Edith Berry, later Schimmel, age 18

Writing about cabbage, as I did recently in this post, brought back such vivid memories of one of my grandmothers I decided I would write them down.  She was an unusual and gifted woman, but one who was very set in her ways and, like most people when you scratch beneath the surface, a bit odd.

Baby Nana

Nana at about 8 years - love the hat!

She was born in 1880 or thereabouts, though I don’t know where.  Baltimore?  She graduated in 1901 from Barnard College with a degree in mathematics, and was offered a fellowship to continue her studies in Europe (Germany?).  Making a choice that was not uncommon for her time and place, she chose instead to marry my grandfather.  Selfishly I’m glad she did.

Nana in a sporting mood

Nana at the time of her marriage

Opinions vary on how glad she was however.  Some family members have described her as unfulfilled, depressed, angry… in short, a whole panoply of modern adjectives that may well have had no meaning for a woman who was newly minted as an optimistic bride in the early days of a new century.  What is certain is that she was married by 1902 and she and her husband had four children, three sons and a daughter; and that, other than teaching her grandchildren arithmetic, she never used her extraordinary mind as she might have.  Her husband became an invalid in early middle age and died in the 1940’s.  Why did she not use her gifts outside the close family circle?  Was it as simple as too few opportunities and too many children?  Were those insurmountable impediments for a woman in those days? Perhaps she was simply disappointed by her life as it unfolded; perhaps she was embarrassed by her appearance; perhaps she was simply melancholic by nature.

Nana, her brother or brother-in-law and 2 small children

By the time I came along she seemed ancient, though she was probably only in her early 70’s.  Nowadays she would be playing golf and hiking and being active in any number of ways.  In the middle of the last century grandmothers seemed a lot older than they do now.  She always wore either lace-up or strapped shoes with a stacked heel and heavy lisle cotton stockings.  Her dresses were uniformly somber in hue, with a rare summer frock exception, usually fastened with jet buttons, and came down to mid-calf at their shortest.  Her hair was long, thin and the same color ivory as the keys on our old piano.  She wore it pinned up with combs – what a treat it was to be able to brush out Nana’s hair.

Her most unusual physical characteristic, though, was her color.  She was purple.  Not a vivid, shouting purple, more a sort of week-old bruise purple.  Sometime in the course of her travails she had become addicted to Argyrol, a silver-based drug that was quite commonly prescribed, in inhalant or drop form, as an anti-microbial agent.  A prevalent side-effect was darkening of pigmentation.  In any event, with her strange coloration and beautiful ivory hair she was a singular looking person, albeit one who rarely went out and who would seldom agree to be photographed.

Nana looking particularly purple.

Family lore also decrees that she loved each grand-child in turn, to excess, until said child became old enough to be interested in the opposite sex.  Then she withdrew her affection, only to bestow it on the next available child.  It was my good fortune, I suppose, that she died before I made the great leap into adolescence, so she never became disenchanted with me, or I with her.  Twice a week I went to her apartment for dinner and TV (we didn’t have a TV, she left me hers when she died). Generally we watched Amos and Andy, a show we both found hilarious.

Amos and Andy and Kingfish

But before TV we ate dinner together in her poky little apartment: a kitchen with a worn linoleum floor, a living/dining room which contained both a small dining table and two chairs and the highly coveted TV.  Behind one of the living room doors was a mysterious bedroom, whence she would appear with her hairbrush on special evenings, and behind the other was her bathroom.  It was in the closet there that my parents found, after her death, every lovely gift they and others had given her in recent years – sweet bath salts and soaps, cool cotton sheets, soft welcoming nightgowns and bathrobes – all still in their original packaging.  A pity.

The menu was unvarying at Nana’s.  In fact, except for the Sunday dinners she ate at my parents’ house, she ate the same thing every night: hamburger, mashed potatoes and cabbage.  Her recipe for mashed potatoes is perfect for those of us who are on the lazy side, or lack basic kitchen equipment.  Peel some potatoes at about 1 p.m. and cut them into cubes.  Put them in a small pan with some water and put them on to simmer for the afternoon.  By dinner time they will have disolved into a potato mush, to which you can add, if you wish, some salt and butter.  About 3 p.m. cut up some cabbage and put it on to simmer.  When it’s done at 6, drain it and put some butter on it.  At 5:30 put two small hamburger patties in a frying pan and cook for 15 minutes on each side.  Food should be well-cooked.

I loved that meal; I adored Nana and I loved the whole Tuesday-Thursday routine – it was utterly predictable and varied not once in the several years that we followed it together, as far as I can remember.  In fact, mashed potatoes and hamburger together are still amongst my favorite foods, though as an adult I like to cook them for a considerably shorter time.

Nana died when I was about 12 and she was in her 80’s.  Ever after, when I walked down Hoxsey Street, the street where she lived, I would smell cabbage as I neared her house.  I think she cooked so much cabbage for such a long time down there that there will be little wafts of cabbage perfume at the foot of Hoxsey Street until the end of time.

Nana with two of her sons and a wee Farfalle

Nana with her other son and his wife, my mother and my three siblings

Nana with her East coast grandchildren, one son and two daughters-in-law

Thanks to John, Judy and Pidge for providing the few available photos.  As a curious aside, of interest only to family members probably, Argyrol was developed and marketed by Dr. Albert Barnes, who made a fortune from the drug and used his money to buy the art which became the famed Barnes Collection.  Yes!  The same Dr. Barnes whom mother used to pass on the sidewalk as she walked to school in Bryn Mawr.

8 thoughts on “Nana”

  1. John Robert Schimmel said:

    A wonderfully woven story. I remember vividly the swabbing of my throat with argyrol every time it got a little sore. Then as Army knowledge inserted itself, it became gargling with salt water and a bit of iodine.

  2. Elvis's "girl" said:

    The “two small children” are your cousins, Beth & Billy, as we knew them. The back of the photo states “Billy trying to swallow a whole ginger snap” . I loved the history lesson – you should do it for more of your anticedents! Or as David said “More please”!

  3. Thank you, Louise, for this brief but oh so poignant view into a small piece of your family history. I’ll have to try the hamburger, cabbage, and “mashed” potato dinner. It might be very good although I doubt I’ll adopt it exclusively and in perpetuity as your grandmother apparently did. More please?

    • Thanks, David. I don’t know if you ever met my Nana, probably not. And I don’t know as I’d recommend that particular meal. The penne with cabbage is MUCH better! Cheers.

  4. bagnidilucca said:

    This is a lovely story of your grandmother. My mother’s mother was also not known to be cheery. I always put it down to the fact that she had 8 children in the late 1920s and 1930s – most would have been brought up during the depression. My mother was the youngest. Unfortunaltely, my mother is following in those unhappy footsteps – perhaps it is their nature rather than circumstances. What a pity they couldn’t have had happier lives. I believe we have a choice.

    • I too believe we have a choice. I also believe it is a lot harder to be happy than sad. And I suspect that raising 8 children during the Depression would have been enough to make even a saint grumpy. I’m sorry your mom isn’t more cheerful, though.

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