“For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” – Psalm91
I didn’t much care for my Grandmother when she was alive. That sounds so blunt and hurtful, but it’s true. Here’s what contributed to my hasty judgment: my other grandmother, on my mom’s side, was so sweet and warm with her Betty Crocker-esque personality, that Florence simply got the short end of my-love-for-grandma-stick.
And it bears mentioning that Florence Cecilia Fermanich was a tough old woman. In what could be described as an Eleanor Roosevelt type characteristic, she fearlessly voiced opinions without pause and intimidated many with her steely gaze.
On one occasion, after visiting Grandma Swan, my mom said tearfully, “Your mother doesn’t like me, Gordon. I don’t know how I’ll ever measure up.” This proves you should never say anything in front of your kids, because forever after, I held a grudge.
Then there was the time I was nine-years old, Florence sat on our faded brocade couch while I gave an impromptu piano recital. She listened intently, with her right ear poised in my direction. When I finished she said, “Practice, practice, practice, Jennifer. That didn’t impress me in the least.” Sadly, I had practiced… for hours.
My grandmother was an attractive woman with light blue eyes and a beautiful smile. She was tall and slender with perfectly coifed silver hair. Her perfume smelled of gardenias. She wore dresses; and although she would have looked fittingly in a pair of Kate Hepburn-style trousers, I don’t ever recall her sporting a pair. I do remember that her reading glasses hung on a gold chain around her neck, hopelessly tangled with her ever-present rosary beads.
Late in life, Florence lived in a retirement community occupied by seniors age sixty-five plus. The tenants were all very friendly, but their advanced age made me uneasy. I dreaded the thought of being old. I held myself to a self-imposed life expectancy of one hundred years. Which meant at the tender age of ten, I had a brief ninety more to go… didn’t seem like nearly enough.
Most of the people living in Grandmother’s building were beyond ancient. Of course, it didn’t help that the hallways smelled of stale Pepto Bismol mixed with bleach. My stomach complained as I walked the corridors.
I remember being carted around to check on the occupant’s “status”. As a dedicated volunteer, grandmother walked the floors each night to confirm her co- resident’s vitality and health. You never knew when one may have fallen ill or, heaven forbid, died during the course of a Sunday afternoon. Florence knocked after six o’clock; we waited for a tedious amount of time. My nerves were shot when the tenants finally opened their door in response. Then, grandmother would introduce me in a strong, tactful voice, “Hello, Harvey. This is my Granddaughter Jennifer. Gordon’s youngest.”
“Oh, yes, of course – hello, young lady.”
If lucky, the old farts would offer me a brownie or a home baked cookie to take on the remainder of the rounds. The only part of the process I truly enjoyed.
Speaking of vitality, Florence became an aerobics instructor in the home’s fitness center. Yes, as an eighty-year old retired professor, Grandma Swan taught geriatric physical exercise. Two nights a week, she was sweatin’ with the oldies in the cement block basement; the same space that held bingo on Monday, Wednesdays and Friday nights. It was fun to watch all the blue hairs line up in their terry cloth jogging suits, jiggling and stretching. Even at my young age, I recognized grandmother in her glory. She bounced in front of the group, yelled out instructions in a commanding voice, and took charge of their wellness.
Florence wanted the best– from her family, her students and her friends – she expected the same from me. Back then, I hardly lived up to her expectations. She died when I was a boy-crazy fifteen year old with poor grades and an even worse attitude.
I wonder what she would think today now that I’ve written a book about the past, chronicling her life. Would I impress her in the least? Or would she say, “Jennifer, my dear, you need more practice.”