I adored my mother's mother—my grandmother Nana. She was very jolly and had a warm spirit. She was exactly what a grandmother should be—kind, loving and affectionate. Nana had a very sweet fox terrier named Snookie, whom I also adored. But I must be perfectly honest with you. Until recently, the name Snookie has always meant so much to me because it reminds me of my grandmother. Now unfortunately, I can barely say the name without conjuring up thoughts of the Jersey Shore. It just isn't right that such a precious memory has been tainted—make that tanned—by the association!
Nana was the first one up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night. She loved to laugh, play the piano for us, cook delicious meals and bake the best cakes, pies and even fresh bread! My most vivid memories of Nana revolve around music and food. My first exposure to the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin was when Nana played them on her piano. I adored spending time in the kitchen with her every day while she made the most wonderful treats. Nana never used a mixer. She beat all of her ingredients by hand. I remember sitting with her while she put the finishing touches on a delicious apple pie or sprinkled cinnamon on baked apples, which I loved to eat. She taught me what it meant to be a great cook—something my mother and I never really came around to being ourselves, but both now have a wonderful appreciation for. Her family came from Alsace, the same region of France as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of my favorite chefs in New York. Apparently, good food is second nature to people from Alsace. She made great stews, chicken and dumplings, and other hearty dishes infused with a French and German influence. She always started with the freshest of ingredients and only used the best of whatever she could find. Every day when I came home from school, there was always something fantastic and yummy waiting for me—which made me very, very happy. When we weren't spending time together in the kitchen, she patiently let me create many hairdos with her hair. I could set part of it in curls and part of it in rollers. Nana never cared how it turned out, as long as we were having fun together, which of course we were.
I was so lucky to grow up in a home where there was always music playing and the smell of some delicious homemade meal. Since Nana lived with us, my mother never had to cook, and that suited her just fine. My mother preferred to do the cleaning. In fact, she kept a spotless and very organized home, something she tried to teach me to do too.
I don't have a lot of memories of my Swedish grandfather because he divorced my grandmother when my mother was just 5 years old. My grandfather lived half the year in Sweden and the other half in St. Petersburg, Florida. Although I didn't see much of him growing up, I do recall that occasionally he'd write my mother letters asking how we were all doing. He didn't completely disappear from our lives, but we weren't close either. I don't know many of the details about why he left my grandmother other than that he went to Sweden on a vacation and never came back. He sent my grandmother a letter saying he no longer wanted to be married. Nana was a very proud woman. She refused to take any child support or alimony from him. Instead, she chose to play the piano, supporting herself and three children all on her own. She was a very good piano player. She started an orchestra and played piano in the local hotels in the Pocono Mountains near the small Swedish–German communities where they lived. She often accompanied the old silent movies that were shown in their local movie house as well. The Milford Opera House, which looks more like a quintessential Andrew Wyeth barn than a classic opera house, was a favorite spot for my grandmother to play her piano too. I have always been very proud of my grandmother for how she persevered and managed to take care of her children as a single mother. She was so ahead of her time. She chose to take her talent and do something with it rather than sit around and wallow in her sadness. Divorce wasn't common back in those days. I am sure it was a challenge for the whole family because there weren't a lot of single-women role models then for my grandmother to look up to or emulate. Hearing these stories as a young girl gave me the eyes to see and the ears to hear so that I could relate to all sorts of situations growing up. These weren't my experiences, but they were poignant and important to the person I would later become.