Mosqueteros – “all for one, and one for all.
”Tata possessed Zen-like calm. She was the most easy-going person I have ever met, yet quite speedy on her feet when she did errands around the neighborhood until she was about 90. Mom was always telling her to slow down and be careful. “You’re not catching the subway – no need to rush,” Mom often said. She was referring to their life in New York City, where Tata worked in the YMCA laundry for many years and commuted via a substantial subway ride.
Tata loved to be out and about. She wanted to do all the errands for the Musketeers – all on foot. She never drove an automobile. The soles on her shoes constantly needed repair.
Tata walked to the drycleaner, the shoe repair shop, the post office, the bank, and – most frequently – the supermarket. When I was living at home (through undergrad and my first years in the working world), Tata walked about 10 blocks to the Santa Monica Farmers Market every Wednesday to buy a five-pound bag of oranges so Mom could squeeze juice for me in the mornings. While making her shopping rounds, Tata chatted with the people she met and developed casual friendships along every route. She always seemed to communicate successfully, even though English was not her first language.
When I was a little girl, Tata said to me, secretly and more than once, “You know, I’m older than your mother thinks I am.” I mentioned this to Mom when I was about 12 years old and she did not take it seriously. “Your grandmother is old and she’s just saying that.”
Tata’s disposition was a direct contrast to my mother’s, at least from my perspective as I grew up. Tata was almost always cheerful, while Mom generally was not. Tata was trusting – maybe even naïve; Mom was cynical. Tata made friends everywhere she went; Mom kept to herself and did not invest in relationships. Tata seldom complained of aches and pains; Mom did incessantly. Mom had quite a temper and would become loudly angry with me and Tata over small issues – my failure to hang my clothes or Tata’s buying the wrong brand of bread. Yet I do not recall ever seeing Tata angry and she never raised her voice. She would just shrug or laugh if she made a mistake.Mom seemed to resent Tata’s relaxed nature.
Comments Mom made while I was growing up suggested that she thought Tata was not a strict enough mother and did not encourage her daughter to seek opportunities for advancement. Perhaps Mom overcompensated by being very strict and sometimes overprotective with me.
Besides running around town doing errands, Tata’s other major interest was romance. She read the Spanish-language equivalent of Harlequin romance novels. Heroines with flowing hair and off-the-shoulder bodices in the arms of dashing young men graced the covers of her paperback collection. We could not find enough of these books to keep her supplied. She read them quickly – and smiled the whole time. When I joined the ranks of the working world, I got the idea of buying her Spanish translations of English language classics, including the works of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters; Tata loved these stories, too.
She also loved English and Spanish language televised soap operas or telenovelas. When I was in college, I used to watch As the World Turns, The Young and the Restless, Another World, and The Doctors with her. When I missed the shows because of work or school, Tata would fill me in on what happened – the kisses, the weddings, and the divorces. Despite her limited English language fluency, she also much enjoyed watching Upstairs, Downstairs with me translating as needed. Perhaps the costumes and settings reminded her of her youth.
Tata seemed determined to fill her life with romance. She read tarot cards for her friends and their friends and immensely popular, because her cards always predicted that tall, handsome strangers were in the future.
When I was about five or six years old, Tata and I would visit churches in the neighborhood on Saturdays in search of weddings. When we found one, we would stand outside to see the bridal party emerge, so I could see the pretty dresses. Sometimes people gave me some rice to throw at the bride and groom. It was a private, silly adventure that Tata and I shared alone – and I loved it!
I do not know much about Tata’s life beyond her relationship with me. She was married three times and widowed three times. Her third husband was the love of her life. She was over 56 when they met – and I brought them together!
I was born in Manhattan in June 1953 (the same year the Ricardos welcomed Little Ricky). My parents lived on East 20th Street near Gramercy Park – a private oasis boarded by Third and Park Avenues and East 20th and 21st Streets. My father was a sales clerk at Macy’s at the time and had a discount that enabled him to purchase the stylish pram mom wanted for me.
Tata was very proud of her little granddaughter. She loved to take me in the pram around the neighborhood to collect compliments. One day that summer, she took me to the Gramercy Park quad. Only the residents of select buildings bordering the park have access to it. Tata was looking through the iron gates when a tall Irishman in a doorman’s uniform came to her and asked if she was lost.
“No,” Tata replied. “I was just looking at the lovely park. I wish I had a key so I could sit there with my little granddaughter.”
“I’ll let you in,” he said and pulled out his key. As a doorman for one of the Gramercy buildings, he probably was not allowed to admit strangers into the private park, but Tata must have been attractive enough that he took the risk!
Thereafter, he watched for her and continued to let her into the park whenever she appeared with the baby pram. After a few sightings, he began to sit on the bench with her when she visited and they became acquainted.
His name was Stephen. In a short while, he and Tata fell in love and got married. As a toddler, I grew up playing in the very exclusive Gramercy Park as if it was my own backyard. I called it Grandpa Park and Stephen was the only grandfather I ever knew. I have some memory of him in his doorman’s uniform and visiting our apartment on 20th Street. I remember his bringing me presents and buying me ice cream cones. Mom said that he was a wonderful man who treated Tata “like a queen” and was a good friend to Mom, especially through my parents’ divorce in 1957.
Stephen and Tata were deeply happy, but their joy did not last long. Stephen passed away in 1960. Not long after his passing, Mom decided that The Three Musketeers would move to Los Angeles, as described in my January 2010 blog post. I learned this sweet story about Tata and Stephen’s romance from Mom just a few months before she passed away. If I had not happened to ask her how they met, I would never have known.
Now, whenever I visit Manhattan, I go to Gramercy Park and look through the iron gates. I imagine Tata, petite and stylish with her shiny black hair, sitting on the bench with the handsome doorman – the baby buggy (and me!) at their side.
Tata had never been seriously ill a day in her life until she had a heart attack at what we thought was 100 (she was really 103). Until then, her medicine cabinet had no prescriptions. She did go to the eye doctor, but he did not warn us that she had cataracts. Her eyesight began to fail in her late nineties, but she did not admit it. Sadly, she became withdrawn when she could no longer enjoy her rambling walks about town, her romance novels, and the telenovelas.
Ultimately, however, we learned about the problem and she had cataract surgery as an outpatient when we believed she was 97 (she was really 100). Before going in for the procedure, the doctor asked her if she was frightened. “No,” she replied. “I want to see. Let’s go ahead.”
The day after the procedure, we took her back to the doctor. She was wearing an eye patch. Mom took her into the doctor’s office and I waited until they emerged after some fifteen minutes. Tata was smiling. Her face was incandescent.“She can see,” Mom exclaimed, “and she is all emotional about it. Look at her! She’s glowing like Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond.”
Tata glowed all the way home in the taxi. Like a child, she was pointing at things she saw on the street – trees, children, traffic, buildings. After she regained her sight, she would stand on the balcony for hours looking at the passers-by and enjoying the California sunshine. I will never forget her delight that Mother’s Day, when I gave her flowers and she could see them.
I expect I will never know why Tata lied about her age. Was it for romance – to please a man who wanted a younger woman, maybe? Was it to qualify for a job? I like to think she preferred to say she was born in 1900 to sound more modern – to be part of the new century.
Not long after Tata passed away, I was waiting at a bus stop in front of a diner where an old juke box was playing Frank Sinatra’s recording of Young at Heart, by Carolyn Leigh and Johnny Richards. It was among the greatest hits of 1953 – the year I was born and Tata met Stephen. As I listened to the lyrics, I could not help but think of my grandmother, her attitude toward life, and everything I learned from her.
Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart.
For it’s hard you will find to be narrow of mind, when you’re young at heart.
You can go to extremes with impossible schemes.
You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams.
And life gets more exciting with each passing day.
And love is either in your heart or on its way.
Don’t you know that it’s worth every treasure on earth to be young at heart?
For as rich as you are, it’s much better by far to be young at heart.
And if you should survive to 105, look at all you’ll derive out of being alive.And here is the best part: You have a head start, If you are among the very young at heart.