This is the speech I gave at my grandmother’s 100th birthday party. At one point, she interrupted to say “I’m not a saint, you know”, but I guess everyone makes mistakes occasionally. Throughout her years, my grandmother – Memere – has indeed been referred to as a “living saint” more than once without an ounce of sarcasm involved. At 100, she’s still going pretty strong, and I was honored to say some words and share memories of her. Though I do mention food a few times during this post, it’s a total diversion from the food writing I normally share here on BDN Blogs, but I can’t think of anything or anyone I’d like to have you read about more. I hope this conveys what she means to everyone who knows her.
Today we’re here to celebrate Memere’s 100th birthday. It’s a little known secret that she’s actually only 99 until tomorrow, but I suppose that at 99 years old we can spot her an extra day so she can celebrate today. I mean she’s given us so much and hardly ever asks for anything, so it’s really the least we can do. If you want to get a sense of just how much she’s given all of you and the world, let me remind you that without her, many of us wouldn’t be here…on this earth. Picture it like a movie where you go back in time to look at the future without her and this room suddenly becomes much emptier today.
In honor of Memere’s big day, I’ve got a few things I’d like to look back upon. It’s probably been a long hundred years for her, but I’ll do my best to keep the memories much shorter than that by focusing on just a few that were important to me as her eldest grandchild.
1. She partied hard
Everyone here thinks they know the first thing I’m going to mention about Memere, and you’re all absolutely right. The first thing on everyone’s mind right now is how hard she partied. Most of you know that I was a member of a fraternity in college and because of that I’ve seen a few things, but no one – and I mean no one – partied as hard as Memere back in the day. Why was the partying always so hard? Because she did all the damn work. Partying is hard when you’re responsible for inviting the guests, cleaning the house, putting up the decorations, buying the food, cooking the food, greeting the guests, setting the tables, serving the food, putting away the leftovers, washing the dishes, and everything else involved with having a family get together. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, that’s what Memere did for the better part of the first half of my life and presumably before that too. She hosted parties. And it was hard.
But Memere never complained. She wanted the family to get together. She wanted us to enjoy family time and she wanted to take care of us and make sure we were all happy. Of course, we were. We all got to fill ourselves with her food including the world’s best stuffing. Oh, that stuffing! She wouldn’t sit down to eat until almost everyone was done, too busy serving to relax before that. All the rest of us had the easy jobs – come in, maybe bring a blueberry pie or can of mixed nuts, and then socialize, eat, and exchange gifts. When Memere hosted, everything was easy for everyone…everyone else. The part she didn’t tell you is that the party was hard for her.
Now that’s not to say that Memere didn’t get any help at all. Her children were happy to mash the potatoes, put the food on the table, help clean up – that type of thing. But Memere would make it seem just a little bit like you were irritating her if you tried to help. “Sit down” was a common suggestion. Or maybe “there’s too many helping.” It really never seemed like she was dying for anybody to assist her in any way. But that’s who she is. She asks for help only when she can’t possibly complete the task herself. Otherwise, she’ll gladly do it on her own. But make no mistake – for her the partying was hard. And she did it for you.
2. Overnights with grandchildren
The next thing I want to discuss are the overnights we as grandchildren occasionally had at Memere’s. Overnights at Memere’s were our own, secret Disney World. There were no parents to tell us what time to go to bed, what to watch on tv, or what to eat. We played games, ate snacks, and immersed ourselves in what felt like true lawlessness. The absence of parents and any strict rules as a kid is pretty exciting and there was never any shortage of excitement when we stayed at Memere’s, even if it was a calm excitement.
One thing I remember in particular about those sleepovers was that she often had Drake’s Ring Dings and we could have some. Mmmm….the round devil’s food cake with vanilla creme inside, encased in chocolate. Remember those? They were so good! But that’s what made Memere’s so fun. Drake’s cakes, staying up until 11 or so, getting up when we wanted, playing Yatzee, and not having parents around to tell us what to do. It was magical. And I know I wasn’t the only one to experience that joy. I’ve got a lot of cousins that I’m sure understand what I’m talking about.
Just like the holidays, I’m certain she loved having the grandchildren over, but I’ve got to figure it wasn’t easy. We had a lot of energy. We wanted to do stuff – whatever that may have been. She had to feed us and make sure we acted like humans to some extent. I suspect she didn’t necessarily watch the same TV shows when we were there. I know Memere had an affinity for TV programming which might not have been suitable for children…or adults. I’m kidding, of course. But those nights were some of the highlights of my childhood and I do remember them fondly.
3. Her character
The holiday parties and overnights pale in comparison to the import of my third topic of discussion. I don’t generally like to judge people, but since it’s Memere’s 100th birthday, I’m going to reserve some time right now to get a little judgy about her. When I look at Memere in regards to her character – that oft indescribable moral and mental fabric that makes someone who they are, I see qualities both admirable and exemplary. Memere doesn’t just have that meter that makes people know how to do the right thing, she has lived a life that people can use as examples of how they should live their own. Strong-willed but mild mannered, fair and kind, always there for others – she’s the type of person that makes the people around her better, intentionally or not.
Memere raised five little nuggets who turned out to be thoughtful, caring, generous, tolerant adults. I look at my own mother who is all of those things and especially tolerant. I should know, because I’ve been testing that tolerance for over forty years. I can only imagine, knowing who Memere is, how she treated her children. As a child herself, she grew up poor and had to help with the raising of her siblings. With her own children to parent and Pepere working to support them all, I’m sure there wasn’t a lot of money to go around and yet, I’ve never heard any stories of want from my mother or aunts and uncles. Although one time I think my mom might have complained that Memere wouldn’t buy her an iPhone, but I’m not sure if I’m remembering that correctly.
Nonetheless, Memere raised her children well. That is obvious as all her children live her values of kindness and compassion. She probably didn’t read any parenting books to figure out how to do it. I doubt she took a class. And like the family gatherings she set up and the overnights with her snotty grandchildren, it was probably pretty difficult at times. Yet, she did it, and by any measure you look at, she was successful in a way that few are. Rarely have her children gotten into trouble, except maybe from her for “doing too much”. They live their lives in a way which is admirable – in the way Memere certainly typified. That isn’t lost on me. When I see Memere, those memories I have of her giving of herself make me want to be better. They make me want to be more generous. They make me want to live a life that looks more like hers.
Those are some of the major impacts Memere has had on my life. Our family gatherings bring back great memories as do the overnight stays. Those always showed me her passion for making people happy. But the way she lived as a whole, the way she raised her children, which obviously had a huge impact on my life, sort of packages everything in a way that makes it easy to see the influence she’s had on so many. In wrapping up, I’ll leave you with this before I finish talking about Memere like she isn’t in the room…
When my wife and I got married a few years ago, Memere couldn’t make it to the celebration we had, so we decided to visit her here and spend some time with her. We had some great conversation over the course of an hour or two where Memere gave us some insight into her life. She touched on moments growing up, with Pepere, raising kids, and other life events. It was really fascinating to hear her go back in time like that. As we were leaving, we hugged and said our goodbyes. I remember the last words she said to us that day. “Have a nice life.” That struck me as interesting, because where I’m from – the mean streets of Lewiston, Maine – “have a nice life” means something completely different. It means “I don’t ever want to see you again”; but I’m fairly certain she didn’t mean it that way. That “have a nice life” was genuine. She wanted us to have a nice marriage – and life – together. In that same vein, I want you to have a nice life, Memere. I know it’s not always easy, but I hope that every day you’re able to find just a tiny piece of the type of joy you’ve spent a century bringing to everyone else around you. And one last thing. Your stuffing really is incredible. Happy birthday.
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