Listening to Grandma’s Stories About the ‘Olden Days’

My grandma, who I unabashedly refer to as “gramz,” is perhaps one of the best listeners I know. I call her a couple of times a week when in need of advice, a pick-me-up or a good laugh. Regardless of what she’s doing, she sets aside time for me and makes me feel as though my stories are worth telling. Because she is so receptive to hearing what I have to say, it’s easy for me to babble on and forget that she, too, has a story that deserves to be heard.

In timing with StoryCorp’s National Day of Listening on Friday, Nov. 28, I stopped talking and started listening. During a conversation about President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, my grandma recounted her experience at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third inauguration in 1941. She was 18 years old at the time and had just moved away from her home in Jamaica, Long Island, to work for the government in Washington, D.C.

She remembers standing on her tip-toes to catch a glimpse of FDR, a mass of people surrounding her.

“I couldn’t stand still, I was so excited,” she recalls. “Being taller, people kept asking me what was going on.”

At 5’9″, gramz always had a strong presence. Although she said she was nervous about moving away from her mother and living on her own in D.C., she embraced life’s challenges at the time. She put the majority of her effort, she said, into her job, which she obtained without having gone to college. After two years as a clerk typist in the Munitions Building, she was promoted to a job in the Pentagon working as a court reporter for the U.S. Department of Defense. After marrying my grandfather, my grandma left her job in D.C. and moved to Naples, Italy, where my grandpa was stationed as a provost marshal. My dad was later born in Naples on Nov. 27, 1954.

Someday, I want to write in-depth about my grandma. I still have a lot of questions I plan to ask her about her time in Italy, her childhood and her “taboo” relationship with my grandfather, who she wasn’t supposed to date. She often talks about how her mother would have “rolled in her grave” to know that her pale, red-haired Irish-Catholic daughter had fallen in love with a handsome, dark-skinned Italian who was 10 years her senior. Love, my grandma learned at a young age, can break the strongest of ethnic barriers.

My grandma is proof that senior citizens are walking storybooks who have amazing narratives to share from “years ago,” and even from the present day. Often, the challenge for us younger folk is just knowing when to keep quiet and listen.

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Poynter.org. Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at mjtenore@gmail.com.

One thought on “Listening to Grandma’s Stories About the ‘Olden Days’

  1. Hi Mallary,

    Thank you so much for posting about StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening! Support like this means so much to the organization, and your grandmother’s stories are such a powerful embodiment of the remarkable but often hidden personal histories this day was all about.

    After the overwhelming response to the National Day of Listening, we are hoping to pass on a new holiday idea: For everyone who did an interview surrounding the National Day of Listening (or are thinking about recording a loved one), making a copy of it and pairing it with a paperback copy of our book, “Listening is an Act of Love,” adds a meaningful touch to gift-giving, and gives that special someone even more incredible stories to read! The book as well as more DIY recording tips can be linked to at http://www.storycorps.net; we hope you will take a look!

    Thanks again and best wishes for the New Year,
    Amy
    StoryCorps

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