My mother’s mother, Gertrude Reger, was the eldest daughter in a large German American, Catholic family. She was born in 1906. Her father, Joseph Kramer, was a harsh dictator who was feared by his wife, Florentina, and his children. Each child had a job to do, and woe to the child who failed to do it perfectly. The first thing that Joseph did when he got home from work was to put on a white glove and run a finger over the surface of a coffee table, a picture frame, a window sill. If the glove picked up any dirt he would point at the child who was responsible for the slipshod job, and he or she would run to get a cleaning rag. Years later when Florentina was dying she suffered from frequent pangs of intense pain. Her grown children were attending her and saw that she wanted to cry out, but did not. When they asked her why she kept silent she gasped that she didn’t want to disturb their father. My great uncle Bernie told her to yell bloody hell if she felt like it. She finally overcame her fear of offending her husband and screamed and moaned when she felt the need.
Gertrude’s daily job as a child was to fill the lamps in the house with coal oil each morning before she went to school. She spilled some down the front of her dress one day, wiped up the mess as best she could and went to school without changing her clothes. She was afraid that if she did her father might find out that she had wasted fuel. She began to feel a burning sensation in her chest–coal oil is corrosive–and a nun noticed that she was grimacing with pain. She came over and smelled the oil on Gertrude’s dress and sent her home. She was terrified and went straight to her mother and confessed. Florentina put salve on her burns, washed out the dress and promised to never tell her husband about the spilled coal oil.
When Gertrude was 16 her father pulled her out of high school against her will. Joseph believed that education was wasted on women and that it was time for her to help support the family. Gertrude was more intelligent and performed better in school than many of her brothers who were allowed to complete high school. She deeply resented her treatment but obeyed when her father ordered her to become an apprentice seamstress. Gertrude worked full time from September to June, and handed over all of her wages. She was laid off during the summer when business was slow. Joseph made her sew underclothes for the family during the down time.
Gertrude dated many boys. Her work in the fashion industry exposed her to the latest trends and she began to dress like a flapper. She ran around with a guy who drove a motorcycle and came close to accepting a marriage proposal from him. He had the decency to take her home to meet his family before demanding a reply, and Gertrude discovered that half of his family appeared to be insane. She reluctantly ended their relationship.
She married Joseph Reger, an intelligent, sensitive man who came from a happier family. He was serious but knew how to have a good time. They lost half of their savings in the1929 crash, and my grandfather had great difficulty trying to find work. He borrowed money from one of his sisters and bought into a shade shop business that was struggling to stay afloat. His good sense and hard work helped to turn the company around, and my grandparents began to gradually get out of debt.
My mother, Marilyn, was born in 1934. Gertrude was not always a loving mother. Sometimes she punished her daughter severely and arbitrarily for minor offenses. Gertrude had hardened into a grudge holding woman who looked for bad intentions in the people around her. She thought that the world was a harsh place and that a wise person always prepared first for the worst outcomes. One of the sayings that she repeated to her children was, “If you’re laughing in the morning, you’ll be crying by noon.” On days when Gertrude was beset by one anxious agitation or another, Joseph would come home and discover that my mother had been sitting in a chair facing a corner for a couple hours, and when he found out the triviality of his daughter’s transgression he would sometimes exclaim, “Oh for God’s sake!”
Joseph Reger attempted to give my mother some love and attention, but often had to fight his wife’s opposition when he bought Marilyn a gift of a book or a record. Gertrude viewed an expenditure on any form of entertainment as a waste of money. She would say, “She’ll read that book once, and then she’ll be done with it!”
When my Uncle Bill was born something softened in Gertrude’s heart. She adored her little boy and treated him much better than she had my mother. Her peculiar attitude toward Marilyn continued, and it sometimes appeared that she held her daughter in contempt. As the two children grew up Gertrude did little to hide the fact that her son was her favorite child. Bill was more easily forgiven when he got in trouble and did poorly in school, and was given gifts and privileges that were denied to my mother. Marilyn reached adulthood feeling that she was a lesser person. She worshipped her father for his kind and gentle nature, and respected, feared and resented her mother.
Gertrude continued her habit of picking favorites when her grandchildren were born. My older sister, Carla, was the chosen one in our family. She was allowed to hug and kiss her grandmother, while my brother and I were frowned at if we made the attempt to come close to her. Carla was given advice and loving attention as she grew up and became a young adult, while Tony and I were tolerated for a short time if we dropped by for a visit.
I realized at an early age that Grandma was a tricky person to be around. She had a mean streak and was best avoided at certain, unpredictable times when she appeared to be in a bad tempered mood. She once tattooed the back of my calves with a yardstick when I didn’t exit her kitchen fast enough. She was cooking a meal and wanted me out of the way. When I was five she came over to see me while I was recovering from the chicken pox. I whined briefly about the scabs itching, and she looked me sternly in the eye and scolded, “If that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you, count yourself a lucky little boy.”
My worst moment with her came when I was about six. My parents dropped me off at my grandparents on Sunday mornings when I was too young to sit through Mass. I was mostly left alone to play in the back rooms and on the stairs leading to the half story above. Gertrude made Sunday dinner, and my Grandpa read the newspaper and smoked unfiltered Camels in his leather armchair in the living room. I remember looking through children’s books from the 1940s on a shelf in Grandma’s sewing room, and playing with a black metal, toy gun that looked like a Colt 45. It was heavy enough to feel real.
One Sunday my grandfather went out on an errand, and I was left alone with Grandma. She let me play by myself for a while, and then came and said that she had a surprise for me in the basement. I already knew that I was getting a hand me down bike from my second cousin Albert, and I was excited to see it for the first time. Grandma led me down to the basement, and there was a low black bike with a banana seat that was just the right size for a six year old. My grandma stood between me and the bike as if guarding it, and I asked if I could touch it and perhaps get on it to see how it felt. She told me, “No.” She could be very strict with me, but I blurted out a question without considering the consequences: “Why not?” Why make a point of showing me something I couldn’t really have yet? It didn’t make sense to me.
She glared in her most intimidating manner and said, “You may fool your grandpa and everyone else, but I know what kind of little boy you really are!” She seemed very certain of herself and absolutely believed her accusation that I was up to no good.
She was angry at me because she thought I was being insolent, but I could see a little hint of pleasure in her eyes as she told me off. She may have enjoyed denying me something I wanted badly. Or perhaps she enjoyed the confusion on my face as I tried to figure out if I was a devious child. I hadn’t been aware up to that point that people intentionally carried on campaigns of deception. And no one had ever questioned my basic goodness before. I was left wondering whether I knew my true nature, and that doubt persisted for years.
Her attitude toward my mother never really softened over the next fifteen years, even when she grew ill and my mother came every day to her nursing home. Marilyn faithfully helped her father tend to Gertrude’s needs. I replaced Mom one day when she went out of town on vacation, and listened in uncomfortable silence while my grandparents debated the course of her care. She wanted to go home and perhaps die there, but my grandfather held out the hope that she would recover if she kept receiving treatment at the home. I came up to the side of her bed and said a few inconsequential things after their debate ended, and she rolled away from me with a scornful look on her face and stared at the wall. I believe that she felt like she had lost control of her life, and that she exerted what power she had left by refusing to tolerate my company. My grandfather looked upset by her behavior, and I left soon after. It was a long walk to the elevator, and an attendant in the hall gave me a sympathetic nod when he saw the look on my face. I felt guilty that my visit had gone so badly and that I had provided little comfort to either of my grandparents. I never went back again.
Gertrude died from the after effects of a series of strokes at the age of 74. She appeared to my uncle and sister in dreams on a few occasions. They reported that she spoke to them in her familiar manner and had the same personality she had in life. They were comforted by her visits.
My mother has never told me about any communication from the great beyond from her mother. Grandma Reger hasn’t disturbed my slumber either, and I’m grateful for that. If she did I’d expect her to look me sternly in the eye and tell me that I might fool my friends, wife and children into thinking that I am a good man, but that I could never fool her. And I’d half believe that she would be right.