Many thanks to participants and readers for a very compelling 31 days!
On the list of Granny Mansion’s most cherished appliances, a close runner up to Sophie’s 1970′s home perm hair bowl would be our old Maytag washing machine. Set up where a dishwasher might typically be in a kitchen, the washing machine is rigged to drain into Olga’s sink and is about as loud as a helicopter.
“Oyyyy she shakes,” as Sophie observes.
It once shook so much that it tipped over in a flood of water and suds, I’ve heard, so Olga’s taken up a habit of clutching the machine on both sides during the spin cycle with the intention of suppressing the vibration. When she does this, she naturally begins shaking as well, and seeing her wrinkly, flabby body jiggling to the tune of the spin cycle is something I will remember and love always.
Throughout the entire rest of the cycle, she sits about 3 feet away from the machine, watching it with very intense eyes, just waiting for her cue.
Olga’s also one of those old country folk who believe in more bleach always. Several times she’s decided to pour a little splash into my loads when I’m not looking, and as a result, I’ve ended up with a number of shirts having that splotchy tie-dyed look that I was going for in 7th grade. Pretty much all of her sheets, mumus, and underwear are paper thin and snow white from years of continual bleaching.
And though the washing machine has been well-used for decades, we’ve never had a dryer in the house. There hasn’t really been a need. The grannies are content to string up their undies on clotheslines out the back windows to wave in the wind like flags of old eastern European pride.
If houses had spirit animals like people have spirit animals, Granny Mansion’s would most definitely be the chicken.
For one, Sophie has always been obsessed with them. Aside from her row of roosters parading across the top of her fridge, she also has several other little ceramic statues, greeting cards, and magazine cut-outs of chickens decorating her apartment. She’s loved them as long as I can remember, for reasons I’ll never understand. When I was small, she always wanted to go over to my uncle’s to see his live hens and roosters, and to this day she still asks about their well-being.
Olga’s attachment to chicken is something more pragmatic– like her cauliflower ritual, she also has a chicken ritual when groceries are delivered. Before placing packages of drumsticks in the freezer, she insists on cutting them open and individually wrapping each leg in tin foil before freezing them. If I bring her groceries too late at night and she’s too tired, she won’t let me put the package in the freezer even then, but rather in the fridge so she can do her work on the drumsticks first thing in the morning.
She loves making chicken noodle soup, and chicken cutlets too. All the grannies really– Mrs Fruehauf often talks about cooking up schnitzels for her sons when they come over to visit, and Sophie’s been a long time proponent of Shake N’ Bake fried chicken. I even remember my great grandmother being way more enthusiastic about frying chicken than anyone else I’d ever known. In fact just this morning, Heidi told me she found a chicken cutlet hanging in a plastic bag for her at the bottom of the stairs. Just a friendly gesture from some unspecified granny.
And lastly in this discussion about poultry as our residential spirit animal, it’s also important to mention that the man who lived in apt 2R in the 90′s, before Heidi or I moved in, was evicted for raising live chickens in his tea cupboard.
I recently attended an earring-making night at a brand new sewing/jewelry/vintage shop that just opened in Ridgewood, a few blocks from Granny Mansion. It was a lovely event, a stitch n’ bitch of sorts, where I was able to meet other local crafters and chit chat about a range of topics from needle sizes to neighborhood history. Really it was one of the few times I’ve felt a community, a small town moment of solidarity, in New York City. I think this bonding came so naturally because I, along with the five or six other young, crafty women there, experienced the feeling of finally finding friendly spirited camaraderie on the desert island that is Ridgewood.
One of the most interesting bits of Ridgewood trivia that I learned from chatting with Moni, one of the owners of the sewing shop, is that the large corner building a few blocks further up on Woodward Avenue is where several designer brands like Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui are manufactured. The old brick building is very obviously a sweatshop– often when I walk past as the doors happen to be open I see industrial sewing machines and ceiling-high piles of textiles.
I was surprised and comforted to know, though, that the seamstresses working there, mostly from Central and South America who’ve not yet been able to receive legal immigration statuses, are earning about as much as a college graduate could ask– $14-18/hour. Moni learned this from speaking with the garment employees who’ve noticed her store pop up and stopped in to engage in the same sort of camaraderie surrounding sewing.
This was all very meta for me to discover, and very much brought the evening full circle. The reason being, that for about twenty years, Olga used to work in that same garment factory on Woodward Avenue.
She tells me many, many stories about how she genuinely enjoyed her job there, mainly because she felt comfortable in her work environment with other German-speaking immigrant women. In struggling with Alzheimer’s now, she often tells the same stories several times over– so I’ve heard her story of how she started at the “knitting mill” (as she knew it back then) first sewing on tags, and was then promoted to sewing on sleeves, at least a dozen times. My great grandmother worked there as well, and from what I can tell there was a very present solidarity among employees, not unlike the sisterhood I felt with new Ridgewood friends at the craft night.
Even now when she’s a few months away from being 90 years old, Olga still makes jokes about how she needs to go back to work at the knitting mill. And she’s several times offered to try calling up her old German boss to ask him if he can get me a job there.
Like many people who wonder what their cats are up to while they are away at work all day, I often wonder about what Olga’s up to all day at home. Once in a while I get panicked visions of her falling down, letting strangers into the house, getting robbed, or running out of adult diapers… but Olga’s not really the one who’s a cause for panic, as she is generally too half-awake for any kind of crisis. It’s Sophie who’s the flight risk since she’s still able to get around outside the house and even hop cabs to places outside the city.
More often than getting panicked visions, though, I sometimes just think about how Olga must be so bored in her apartment. I think about how every day is the same for her, and how it must feel to come to terms with never getting out anymore. But then I remember how great it must be to be able to hang around home all day, to have no obligations, to nap whenever you please.
Thankfully she’s got the company of Mrs Fruehauf and her sister Sophie (when they’re on good terms and not fighting), as well as her daytime home health aid. Olga’s also very entertained by listening to DJ banter on pop radio stations and watching the anchors on Fox News. She once asked me if one of the anchors, his name was Harry Fairweather maybe, was the President of the U.S. (She still has trouble understanding “Americanish,” as she says).
Anyway, the thing I take most comfort in when concerned about Olga’s boredom is her astute ability to find little ways to pass the time throughout the day. She has her jobs, like reminding me about the garbage, locking the doors at night, and sorting our mail, but she also has a number of other daily agenda items that she diligently completes.
Aside from changing the pictures in her photo frames, she also changes her outfits at least 5 or 6 times a day. She rearranges her china in her cupboard, she leafs through coupon fliers or a stack of German newspapers from 1982, and she sits by the window looking out at the sidewalk. On warm days, she asks her heath aid to drag a chair out to the front stoop and sits there with the door open. On cold days, she opens the door of her oven and turns it on to heat her kitchen. And about every hour, she snacks and boils water in her electric kettle to make a cup of instant coffee or tea.
She goes through like 100 bags of tea a week.
Before Sophie moved to Ridgewood, she spent about 30 years in upstate New York making a living by owning and operating a Dairy Queen. That was the family trade at the time– for many years, my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and even my mother and father had a monopoly on the Dairy Queens in the Hudson Valley area.
Throughout that time, Sophie did a fair amount of traveling between her house in Dutchess County and Olga’s apartment in Granny Mansion. She used to spend months split between the two places until about a decade ago, when she took up permanent residency in the Mansion as well. These days the 2.5-hour-long car ride prevents her from being able to visit upstate anymore, but she still believes she’s got some unfinished business up there. Despite what we tell her, she insists that she’s got a huge sum of money waiting for her in her old bank account.
So, three times, she’s tried to take a taxi from Ridgewood to the Rhinebeck Savings Bank to withdraw her money from the bank account that’s actually been closed for over ten years.
The first time, she strategically planned her trip for when I was out of town and unable to stop her. So she actually did make it up there and back in the cab—I have no idea what kind of hell she raised in the bank and honestly I’m surprised I didn’t get a call from the Rhinebeck police regarding a wild granny on the loose. When she did end up back in Ridgewood with no withdrawn savings, she paid the taxi driver the fee he asked– $600 cash.
The second time, about a month ago, Steve found Sophie on the front stoop waiting to be picked up by the cab she’d arranged to drive her upstate for another try at the bank. When I went downstairs to see what she was doing, she said that it was a nice day for a ride and that she needed her money. I asked her what price she’d arranged for the trip, and she said they gave her a good deal this time—only $400 for the roundtrip taxi. When I tried to talk her out of going, she got that manic laughter and those glossy eyes that come over her in moments of sheer mental frailty. Like the stubborn old German lady she is, she refused to give up on the trip and go back inside even when I had my dad on the phone trying to talk her down. When the cab driver finally arrived, Sophie eagerly hopped in while I tried to explain to the man, who seemed to only have a few words of English, that he couldn’t take my grandma on a $400 trip to a town 100 miles away because 1) she couldn’t sit in the car that long , and 2) the whole idea was f***ing crazy! After I paid him off $20 to cancel the trip, I had to literally pull Sophie out of the cab by her arms and legs, and then deal with her angry huff for the rest of the day.
The third time, a couple of weeks ago, as I was leaving for work I found her again outside on the stoop waiting nervously with her kerchief, sneakers, cane, and bank book in hand. I asked her what she was doing, and she, as a suspicious teenager lying to her parents, answered, “Nothing. I’m not doing anything.” With that, I stared blankly at her for a half-second, turned toward the subway station, and reached for my phone to call the cab company and tell them that they should definitely not ever pick up my senile grandmother for joyrides out of the city, thank you very much.