Whether we were blessed to know them or not, we all have several grandparents. I was one of the lucky ones who was able to meet all four of mine. I’ve even had the opportunity to meet four of my great-grandparents. I read a few pieces on BIZCATALYST 360° lately that were based around mothers and family. And it gave me the idea of digging a little deeper into my own family. We all have stories. But once we pass, our stories only live on in the ones we loved and the ones who loved us. I felt an urge to write about my grandparents. I wanted to tell their story. I wanted to commemorate them. I wanted to put their story in words in the hope my children would read it one day.
I’m going to start with my Grandma Nori. She is my father’s mother. To learn more about her life, I interviewed a few of her family members and did some research on Ancestry.com. I also had my own memories to bring to the table. And one of my favorite memories of her life was at her wake. As I stood in the obligatory family line alongside her casket with my cousins by my side, we were joyful. As people came up to share their condolences, they also shared their favorite memories. They told us about her warm personality and her welcoming character. There were tons of people with similar memories. Of course, we were sad she was no longer with us, but she had been suffering in her final moments and we were glad she was in peace. We were also glad she left such a positive imprint on so many lives.
When looking at the exact location of her childhood home, I realized I’d regularly driven past that street on my way home from college.
On April 18th, 1933, Norma Harman was born in Newark, New Jersey, to Mary (Rozanski) Harman and Carl Harman. Her mother was born in New York of Polish descent. Her father was born in Wales and emigrated to the United States when he was nine. She was the third child in the family and the first female child. Her older brothers were Carl Jr. and Ronald. After Norma’s birth, she became a big sister to two more brothers: James and George. She was the only girl out of a group of five siblings. They lived in a rented home on Oliver Street in the Ironbound section of Newark. When looking at the exact location of her childhood home, I realized I’d regularly driven past that street on my way home from college. I wish I’d known back then. I’d likely have driven past the home and wondered about how her life looked back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. I imagined she went to Oliver Street Elementary School. And I can picture her walking to and from there each day with her big brothers watching out for her.
I can’t imagine her young life was easy or extravagant. Born in 1933, most of her early life was taking place at the end of the Great Depression. Her parents likely struggled during the ‘20s and the ‘30s, but they seemed to have figured out a way to feed, clothe, and educate their children. My grandmother was six years old when World War II broke out. Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, and Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3rd. A few weeks before Christmas the year my grandmother turned eight years old, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the U.S. officially entered the war. Much of her childhood was spent with the world in absolute turmoil and I – perhaps selfishly – wish I’d asked her about her perspective while she was still here.
She likely attended East Side High School in Newark from 1947 to 1950. During that time, her not-known-to-her-yet spouse, Theodore (Teddy) Fodero, was joining the U.S. Navy to help end World War II. When he came back stateside, they both attended a mixer. And, as they say, the rest was history. They were married by 1951 and their first child, a girl named Catherine, was born a year later when Norma (Nori) was 19 years old. Then came Joseph (my father), Kenneth, and Theodore. Like Nori, Catherine was the only girl among several siblings. Life in America in the ‘50s was historically known as a boom: a baby boom and an economic boom.
For the lifestyle Nori grew up in, it was finally a prosperous enough time for her to relax and enjoy the family life. And she most certainly did.
Nori and her adoring husband, Teddy, lived in Bloomfield, New Jersey, with their family of six. Nori was a known child magnet. She was very warm and welcoming, and children flocked to her. I loved learning about this fact as I, too, am a child magnet. I’ve been given the nickname, baby whisperer, and I affectionately imagine that trait being passed down from her. I was also told she was very adept at handicrafts. I can’t help but wonder how much she would’ve loved Pinterest if she were alive today. She was also athletic and loved to go ice-skating. She was very close to her parents. Her mom and dad would come over to babysit her four children regularly. And she was an avid Bingo player in her later years.
But one of her most memorable traits was her congeniality. At her wake, my cousins and I heard story after story of her open-door policy. She had a ton of friends and would always enjoy their spontaneously stopping by to say hello at any time of day. We heard stories about her famous cup of coffee. Her friends insisted coffee just tasted better at her house. I wonder if it was all the positive energy she put into each cup.
One thing I’ll always remember about my Grandma Nori was her cooking ability. Anything she made seemed elegant, let alone delicious. If she made boxed Jell-O for us, she’d pour it into crystal goblets. She’d serve it to us with a dollop of whipped cream and an extra-long spoon. It made us feel like royalty. If we were going to her house for lunch, she loved to prepare a cold-cut sandwich spread. She’d arrange each individual piece of cheese and meat onto a crystal platter. The rolls were always pre-sliced. And the mayonnaise and mustard were also taken out of their plastic containers and placed in crystal bowls with a tiny knife alongside. She really knew how to make you feel special. Cold-cut sandwiches just tasted better at her house.
In 2005, when I moved in with my then-boyfriend, I called her to ask her how she made three of my favorite things: chocolate and caramel Matzah crackers, pizzelles, and her soup dumplings, which she called Gigideels (ji·ja·deals). Although Grandma Nori wasn’t Italian, you’d never have known that from her cooking. She could cook many meals in the authentic way her mother-in-law taught her. And she passed that trait on by teaching her daughter and a daughter-in-law. To this day, I still pull out the green notepad paper to prepare her recipes. I’ve learned to master some, but looking at the paper fondly reminds me of our phone call. She was so happy to hear from me and honored to impart some of her culinary wisdom to me.
In 2009, life got a little rough for her and my grandfather. He had fallen a few times and was living with the late stages of Parkinson’s. To keep him safe, he was moved into a nursing home. For the first time in Grandma Nori’s life, she was living alone. After moving out of her family home, she had cohabitated with my grandfather for 58 years. She wasn’t fond of being alone as her gregarious nature would imply.
We’d enjoy our sandwiches and have conversations I’d never imagined.
In December of that year, I found out I had 12 vacation days that needed to be used or I’d lose them. I took all 12 days and managed to spend a lot of time with her. I’d call her in the morning and ask what kind of sandwich she wanted. I’d pick up the sandwiches at a local deli and drive the 45 minutes to her house. We’d enjoy our sandwiches and have conversations I’d never imagined. I don’t remember all that was said, but I do remember how I felt. I felt loved and wished I had done this more often. Then we’d take a ride over to the nursing home to visit her beloved. It was sad to see how they’d declined.. But it was wonderful to see the bond they had remained intact. I remember asking her how it felt to grow old, and she’d reply with, “It sure beats the alternative.” I still use that line to this day.
She died the following July after succumbing to complications from her emphysema. I remember seeing her in her last days and watching her struggle to breathe. I knew living like that did not beat the alternative. When she passed, I was glad to know she was no longer suffering.