The vision I hold of my grandmother, Jessie Polzin (nee Simon) (1924-2017)
Her laugh pierces through my tape recorder like a soft melody. “That’s my favourite laugh,” she says. “Everyone always knows my laugh.” Jessie had, until her final days, brought laughter to everyone she met. I remember her telling me that keeping a sense of humour while growing old was so important to her. Though times became hard as her aches and pains proved to be too much for her to handle, the memories of her laughing in my presence will forever be the greatest and the most telling of who she was as a person.
On a dreary March afternoon, I sat inside my Nanna’s apartment on the living room floor and pulled out a small, white tape recorder from my bag. “Can I interview you?’ I asked her. I had been wanting to sit down and record stories from her life for far too long. At 92 years old, accessing memories from as far back as childhood did pose as a struggle but nevertheless, she was more than willing.
I could tell that some details of her stories had been lost over the years but one thing was always very clear to me: my Nanna did it all. She was a light, a supernova, overflowing with spunk and as she put it, “I was a real sonovagun.” She’d tell me stories about climbing the telephone poles in her neighbourhood all the way up to the top or running around on the foundation of a house being built across the road from her childhood home. A favourite of mine is the day she lined up all the little kids in her neighbourhood and taught them how to march. She was, in my vision of her younger self, a natural born leader bursting with charisma. “I tried everything,” she exclaimed, and boy did she ever.
My Nanna was always a beautiful singer. A passion for the arts runs deeply throughout the Polzin side of my family. From what I’ve gathered, Jessie let her vocal talents sit under the radar for most of her life. She often tells a story of the time she and a friend had a chance to be on the Johnny Carson show and when asked to demonstrate their singing, she completely froze up. In church choir, her contralto voice soared above the others but when the nuns would walk past her and wonder where it was coming from, she would immediately clam up. She laughs, telling this one, and it always did surprise me. For someone who projected such an outgoing spirit in her daily life, she still held one of modesty when it came to her voice. That being said, there was one place where she never hesitated to let the sounds of her voice echo in an empty room. The fondest memory I have of my Nanna is our nightly routine during the years she would babysit me as a child. I can so clearly remember the softly lit bedroom, her back rubs soothing me to sleep and her voice carrying me into dreamland. More specifically, “Shine On, Harvest Moon” by Rosemary Clooney plays in my mind. Over the years, her voice became shaky and some lyrics were forgotten but it never failed to bring me peace. Thinking about it now, it still does.
Another memorable part of my grandmother was the beauty she spread to the world from the inside out. “During the war, I would stand at the theatre as Miss War Saving Stamps,” she told me. “Now, if I could only find that darn book.” I didn’t need to see proof of her wild youth to know that it was true. She knew that her captivating presence radiated throughout the years and was always referring to that time she had long, wavy hair and was “5’7”. She would shake her head when I told her that the beauty didn’t go anywhere with her old age. One moment of our conversation focused entirely on all the boys just dying to take her out in the 40’s. She had no interest in any of them until she met my grandpa, Eddie. An expert waltzer who “all the ladies wanted to dance with” and little did she know, would soon be the father of her six children.1941 on her brother Al’s bike
Her wedding day, approx. 1949
Jessie’s “do it all” attitude was certainly not compromised once she had children. As a mother, she cooked meals for all six of her kids, sewed their clothes and took care of the huge family garden. Today, her successful and passionate children are a true testament to her dedication as a mother. I can’t imagine how she was able to tackle it all but she always found a way. In turn, she became a fantastic grandmother. She was always up for a game of cards (her and I would play endless games of war), an evening watching the skating competitions with a bowl of popcorn or a trip to the dollarstore where I would pick out a few goodies. There are countless very specific things I remember that made my Nanna so special. The love that she showed for her grandchildren had no bounds.
Nanna and I, 1995
As the youngest grandchild, the baby of the family, I’ve always felt a really special connection with my Nanna. We shared a lot of similar interests and were both born in the sun sign of Pisces. Her love for travelling is how I felt the most in-tune with her over the last few years. Jessie travelled everywhere her heart took her. From trips across Europe to visits with her friend in California and adventures in Hawaii with her beloved bestie, Buzz, she saw the world with the same passion that I feel tingling in my heart before planning a new journey. She was always interested in where I was heading next and wanted to share if she had been there herself. “Keep travelling,” she would always tell me. I’d like to believe that this is where I get it from. Her passion to experience travel makes up so many of her memories and is truly one of the things that defines her in my mind.
During our interview, 2015
I have to say, that telling her favourite stories from the past was something she did quite often. We heard them time and time again and for her family, they quickly became old news. For Jessie, well, those were the stories that defined her life. When the days came to a close and she settled into her Lazy Boy chair with a napkin and some soda crackers and clicked on Young and the Restless (also fondly known as Young and the Stupid), those memories were the ones that rose to the surface. They made her smile and truly depicted her personality of a strong headed, spirited and driven woman whose love for her family was put before all else. She focused on forgiveness and the understanding of those around her. When asked if she had a piece of advice for her younger self, she told me this: “don’t take advice from anyone you don’t believe in. You have to have faith in what you’re doing, no matter what.”
A visit in 2014
Thank you for your sharing your stories, Nanna. They made us all laugh and more importantly, they made you laugh too. A sound that will not soon be forgotten.