When I was a kid growing up in West Long Branch, I had developed nicknames for my grandparents. My mom’s parents were Little Grandma and Little Grandpa, obviously because they were smaller in size than Big Grandma and Big Grandpa, my dad’s parents.
I was very fortunate not to lose my first grandparent (Mom’s dad) until I was 34 years old. I don’t think there are too many people who can make a claim like that nowadays. The good times we all used to have together at family gatherings. . .ah, memories!
But Big Grandma was an interesting character in her own right. She was born in 1912 in a town outside Catanzaro in Reggio Calabria, the oldest of four children. She immigrated with her parents and younger sister to America in 1918 (there would be two more siblings born here in Long Branch afterwards).
In 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression, my grandmother was 17 years old and needed to work to help the family out. She told me the story years later about how she went to one factory in Jersey City and told the foreman she had experience working the line when she in fact had none. She would walk over to the line and observe the other workers. Eventually, the foreman caught on and fired her. She’d then walk to the next factory, apply for a job, tell the foreman she had experience on the line, get hired, observe the workers, and then get fired again.
She would do this about five or six times until she had seen enough work at all the factories she got fired from to emulate what they were doing on the line. At the seventh factory, she caught on and worked the line, helping out her family during those bad economic times. She did what she had to do to find work.
Since Big Grandma was raised during the Depression, the bad times influenced the way she lived her life and handled money. Over the years, she and Big Grandpa saved EVERYTHING! They rarely spent anything on themselves, except if it was on something important. They had money in the bank all the time. When my dad started teaching at Red Bank Catholic High School in 1957, Big Grandma went to the bank, withdrew $3,000 and bought him a new car – in cash. The car salesman must have thought she was rich. But she wasn’t – just penny-wise.
In 1949, Big Grandma and Big Grandpa packed up the family and moved lock stock and barrel from Jersey City to Long Branch, purchasing a multi-family dwelling on Franklin Terrace, where they lived for thirty years.
In 1975, my grandparents went and finally splurged on themselves, making the bold move and buying a permanent mobile home in Florida to spend the winters. They became our family's first "snowbirds."
A few years later around 1979, the house on Franklin Terrace that Big Grandma and Big Grandpa lived in got seized by the city in order for the new Ocean Boulevard to be built. They didn’t get anywhere near what the house was worth, but right around the time that was all happening, Grauman Towers and Oceanpointe Towers, two senior citizen housing complexes, were being built along Ocean Boulevard.
While my grandmother probably wouldn’t have admitted it, the time spent in Oceanpointe Towers provided her and Big Grandpa with some of the happiest times in their lives. They made life-long friends and participated in many of the functions held there. She was a member of the Long Branch Senior Citizen Center for many years, too.
Big Grandma would set aside a weekend in September for my family and my uncle’s family to come over and help make sauce. Big Grandpa built a machine from scratch that would take the seeds out of the tomatoes after they sat on the stove for a few hours boiling, losing the outer skin in the process. Then the sauce was poured into the machine, where mason jars would catch the finished product.
My job was to put a leaf of basilica in each mason jar before the sauce got poured into it. Big Grandpa would give each family about 40 or 50 jars of the stuff, more than enough for an entire year.
Big Grandma passed away in 2005 at the age of 93. She lived a long and happy life, but what amazed me was that she lived her life during a time when the greatest advanced in modern technology took place. She had a telephone in her house, as well as a radio and TV, but she was also there when these items weren’t a household necessity. She was around when a man walked on the moon, along with other scientific accomplishments too numerous to mention that happened during her time here.
Big Grandma taught me the value of family and friends and passed that along to my dad, who reinforced those values in me while I was growing up. She lived a simple life, but that life provided me with some of the greatest of times in my own life, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful to her.
(You can also follow Kevin Cieri's blog on his Facebook page, "Jersey Shore Retro" as well as on Twitter @jsretro).