By Kevin McCue
It’s as if she never really left. I refer to a lofty “she,” to Gram, my maternal grandmother. Gram lived with our family of 13 – yes, 13, including my parents – for the last 20 years of her life from 1960 to 1980.
She was born Clara Kaiser on Jan. 30, 1877. An authentic Victorian age representative, available to paint a vivid picture of a bygone era.
She occupied the bedroom next to the kitchen and we took turns bringing her meals day after day and night after night. “Where’s my toast?” she would frequently ask. All meals had to include toast! I learned that early on.
Every night I would pop in to say good night to her. It was like visiting the queen; she was regal, polished, educated, funny and very wise. She was a great teacher and mentor all rolled into one.
“So what did you do today?” she would always ask. And I would tell her about my day at school. Gram was a superb listener as she peered at me with her wizened face and piercing blue eyes. The sheer number of years she had lived mesmerized me.
She taught me three great truths at a very young age:
1) Never ask a woman how old she is.
2) Never argue about politics or religion.
3) Never forget the brevity of time; every year goes by faster and faster.
She also reminded me that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
The social changes she witnessed in her lifetime were amazing, from steam trains and horse and carriage to motorcars. Gaslights became electrical lights. From telegraphs to telephones, phonographs, radio and television. The evolution of cinema from silent movies to talkies. From airplanes to jets to space travel and lunar landings.
I loved to hear about Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century. Her husband, Julien Riester, was a doctor. In those days, he traveled about Buffalo making house calls in horse and buggy, and in the winter, horse and sleigh. The horse’s name was Dan. And, in my mind’s eye, I imagined Dan pulling my grandfather’s carriage or sleigh, clip-clopping up and down Delaware Avenue.
She told me that my grandfather’s patients would take their written prescriptions to the apothecary where they would be shaped into a conical container and the appropriate powder dispensed. They used powders in those days, not pills, and certainly not gel caps!
Every year all of the relatives would gather to celebrate her birthday. I’ll never forget when she would blow out the birthday cake candles. She would gaze around at the crowd of people and say, “This is the last one – the last one.” A year later, it would be the same statement. And the year after that, and the year after that.
Gram was mentally as sharp as a tack and loved to read and paint and send letters. I still have some of the cards she sent on my birthday and Christmas. She had a special hallmark: On the flap of her envelopes, she had her own seal: R for Riester. She used gold-colored wax with the stamper.
Gram passed on at the age of 103 on Oct. 29, 1980. After 36 years, it’s like she never really left. I think of her often; every day it seems. And every year that goes by she becomes even smarter.
So this Jan. 30, on behalf of all of the McCues and Riesters, let me say: Happy “140th” birthday, Gram!
I still think of you every time I have toast.