The other grandmother

It makes me sad not to know if I would have called her Grandmother or Granny or some other name.

It would not be Nana. That name was reserved for my mother's mother. I never got a chance to call my father's mother, Sophie Lillian Demsky Keene, anything; she died when I was less than a year old. 

Grandma Keene scan.jpeg


I have to use my imagination to fill in the gaps of my real life knowledge.

I can only guess that she might have liked to be called Babcia.

Through the years, Dad revealed tidbits about my other grandmother, his mother Sophie, here and there. When I was a little girl and I had drawn something my father particularly liked or mastered a new song on the piano, Dad would say "your grandmother would be so proud of you."

She was little more than an abstraction to me, but I liked my father thinking that way.

Sometimes I didn't ask my dad the questions I wanted to because the stories he had told me were obviously tinged with sadness. Dad expressed bafflement by some of the things he experienced, like when Sophie made him allow her to curl his straight hair for a church photo. He could never understand why someone would do that to a little boy, why she would embarrass him that way.

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Each time he brought up this time in his life, I gently reminded him that it was a long time ago. That Sophie, an immigrant from Poland, loved him and surely didn't do it to hurt him.

"You're probably right, Jen," he would say, but I didn't know if he meant it.

When my dad was still alive, I turned to Google, in an effort to try to spare him the hurt my prying questions might provoke. And now, years later, I have found even more info on Ancestry.

Thanks to the 1940 census, I now know that Dad's mother was just 17 years old when she bore her first child. I have tried and failed to imagine what that was like for her, particularly with a husband nine years her senior. While Polish like her, Joseph was born in the States and had a very un-Polish sounding name (alternately Keene, Keen and Kin), a mystery that I still haven't unraveled. I used to joke that we had an Ellis Island name, but I have since learned that was a myth

My father was Sophie's last child, born when his older brothers were thirteen and nine years old and his sister was eleven. He was unplanned. Dad's father was not around much during his childhood and I know that money was tight. 

But two things keep this story from being too sad to bear.

First, there is the fact that I had a wonderful dad. I imagine that Sophie had something to do with that.

Then there is this: Sophie was a painter. Somehow, some way, in a life that was sometimes cruel, Sophie became an artist. One proud enough of her work to sign every last painting with her name. Several hang in my childhood home, and two more in my Brooklyn apartment.

My grandmother found beauty, as well as the time and means to share it. I'm glad, Babcia. Thank you.

Photo Jan 21, 8 57 11 PM.jpg