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In Memory of My Fascinating Grandmother

Scan10007.JPGMy grandmother Gaga died this weekend–on a Saturday, in fact, just like her husband my grandfather did 13 years ago, and her son my uncle did 2 years ago.  A literary touch, perfect for a larger-than-life woman.

What can any of us ever say to summarize a complex, meaningful, influential life–in her case, a breathtakingly long and full one that lasted just a month shy of 95 years?


If I had to summarize my grandmother in one word, it would be “fascinating.”  She never went skydiving or spelunking or anything else that would signify “fascinating” in the big boffo-socko sense, but to me her very being was fascinating.

Just look at her picture – the drape of her skirt, the sparkle in her eye, the ever-so-casual way she holds her sunglasses.  Isn’t this a woman who should be called “fascinating?”  All of our elders, who live in different times and places, should fascinate us, I think.  I feel like my Gaga was the fascinating-est of them all, but I hope you’re thinking of your fascinating relatives and how much impact they have on your life. 


10 fascinating things about my grandmother:

1.  She was the author of two published books in the 1960s. “Doctors to the Great,” was about what we can learn from the physicians of famous historical figures like Alexander the Great and Napoleon.  “Man with a Microscope” was a biography of Elie Metchnikoff, the inventor of–you guessed it–the microscope.

2.  She only gave up writing three years ago, at age 92, and at the time she was working on a historical novel set in George Washington’s Army during the Revolutionary War.  She gave the manuscript to me, and one day I hope to finish it.

3.  I don’t ever remember her baking cookies–she wasn’t that kind of grandmother–but I do remember her making osso bucco stew.  She wore a special hat when she made it, which she thereafter referred to as her “osso bucco hat.”


4.  Her fashion signature was blood-red lipstick.  She once told me she considered it her “red badge of courage,” a symbol of pride and defiance.  She saw my love of home-grown tomatoes–deep, red ones–as that same trait manifesting in me.

5.  During World War II, she worked in New York City for the Office of War Information.  She wrote articles about arts and culture at home and abroad, to be distributed as part of the OWI’s war news publications.  The juxtaposition of art and war always, well, fascinated me.

6.  She was the model of politeness and good manners, except when anyone gave her family a hard time.  I remember her having words with a woman at the condo complex she lived at in Delray Beach, Florida.  As the woman berated me for wearing my hair in braids instead of a bathing cap in the pool, I believe the words, “lay off her, you old bag” passed Gaga’s lips at one point.  I felt like a superhero had come to my rescue.


7.  She traveled to practically every country in the world, though her one regret is that she never visited the Taj Mahal in India.  She and my grandfather took me on my first trip to Europe when I was 10 years old. 

8.  How many kids can truthfully say this sentence: “I learned the story of Jesus from my Jewish grandmother.”  On our European trip, she and I sat on a bench outside St. Paul’s cathedral in London and she told me all about John the Baptist and the dancer Salome, the virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection.  It was such a rich story that I not only enjoyed all the paintings we were seeing all the more, I went on to major in religious studies in college.


9.  She used to take my long hair and make it into a mustache on my young face.  “You must pay the rent!” she’d snarl in her best Snidley Whiplash.  She’d take the hair away: “I won’t pay the rent!” she’d squeal in perfect Sarah Bernhardt pitch.  I still giggle thinking about the laughs we shared over that simple bit.

10.  If she had ever gone on Jeopardy, she totally would have won.

Did you have fascinating grandparents?  Stories welcome.  Meanwhile, R.I.P. to the one and only Gaga.

  • Lisa

    My grandmother rode a Harley back in the day that “ladies” didn’t ride motorcycles. But at her funeral in 1992, directly following my high school graduation, we girls wore black hats, diamonds, or pearls in reference to the very certain “lady” she was in our eyes.
    RIP Gaga. Say hi to Majorie for me. I’m sure you’ll be fast friends.

  • G.E. Ray

    I LOVE this article!! May your Gaga’s memory be eternal!! My yiayia was similar in some ways to your sweet Gaga! God Bless you and your family. Enjoy your precious memories. They are beautiful!

  • Janice Taylor, Our Lady of Weight Loss, Beliefnet blogger

    Dearest Holly,
    What a beautiful tribute to GaGa. A meaningful life, a beautiful woman, and without GaGa, you wouldn’t be here. The randomness and mystery of life. May she live on in you!
    Spread LOVE … not icing!

  • easterngirl

    This story goes to prove that one does not have to be a celebrity to have an impact on others and be an inspriration in their life and to others. She sounded like such a fun and strong lady. Cheers to her believing that Jesus has walked the earth already! Thats amazing and courgeous on her part. RIP Gaga, I never met you on this earth, but perhaps we will meet up above one fine day!

  • Your Name

    Hey Holly,
    I didn’t get too know my grandparents at all because they died before I was born. But I have a GaGa, my Aunt Mattie. She was a real lady and she just never took any stuff from anybody. She died on April 1st, which was very ironic in her case. My Aunt loved to play jokes and on April Fool’s Day I just knew she told the doctor to tell me she had passed away. I really thought that would have be a really cruel joke but, I would have gotten over it.
    She was disabled,so she required help everyday with a bath and getting dressed. She was so meticulous that you would have to wait for her to get all her jewelry on (6 rings,earrings,necklace,watch,bracelets ). I miss waiting for her.

  • Suzanne Baran

    Holly, this is such a touching and remarkable post. Your grandmother left a legacy that you carry on with your writing — by keeping hers alive in the present moment. Thank you for your words, for showing your heart — and hers.

  • Linda Austin

    Your grandmother really is amazing, especially for the times she lived in. I hope you write down more of her life as a permanent remembrance of her for your family. I wrote my mother’s story of life around WWII (in Japan) and actually published it because it was so interesting. It’s a valuable keepsake for the family, well worth my time and effort. So now I encourage everyone to write down their own family memories to save for current and future generations.

  • Stacy Small

    Hi Holly,
    Your tribute to your grandmother was very touching to me, especially
    since I also had a fascinating grandmother whom my brother and I called
    GaGa! Not a common grandma name!! Her spirit and zest for life lives
    on in you. My best to you.

  • Stephen Bartlett

    Hi Holly,
    Thank you for sharing. I will forever look at you differently as you enter the pool thinking of your Gaga. I was very lucky to have two amazing grandmothers. Neither quite like your Gaga but one looked amazing and had great humor and the other most amazing Italian cook and such an incredible love for her family.
    So glad to have you moving in next door as we can share in the stories as you have Italian dinner with us, almost as good as my grandmothers, and we share loving family stories…we are both so lucky to have such memories.

  • Your Name

    I was doing some research on the name “gaga” and came across Holly’s memory of her amazing grandmother. My granddaughter asked me when her daughter was born who is 2 years old what I wanted to be called and I told her “gaga” I used to work with an acquaintance who used to talk about her “gaga” Since then I’ve liked the named and have adopted it for my great granddaughter. I am looking for the origins of the name or at least what it means.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment joe

    your grandma had a rockin’ body. too bad about her face, but that is the curse of your people

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