What especially endeared her to me was her total love for my mother, coupled with her complete disapproval. Unlike my father, my grandmother took my side in everything: about when I should learn to drive, about my curfew, about my dating. My grandmother had divorced my sodden grandfather years earlier and so had been officially excommunicated, rendering her far less enamored of altar boys and the Church than my mother. Mom held the divorce against my grandmother something fierce, more than Father Joe did. I thought we were going to have a modern day Inquisition when my grandmother went to communion at my cousin's wedding. Father Joe had given his blessing but my mother thought she was a higher authority on canon law. They didn't speak for nearly a year.
Every Thursday when the stores downtown stayed open until nine P.M., I met my grandmother for dinner at Reeves, an old-fashioned bakery with lemon meringue pies in the window. We went to Murphy's and Woodward & Lothrop, where my grandmother would study the latest advances in knitting, crocheting, and embroidery before spending the large sum of ten dollars.
Well into her seventies, she would come visit me and when I came home from the office, I would see that the light fixture on the back porch would be scraped, sanded, and painted with Rust-Oleum, the thicket of weeds behind the garage chopped down, wallpaper stripped — all done in a housedress with an apron. No matter how much climbing or stretching the job called for, she never wore pants.
After I left, I talked her into accepting my parents' pleas to come to Pennsylvania. I was afraid the police would soon just build bars around her whole block to contain the crime. She refused to live with my mother and bought her own place a few blocks away. She and my father fixed it up. They became the best of friends.
After what I think of as my year with my grandmother as opposed to my year with the Department of Labor, I wanted to do something worthwhile and went off (after a summer in Europe) to teach third grade in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The school system was so troubled I didn't need a teaching certificate and I was free to follow the syllabus of the nuns (phonics and multiplication tables) without being reproached for ignoring modern instructional methods.
One night in L.A. I went to a lecture at USC to hear Ralph Nader and was captivated. He fit my idea of making the world a fairer place, reining in the big guys who enlarged themselves at the expense of the little ones. I went up to him afterward, and he scribbled his phone number on a scrap of paper. I took a year to dial it, but when I did, Nader picked up the phone himself. He offered me $75 a week to work on auto safety. I've never toiled so hard for so little to so much purpose. I so admired Nader that I signed up for the LSATs and enrolled at George Washington University Law School. I would spend thousands on tuition and many hundreds of hours of boredom before I grasped that "Unsafe at Any Speed" wasn't a legal brief, it was a story about a company that cut corners on safety to make a buck. Although Nader had a law degree, he worked as a journalist.