It takes a village — and a grand-mom

My father had a pretty good relationship with his mother-in-law. He called her Fat Irene. And just so I am clear about this, he called her Fat Irene to her face.
Now Irene Nelson Zibelli was by no means obese. When I recall her in my mind or glimpse the snapshots of her that I have in Vermont, there is a woman with my mother’s moonstone blue eyes and impressively ridge-like cheekbones. Her eyeglasses are severe, tortoiseshell ovals that taper to points so sharp they look as if they could cut diamonds. She is shorter than my mother and, yes, a little heavier. By the time I knew Fat Irene, she was obviously a grandmother, but she still fought the good fight against dowdiness: She wore bathing suits with leopard print and zebra designs. She loved tooling around in my grandfather’s classic convertible Mustang.
I asked my father once how my grandmother wound up with the nickname, Fat Irene, and how he got away with calling her that. He roared with laughter and answered, “You know, I didn’t call her that all the time.” But he also wasn’t especially forthcoming about the derivation of the moniker.
Fat Irene lived near my family and so I saw her often when I was growing up. (Just for the record, I never called her Fat Irene.) As a boy, I witnessed her playing Christmas carols on the massive organ at the Macy’s department store in December; I saw her riding the waves in the Gulf of Mexico on her belly on a Styrofoam surfboard; and I saw her meticulously fashioning her Swedish meatballs in kitchens in Connecticut, New York and Florida. She took a lot of pride in her meatballs, and by the culinary standards of the Swedish side of my family — a bar that was never exceptionally high — they were first-rate. It would be a stretch to imply that she was a second mother to me. But she was certainly a wonderful presence in my childhood. The truth is, she is indeed one of the people I recall on Mother’s Day when I think of the women, in addition to my mother, who raised me.
She was stern, but not nearly as stern as one might have expected given those eyeglasses, and she had a wit that it took me until middle school to understand: She was wry and wise and may have appreciated irony above all else. Before Alzheimer’s had diminished her to a shell toward the end of her life, she had to have been the most caustic shuffleboard player in her circle of friends, pushing the discs with what I think now must have been cryptic resignation.
Oh, but how I loved to visit her after she had moved to Florida, and play shuffleboard with her or search with her for shells on the beach. I savored every moment that I had in the backseat of that Mustang that she and my grandfather had christened Tony the Pony — a nickname I always understood much better than I did “Fat Irene.”
My sense is that my daughter has a similar appreciation for her grandmother: Her mother’s mother. (She has no real memories of mine, since she was only 20 months old when my mother passed away.) I would never call my mother-in-law Fat Sondra, in part because she is tall and slender, and in part because she is slightly more rigid than a skyscraper girder. She makes the 18th-century court of Versailles look informal. But she has been a loving, integral part of my daughter’s childhood in much the same way that Fat Irene was a part of mine. Instead of shuffleboard, there is badminton. Instead of a classic Ford Mustang, there was a 1966 blue Catalina. And like Fat Irene, my mother-in-law isn’t nearly as stern as she might seem on the surface. Below that inflexible exterior, there is indeed a grandmotherly softness, a grandmotherly grace.
Happy Mother’s Day — to all the moms and the grand-moms out there.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 11, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “It takes a village — and a grand-mom

  1. neil says:

    My mom had two brothers, twins, eight years older. They called her Curly Shirley from Hurley. My brothers call me Mr. Sensitive. Now what do you suppose they meant by that, Tony the Pony?

  2. Jess says:

    The “cryptic resignation” image keeps pulling a smile out of me.
    I like what you wrote here a lot. You made me think of the women of my family involved in my early and later life who are gone now in that thoughtful, sad smile kinda way.

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