Grandma always wore a silver brooch on either her red velvet cloche hat, a neck-wrapping green paisley scarf, or on a lapel of her Sunday best sober-colored dress. When the pin wasn’t in use, it adorned her hatpin cushion, always facing out, “because of its beauty,” she would say.
She said grandpa had brought it home from the war, always telling a different version of his war story, like the one time he said he got it on the cheap from some poor contessa who had lost her fortune during the war. There were many versions of how this silver brooch with all of its emeralds, rubies, diamonds and pearls had made its way into his possession, but the important part of the story was that he got it for his wife. It was the least he could do for being away so long and because he missed her and loved her so much. He didn’t know that the greatest gift he could bring home was himself.
Grandma never said which war grandpa had served in. Really, weren’t all wars the same? Soldiers fought, soldiers died. Some even returned home. But the sadness was always there no matter the individual outcome. And the world, as a whole, never truly recovered although it appeared, in time, to march forward at all costs.
Grandma never really had it easy. While grandpa was off somewhere fighting, she had to make ends meet. She had to feed her small family of one daughter and herself, and grandpa didn’t add much to the pot and so it was mostly up to grandma to do so. She worked as a switchboard operator in the days when fancy apartment buildings had such things and although she made a pittance of a salary, still the gifts at the holidays more than made up for it.
Christmas was always the best time of year, although other holidays brought forth various rewards for her excellent service. Everyone knew her by name and said she was the best switchboard operator they had ever known. She continued to work there, even when grandpa came home. Holiday gifts were mostly food because all of the tenants knew she could use it for her family. There were other kinds of gifts too. The green paisley scarf had been just one of those other kinds of gifts, along with the black kidskin gloves which turned out to be a nice finishing touch for her Sunday go-to-church mornings, rain or shine, or snow.
Also at the holidays, grandpa somehow always managed to bring home a turkey or a ham and all the fixings, or a big basket of fruit, cookies and cakes, and grandpa never said how he had procured these things and grandma never asked. Some things were just better not knowing. And then, one day, grandpa was gone. Then her daughter was all grown up and gone and had a daughter herself. They no longer lived at home with grandma.
At first, when grandpa left, grandma seemed to take it in stride. She always thought he would come back, but he didn’t right away. No one really knew why he left, but silently grandma thought it was because of the war and what he had seen and the fear of having to be responsible for anybody else but himself.
Her daughter and granddaughter lived in the next town and she would go often to visit them taking a bus, the fare being cheap in those days. Over the big bridge she would travel for at least forty minutes to visit them but what a grand thing it was once she arrived. Her daughter would prepare a feast. But there was a sad similarity between the two women as her daughter’s husband had left her too. He had found somebody else and sent money every month for his ex-wife and his daughter. And so, mother and daughter each got by and the granddaughter came to know no other life but that of having a mother and a grandmother.
Daughter and granddaughter also went to visit. They too took the bus and made the forty minute journey in reverse, going over the bridge in the opposite direction, watching all the buildings go by which all became markers letting them know just how far they were from grandma’s house. The only time they couldn’t visit was when there was too much snow. Then they would have to wait several days, even a week, for the snow to be cleared and the streets walkable.
When the granddaughter grew old enough, she was allowed to go to grandma’s house all by herself, taking great pride in boarding the bus all by herself, putting the loose change into the box and finding herself a comfortable seat right behind the exit door so she could get off as quickly as possible to finish the rest of her journey by foot. Going to grandma’s house was always a treat. Grandma always had goodies in her house. And somehow she had scraped enough money together to buy herself a television, although all she watched were the baseball games. But there was a great big toy store right across the street, Rapparport’s, and there was always a spare dollar available for her granddaughter to buy some treasure there and bring it upstairs in the walk up to show off to her grandmother. One time, it was a harmonica and she learned how to play it in no time, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.
Then there were the various special objects that she was only allowed to play with, with her grandmother’s permission. Especially the makeup. Of course, makeup in those days was only loose powder, rouge and lipstick to finish it off. There were also the many bottles of perfume, mostly gifts from her tenants, but her favorite was the Kentucky Blue Grass by Elizabeth Arden. The apartment always smelled of it and the granddaughter would sneak a spritz of it on the sly. And when she stayed over, she shared the fluffy wool mattress which had enough room for just the two of them.
One item was always sacred though and grandma would only let her touch it, although one time she had actually let her put it on her sweater. For a few minutes. It was the silver brooch.
It was so gorgeous that even her granddaughter was afraid she might harm it in some way, let a precious stone fall off, break the thin wire of the pin itself, but she came to love it just as much as her grandmother did and treated it as the treasure it was to both of them. When grandma visited, she would always give her one or two dollars and off the granddaughter would go to the downstairs Woolworth’s, the local five and dime store. Where would she go in that fabulous store? To the pin section, of course, to buy her own special pins which she would treasure forever as well. One time, she bought two special pins. One was a baby chick, with its body made of yellow fluff. The other was a little mouse with a black fluffy body. Sometimes, with only nine cents, she would treat herself to an ice cream sandwich with waffle sides or with ten cents a big bag of Spanish peanuts, their brown skins flying around everywhere in the bag and on her fingers and all over her clothes. But all in all, grandma’s silver brooch was the best pin she had ever seen and no dollar or two would ever be able to buy such a prize.
And one day, while grandma was visiting…grandpa showed up out of the blue.
Now grandpa had actually not left forever, but he and grandma no longer lived together. He only visited when he had some money and as always brought with him a feast. The first real time that she remembered meeting her grandfather was when he showed up at Thanksgiving at his daughter’s home. He looked like Santa, without the red white collared and white cuffed sleeves suit, but he was hauling two things with him: a Thanksgiving turkey with all the fixings and, unbelievably, a brand new record player still in its box for his granddaughter, along with a couple of records to test it out. That record player became her best friend and over the years she came to have a voluminous collection of 45’s and then 33-1/3 long playing records.
She was a singer, since she was in the crib, her mother would brag to everyone and sing she did every day with her bedroom door closed and at the top of her lungs. The record phase never truly went out of fashion, but then the radio came along with all the top hits and she would sing to them until her mother would yell to keep the noise down. She would still sing but softly to herself. That was all until American Bandstand came along and she learned to dance the latest dance crazes and considered herself always in vogue and taught her friends too who did not have television and didn’t know how to dance.
And grandma always wore her silver brooch every time she came over and always to church on Sundays, even when she was at her daughter’s house and went to mass around the corner. The brooch always looked the same, wonderful, fabulous and just out of reach to anyone else. She never took it off wherever it adorned her in some way unless she was going to bed in her own house. Then it went back into the red velvet hatpin cushion which stood maybe half an inch high on four little silver plated legs.
And then grandma didn’t come over anymore. The trips were only made to her house. But her granddaughter did get to stay over and grandma continued to dish out a dollar or two and her granddaughter still went across the street to buy herself her own treasure at the toy store. Sometimes, grandma would send her to grocery store to buy her grandmother’s favorite strawberry ice cream and they would both have it in fancy porcelain bowls grandma had bought when she was younger.
Everyone grew older and soon the granddaughter left home, having found a great job in the city. She found her own apartment and enjoyed living by herself, listening to music or watching television, going out with her friends and having a job of her own, just like her grandmother. Soon enough, Grandma didn’t get out of the apartment very much, just to go to the grocery store. Later on, she would have her groceries delivered from Gristede’s by a nice young boy. Grandma appreciated the value of such a service and always tipped the boy well.
One day, grandma fell and broke her hip. Her days of living alone were over. She went to live with her daughter. Her granddaughter couldn’t visit often, but she went as often as she could and there was grandma in her wheelchair still wearing her silver brooch. Her daughter wouldn’t dare try to make her take it off; that would have been a sacrilege and it seemed the very thing that kept grandma alive.
The day came when grandma left this earth.
Everyone gathered at her daughter’s house and her granddaughter knew there was only one memory of her grandmother she wanted: the silver brooch. And though she would never have dared to tell her grandmother, she knew it was really only silver plated with paste emeralds, rubies, diamonds and pearls of plastic, but to grandma it would always be her famous silver brooch.