I’ve written over the years of people who have touched my life. I’m ashamed to admit I never wrote about my Irish grandmother, Bertha Toolan, or as we called her, ”Mother.” Don’t ask me why we called her “Mother,” but somehow it stuck.
She was right out of Carbondale, Pennsylvania, and like many people out of that coal cracking area, she was as sweet as could be, but had a constitution of a five-star general.
She was the picture of a typical Depression-era grandmother. Always neatly kept in a house dress, complete with a Kleenex tucked in her right sleeve in case she needed it. Having six children of her own, she had what seemed like a million grandkids. She’d often call me by the three different names of my other cousins before she’d finally landed on Tony. But somehow, she made us all feel loved.
She lived in a quaint apartment across the street from the now Civic Theatre in Allentown. No air conditioning, a fan humming in the living room window, unable to fully block out the excitement, noise, and lights of the bustling world below.
It was hot in that apartment, but I loved every minute of being there. It took a lot of begging, but my mom, having seven kids of her own, was probably happy to ship one out for the night. The minute I’d arrive inside that dated, but peaceful “grandmother world,” I would rush downstairs to the 19th St. Market. I loved entering that full-of-life market and basking in the alluring odors markets had back then.
It was a happy time. A couple of A-Treat sodas and Archie comics. For less than 25 cents I landed in grandma visit heaven.
I remember one time when “Mother” redirected me about something. I was in a 10-year-old “know it all mood,” and snapped back at her. She calmly replied, “if that’s the way you want to treat your grandmother, OK!” She made her point, and it worked because I still remember like it was yesterday. That’s 60 years of guilt. Not everyday guilt, but I did learn it’s not nice to be mean to your grandmother.
But the thing I love to remember the most are some of the comical words and sayings my grandmother would throw out. She was very close to an elderly Pennsylvania German neighbor of ours. Between the two of them, it was a whole different language and quite comical.
“You dare-cent” — This, in the old Pennsylvania Dutch world, meant something you shouldn’t do.
“Main’t”— Which really made me laugh, also meaning you were forbidden to do a certain thing.
“A large concern” — My grandmother would tell me that our neighbor works for a “large insurance concern.” That meant he worked for a big insurance company, but that term always made me smile.
“Well to do” — If she knew someone of prominence, she would often say that they were well to do, meaning they had money and they had some power within the community.
“Bums rush” — Meaning you had little time for someone and after a quick greeting moved them on.
Funny how each generation has its own colloquialisms. Words or phrases of its time. As a child of the ’60s, it was groovy, psychedelic, bummer or outta site man.
Today you hear words like cap, meaning a lie, or that’s dope, meaning it’s very good. Talking smack means negative talk about something.
I’ll always be both interested and entertained by words. Some of my favorites currently are usurp, pedantic or truculent. I love the occasional chance to throw them out.
Like words, we evolve into new worlds and cultural influences at certain times. Changing demographics drives language and customs. Notably, the baby boomers of the 1950s and ’60s.
If my grandmother could visit this new universe today, she wouldn’t know the terms. She would be shocked at cell phone technology or passing by electric cars.
But I’m almost certain, given the chance, she’d choose to go back to the world she knew. It was harder, far less technically advanced and people lived with much less. But it was calm and I would suggest a bit safer. Above all, people had a little more time on their hands to be able to connect, not by text, but face to face.
You see, it’s easier to spread some love when you have the idle time to connect in person. I finally get the math — her pace slow, her time abundant and her love immeasurable.
I’m so glad I lived it with her.
Tony Iannelli is president and CEO of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at [email protected].