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Of Grannies and Gratitude



I just learned something new about September. As proclaimed by Jimmy Carter in 1978, on the first Sunday after Labor Day, we celebrate National Grandparents Day. It was the brainchild of Marian McQuade, a West Virginia housewife whose primary motivation, said she, was to champion the cause of elderly shut-ins. My guess is that Marian, being the mother of fifteen children, also wanted to butter up her parents so they’d take the kids more often for sleepovers.

Anyway, it got me thinking about my maternal grandmother, Jeannette Hoon Ahrens, for whom I will always be grateful. We had much in common besides the fact that Jeannette became my middle name—the same coloring (washed out), stature (not much), temperament (outspoken) and passion (for causes); we both liked limericks (off-color) and singing (sometimes off-color). But she was beautiful and much, much braver than I.

“Gammy” was born a preemie in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1880, daughter of John McCracken Hoon (a hard-nosed Confederate officer she hated) and Helen Sullivan Irwin (a talented musician she loved). Her mother would put the infant in a basket on top of the piano while she played and sang with gusto until the Mammy came in to say: “Miss Helen, don’t you hear that child crying? She’s hungry!” In spite of her size, Jeannette became famous for slugging it out with the schoolyard bullies—and winning. Once, to escape her father’s fury, she hid under a bed; reaching down to get her, he threw his back out and was laid up for days. Every time she’d pass by his room, he’d yell, “Get that girl out of my sight!” So when her mother died, he shipped her off to his sister in Chicago, where she waited on her aunt and cousins like Cinderella.

But it was there, at seventeen, that she also met Rudolph Paul Ahrens on the commuter train she rode to school. He was so handsome that—true story—she dropped her books and, ever the gentleman, he picked them up. A rising star in the banking business, he was the son of a Union officer and ten years her senior. Even so, they married within the year and eventually moved to Cleveland where they would have their one child.

Before Mother was born, Gammy wanted to study voice, but her young husband said it wasn’t a proper pursuit for a lady; so to fight boredom, she’d take in the occasional silent film. One afternoon a man sitting next to her put his hand on her thigh. She quietly reached up for her hatpin and drove it right through his leg. He ran screaming up the aisle where the ushers grabbed him and, unruffled, she stayed to see the end of the movie.

I treasured her advice: “If you ever see an exhibitionist,” she told me, “just stand up wherever you are and yell, ‘You dirty son of a bitch!’ then sit down and see what happens.” She had successfully pulled this off once and watched policemen on horseback chase a naked man over a hill in Central Park.

As her only granddaughter, I was close to Gammy. We had our first cigarette together locked in the bathroom I shared with my brothers—she, hiding from her husband; me, from my father. We laughed—and coughed—a lot.

This was a woman way ahead of her time. Gammy explained the facts of life to my mother at a very young age, now a family tradition. She was among the first to will her corneas to an eye bank. And she toughed out many a daunting health issue: a double mastectomy in her twenties followed by the lab report that her cancer wasn’t malignant after all; the miscarriage of twin boys when my mother was engaged to my father (Mother walked Gammy up and down Euclid Avenue so people would know which Ahrens girl was pregnant); and crippling arthritis from falling on her knees on the trolley tracks. She never complained when she had to move into a nursing home.

I’m delighted to say that Gammy was an early women’s liber. She loved to talk politics, got heated over issues and hated Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a DAR and proud American. Betty Zane, sister of my fifth great-grandfather Colonel Ebenezer Zane (1747-1812), saved the last battle of the Revolution by carrying gunpowder in her apron through Indian and British lines into Fort Henry. With similar spirit when Papa Rudy was made treasurer of the New York Central and they moved to Bronxville, my feisty little grandmother rounded up a Nazi spy ring in New York by eavesdropping on a maid she didn’t trust. For this she made national headlines.

Toward the end of her life, Jeannette Ahrens was as independent as ever. When Mother took my grandparents to Knollwood Cemetery to pick out their final resting place, they had a huge argument in the mausoleum. Gammy insisted on having her own drawer, and Papa was dumbstruck. “But Jeannette,” he reminded her, “you’ve been sharing my bed for sixty years!” He won that one.

Papa died first, but Gammy made it to our wedding in 1959.

What a woman! No wonder Jack loved to take her to lunch. And no wonder, when reading the news from Washington these days, I ask myself: “What would Gammy think?” I bet she’d be fighting mad.

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