Writing my grandmother’s eulogy stands as one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it spoke well to who she was. As someone who grew up during the Depression and spent her whole adult life in New Jersey, she had this determined rawness to her that was tempered by an unconditional optimism and love for all of her grandchildren.
I’ll never forget the first time Mom-Mom shocked me. I must have been in my mid 20s. My mom and I were sitting in her living room in Burlington, N.J., when the conversation turned to how stubborn we Vichkos could be. I said, “Well, you should know, Mom-Mom, you’ve been a Vichko long enough!”
She looked at me, didn’t miss a beat, and deadpanned, “I’m only Polish by injection.”
Shock and awe aside, Mom-Mom was a rocking grandmother. I remember the little things, like the fact that she worked for the Burlington Township, N.J. cafeteria meant we always had the cool rectangle single-serving pizzas to eat at her house. (Cooked for 10 minutes at 425F so the cheese got just the right shade of lightly burnt.)
Or making blueberry muffins for dinner with her in the heavy, chipped dish. Back then I thought it was so much hard work. Now I realize that making Jiffy brand is pretty much just adding water.
I remember sitting on her back porch, listening to Phillies games on AM radio, Mom-Mom apply Noxema to my sunburned back. I’d lean forward on her ancient green hammock, straining to listen to Harry Kalas’ commentary but also – and perhaps more importantly – not wanting to sting my back by letting anything touch it.
There were the camping trips to Circle M, late night dips in the pool, swinging on the tire swing. On warm summer nights, we’d pick fresh New Jersey blueberries off the bush, drown them in milk, and add a pinch of sugar.
One of my favorite memories occurred right before her 90th birthday, in 2006. To celebrate this life-long Phillies Phan, I decided it would be fun to take her to a game. I called in a favor with Phillies announcer Dan Baker, who I’d worked with back in my producer days.
After the game, Dan gave Mom-Mom a crackerjack tour of Citizen’s Bank Park, including some hangtime in the dugout and the on deck circle. A week later, I visited the Phils’ website to get the address to send Dan a thank you note, and noticed a banner ad calling for Phillies Phan of the Year entries.
I nominated Mom-Mom … and she won.
The Phils and Southwest Airlines feted her at the ballpark and sent her to spring training in Clearwater, Fla. I’ll never forget those memories with her, my mom, and my friend Mary — as Phils fans, she and Mom-Mom became instant BFFs.
That December, we threw her a surprise 90th birthday party. It was so special to have everyone together: Aunt Kathy came in from New Mexico, family we hadn’t seen in years cleared their calendars to be there, and friends and church folks showed up. At the center of it all was Mom-Mom, smiling, crying, and surrounded by so much love.
On the TV show “Glee,” Rachel Berry commented on how it felt to be admired. That hit home. Grandparents, and grandmothers in particular, are quite good at giving a special kind of love to their grandchildren like nobody else. Mom-mom’s specialty was admiration. You know, the kind that just makes you glow from the inside out, making you feel important and valued.
She’d often say, “You’re my go-getter, Kara.”
The first time was when I was 7 years old. A neighborhood school was being named after my Aunt Bunny, so Mom-Mom sent me to take a picture of it. She framed that picture, and hung it in her den. (Little did I know that one shot would set in motion a passion for photography that led to my becoming a photojournalist.)
After moving to California, I called Mom-Mom often. Between coaching soccer and running around, we always found time to connect. As usual, she would tell me she was proud of me, though concerned that I was “burning the candle at both ends.”
We’d always end our conversations the same way, with her saying, “I’m so happy you called, it gives me a chance to tell you that I love you.”
I love you too, Mom-Mom.
Kara DeFrias leads brand and innovation experiences for the Intuit PR team. Her 2nd grade teacher wrote on her report card: “Kara likes to talk. A lot.” She’s still trying to figure out if there’s a connection between the two. (When she’s not searching for great blue cheese.) Twitter: @CaliforniaKara.