As February turned into March in 1972, my grandmother lay dying in Pittston Hospital.
“She’s waiting for St. Patrick’s Day,” Aunt Dorothy said. And my mom and my uncles all agreed.
Turned out they were right. My grandmother, Esther Strubeck, died on St. Patrick’s Day. Our tears and heartaches aside, everyone deemed this perfect.
Perfect because she was of Irish descent and mighty proud of it? Well, partly. Perfect mostly, however, because this was also the day her husband had died.
Bill Strubeck, my grandfather, passed away on St. Patrick’s Day in 1936. His wife, my grandmother, joined him 36 years later to the very day. Which, whenever we think about it, is hard to believe.
The Great Depression was in full swing in 1936 and the passing of my grandfather, a coal miner, left my 38-year-old grandmother in dire straits. At 13, my mom was the eldest of six children. Still, according to every tale told of their childhood, my mom and her siblings grew up in a happy, joyous household. Even if they survived primarily on homemade bread and butter. She did have to wear the same skirt to school every day, and snow frequently blew right through the flimsy kitchen door on most winter nights.
What got them through, my mom always said, was certainly not the $100 “widow’s pension” my grandmother received once a month. It was her Catholic faith. My grandmother was so devoted to Jesus Christ, she accepted everything as “God’s will” and made the most of it.
Even while dying, when Aunt Dorothy asked her, “Mother, are you suffering?” her immediate response was, “Not half as much as Our Lord.”
My mom was quick to remind us of that if we dared to complain about anything.
Second in importance to my grandmother’s Catholicism, but not by much, was her Irish ancestry. Don’t let her Strubeck and our Ackerman surnames, both as German as they can get, fool you. Thanks to my grandmother, we grew up in an Irish household. Green ruled, and not just one day out of the year.
While my paternal grandparents, Grammy and Grampy Ackerman, were first generation German-Americans who said things like “telewision” and “Wenetian blinds,” at which we kids would laugh and draw a look from our dad, my mom’s mom was beyond proud of her family’s roots in the Emerald Isle.
She was the former Esther Moran. “Of County Mayo and County Sligo,” she’d announce if asked from where on the Ole Sod her ancestors hailed. We all learned to do the same.
Her father, James Moran, was a widower living in Pittston with three children in the late 1800s when he met and later married Sabina McGlone, a native of Ireland, who would later present him with baby Esther. We have no photos of our great-grandmother Sabina, but with my late grandmother, mother and Aunt Dorothy as evidence, we conclude she must have been beautiful.
My primary recollection of my grandmother is of her sitting in a rocking chair in her kitchen, singing Irish songs while holding her rosary.
When I was in college, she’d often clandestinely slip me a $20 bill, and that was when a 20 was a lot of money. She’d ask for precious little in return, perhaps a ride to confession on a Saturday afternoon. Most of the time, however, all she wanted was my company, my smile.
I also remember her washing my face.
That’s when I was little and “summer vacation” consisted of spending a few days at her house in Hughestown, about a mile-and-a-half from my own home. “Nanny,” as we called her, apparently took the adage “cleanliness is next to godliness” seriously because every morning, she’d stand me next to the kitchen sink, tell me to close my eyes, and go at me with a warm, soapy washcloth with all the gusto of a teenager waxing his first car.
When she finished, I’d dash in the bathroom, stand on a stool and look in the mirror, just to see if my nose was still in the same place.
I’ll be thinking about my grandmother Sunday afternoon when I wash my own face, much more gently to be sure, and tie on my green bow tie on my way to the Greater Pittston Friendly Sons of St. Patrick banquet. The day is named for St. Patrick, but in my Irish eyes, it belongs to her.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.