Family Story: “Special Conversations”


This short story is a distillation of many memories I have of family get-togethers at holidays and throughout the year.  My maternal grandparents were not close to my paternal grandparents due to the friction between my parents as the years progressed.  Yet in that tug and pull that worked on me there was always a little oasis of calm wherever Grandma Josie’s sister Philomena was.  In her company I could even enjoy prolonged conversation with my paternal Grandmother Blanche.

Here I will share with you the bond I observed between Philomena  and my paternal Grandmother Blanche.

Relationship Notes

Philomena  was the sister of my maternal Grandmother Josie.  Technically she was my Great Aunt but because I was so close to my Mom I grew up calling her my Aunt.  There was no separation of the generations for me.

Blanche was my paternal Grandmother.

Family Story

Title:  Special Conversations

Summary:  Philomena was one of the few relatives who enjoyed long conversations with Blanche.

Place:  Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, NY 1950s to mid-1970s.

Grandma Blanche never backed down from a question and always had the confidence to stand firm on an issue.  One thing I always respected her for was her encouragement that I be consistent in my views and behavior.  Grandma Blanche said I was too easy-going and too eager to appease everyone, too quick to want to quell a conflict.  “Sometimes you have to stand ground,” she said firmly.  “You can’t always have peace between two people.  It’s not important if they like you or not.  They have to respect you.”  If I continued to make getting everyone to agree with me or with each other, she warned, I’d be here, there, everywhere and nowhere in terms of having any kind of a moral compass.

The relatives were polite to Blanche but kept their conversation to a minimum and of the most topical kind.  I’d watch my Aunts seek a retreat because once Blanche got started it was hard for her to stop.  The conversation could roll on and on and go back and forth between different time periods in her life .

At some point Grandma Blanche lapsed into the role of the Great Mom who knew everything and was going to make sure you learned about lessons her mother taught her or what she learned from experience.  Not everyone was always in the mood for a lesson, especially at holiday dinners.  There was never any offense taken but more a sense of wanting to be distracted by something else.  I’d watch whoever Grandma Blanche was seated next to offer to help wash the dishes or make the coffee.

The only person who sought Blanche out was Grandma Josie’s younger sister, Philomena.

Aunt Philomena was a quiet, modest woman of great faith.  She was especially devoted to the Blessed Mother and would share her experiences of prayer and divine intercession with whoever would ask her.  Aunt Philomena always said  she persevered through the many difficulties and challenges in her life only because she had a powerful advocate in the Blessed Mother.  Like Grandma Blanche, Aunt Philomena was also a teacher.  She just had a softer way but she was always insistent that God is in all things that happen to us.

Given Grandma Blanche’s belief that there were very definite forces for good and evil in the world I can now see how they would enjoy each other’s company.  I think that Grandma Blanche’s upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish home and Aunt Philomena’s great faith in God through devotional worship shaped them in different ways.  Yet they could look past the differences and find a common bond.   They both believed that in God there is mercy and justice, instruction and guidance.  Given how loquacious Grandma Blanche could be and how low key Aunt Philomena was they were an example of complementary forces in action.


EmilyAnn Frances May
Sunday, December 7, 2014




10 thoughts on “Family Story: “Special Conversations”

  1. I didn’t realize your father’s family was Orthodox. Was the religious difference the cause of friction between the two families? It’s interesting then that a connection to faith more generally brought Philomena and Blanche together.

    • Hi Amy. My father’s mother Blanche, left the Orthodox community. She eloped with my grandfather who was Sicilian with Spanish roots and the Catholic faith. Blanche’s niece told me her parents sat Shiva after that. They never spoke again according to some but I don’t think it was true. Blanche’s brother David came over to see her children. My Dad had great memories about David which became my memories and a key for locating the family once I began research.

      No, my Grandmother’s faith wasn’t the cause of friction between the families. My memoir will detail it. Basically my paternal Grandfather’s family was very possessive. They wanted to control the grandchildren and have them fulfill high ambitions to keep the family name “up there” so to speak in the estimation of other people. My paternal grandfather was very generous but overbearing. For example, all the grandchildren had to come with their parents for long Sunday lunches. I only got time to see my Mom’s parents after that. It would be late so we only stayed for 1/2 hour. My Dad’s parents had comments about everything including that my Mom’s best friends were her cousins. Little by little Mom saw less and less of her family. This was a big hurt for Sam and Josie. Philomena was very conservative in her beliefs and approach to life. I think this is why, on some level, she could relate very well with Blanche.

  2. Fascinating read EmilyAnn. I especially loved your last line, “Given how loquacious Grandma Blanche could be and how low key Aunt Philomena was they were an example of complementary forces in action.”

    • By being in their company I saw how gracious the art of conversation could be–something that still eludes me as I can get very restless when things get very deep.

    • I’m so glad you’re enjoying the family stories, Anita. We do our best to keep things simple so everyone will be able to learn something and think about the message.

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