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

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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.