On Wednesday, January 29th, 1936, a snowstorm pounded the East Coast. While the blizzard raged on outside, inside a small apartment in New York City Elizabeth Cush gave birth to a healthy baby girl, her fifth living child. Her husband James, overcome with joy, wrapped his new baby girl in a blanket for warmth and ran to the door to bring her to the hospital to make sure she was safe. Not long after making it outside, he slipped on some ice and sent himself—and his precious newborn—flying through the cold air. He was fine, and so was the baby. For once, it was a good thing there was a whole lot of snow covering the ground.
That healthy, happy and chilly baby was my grandmother, Theresa Christine Cush.
Theresa lived on Christopher Street in New York City along with her mother and father and her siblings: her older sisters Dorothy and Muriel, her older brothers Raymond and James, and her little sister, Irene. In her early years Theresa enjoyed singing with her father while he played piano, sometimes she would even perform before local boxing matches. As an adolescent, growing up during WWII, she designed and created her own clothing, modeling her dresses at small fashion shows. In her early teenage years she dabbled in pinup-style modeling, her pictures appearing on the sides of buses. She wasn't just enjoying the frivolities of life, though, she spent much of her time taking care of her younger sister and eventually her young nieces and nephews.
On September 16, 1956, my grandmother married Joseph Rotante. In the next few years they had three children: two sons, my uncles Raymond and Frank, and a daughter, Lorraine—my mother. While my grandmother gave and received a lot of love from her family, times weren't always easy. Growing up in wartime also meant that money was tight, something she'd deal with for most of her life. This instilled a work ethic in my grandmother that permeated throughout generations, something her children and grandchildren inherited. Hard work was always a part of my grandmother's life. Whether it was raising children, her own and others, maintaining multiple jobs, cooking, cleaning, sewing, or going after teachers and clergy that she felt were disrespecting her children (those were some of my favorite stories to hear), Theresa gave her all in everything she did in order to provide a stable, happy life for herself and her children.
But money issues weren't the only problems, Theresa also dealt with her two grown sons both having renal failure. She acted as a constant source of support while they underwent their dialysis treatments. She always knew how to act as a pillar when times got tough, she could keep anyone calm with just a nice conversation. In fact, all of her kids spent many hours just sitting and talking with her. She always knew how to listen and just what to say at even the worst of times.
Then, one day, my grandma's last fear seemed to be coming to light: it looked as though her daughter, Lorraine, was also experiencing kidney failure. After a panicked rush to the hospital, my grandmother pacing the halls waiting for the bad news, something else entirely occurred: to my grandma's shock and delight, Lorraine wasn't sick at all. She was just going into labor. And so began one of my favorite stories of all time: the story of my birth.
I don't want to hijack this memorial of my grandmother's life by talking about myself, but it's hard for me to talk about my grandma without discussing the very unique and special bond I had with her. Relationships with grandparents are ones that should be cherished—but few people are as lucky to have as close of a relationship with theirs as I did. I lived with my mom and both of my grandparents for over 27 years. We managed to get by, living all together, in cramped, two-bedroom apartments. Some may shudder at the thought of tight quarters with family, but I embraced it. While my single mother worked hard to support me, my grandmother stayed home and taught me how to read and write as well as important life lessons. She made me laugh, she played Barbies with me, she helped me work on my penmanship, she colored with me, she comforted me when I'd be nervous or scared, and, most importantly, she always listened. And she never once spoke down to me. I wasn't just a little kid to her, I was someone she treated with respect and kindness, even when I was just a little kid with scraped up knees and tangled hair.
When I dealt with bouts of anxiety in middle school, grandma came in to work as a lunch mother so she'd always be close by. This started her new bond with nearly all of the children she'd watch over during recess. And she'd fight tooth and nail on my behalf when older kids started picking on me. I felt much safer whenever grandma was around. She'd explain world events to me so I wouldn't be frightened. She'd come up with funny ways to twist doomsday-type scenarios that played out on the news. And, while she was politically very conservative, I knew she was still extremely open-minded, and would especially drop anything for the people she cared for.
"I want you to know that you never have to be afraid to tell me anything. I'll never get angry with you or walk away from you. ...Just don't tell me if you kill someone. That's something I don't think I'd know how to handle."
Those words always resonated with me. She was someone I could tell anything to at any time and know she'd be understanding.
Unfortunately, my grandma also developed renal failure in her later years. Despite this, she rallied against it and underwent her dialysis treatments with ease, beating the odds against her. She'd often impress doctors and hospital staff with her ability to maintain her diet and always keep her body functioning well. She fought hard against illness time and time again, coming out victorious over bouts of congestive heart failure, a stroke, a staph infection and pneumonia. And, when tragedy struck once more with the passing of her son, my dear uncle Frank, she still fought hard in life.
But despite her fighting, illnesses impacted her in different ways, especially in her cognitive functions. In the last few years it was clear her memory wasn't what it used to be, no matter how much my mom and I tried to deny it. This lead to motor and communication problems that were hard to deal with. But she still fought, and she still loved to talk, and dance. Despite being 79 and being just a month out of the hospital from pneumonia, she danced the night away at my wedding party last June, a memory I will forever cherish.
My grandmother was only a few months past her 80th birthday when she died, after a long two months of in-and-out hospital stays. These were some of the hardest moments of mine, and my mother's, lives. But I've spent a lot of time dwelling on how difficult it was to see her in the hospital, still battling, but getting weaker and weaker. It's time now to focus on the good: the rich life I experienced because of her influence in it. The days and nights of talking, laughing and sharing some of my best moments with her. I'm not exaggerating when I say she was like a second mother to me. I've never met my dad, but with my grandma in my life I never felt like I was missing that component of our family. She gave me enough love to make up for it and then some.
Even as I re-read this, I realize I've left out so many of the memories I've shared with her, and all of the wonderful things she's done and said in her life. I'm by no means perfect. Far from it. Hell, I wouldn't even say I'm necessarily well-balanced or even completely sane in a lot of respects, but I know I'd be a mess if my grandmother didn't help me to understand myself, and what I meant to her, my mom and others in my life. Life feels a lot more lonely without her here, but my mother and I will fight on, just as grandma did. Because life's a battle, but sometimes the hardest fights come with the greatest rewards, even if you don't know what they are yet. And there's nothing that a little hard work, some big, belly-laughs and good conversation can't make right. (And a little dancing, too).
I love you, Grandma. And I miss you, I don't think I'll ever stop. <3