This picture of my grandmother, Zosia Eaton, was taken in New York when she couldn’t have been more than twenty. She had yet to meet my grandfather or to officially change her name to Sandra, which she chose because it sounded more American. She detested anything that betrayed her Polish roots, and was ceaselessly teased as a child over her given name.
I knew her far too briefly, and was just a young child when she died on January 28 more than 25 years ago at the age of sixty.
Although she was already in her 50s when I knew her, she had retained her striking beauty and old-school Hollywood glamour. The same glamour that had heads turning and party guests whispering anytime she ventured out in New York with my grandfather: “Which movies? Is she? Really?” As a child I was filled with pride and bemusement at the thought of my Nana being mistaken for a film star.
She had worked at New York Newsday for awhile, and had a talent for writing and painting. She also loved traveling, and often felt confined by my homebody grandfather who didn’t share her passion. Even now, all these years later, I think of her anytime I first set foot in a new country or city that she never made it to.
By the time I knew her, she had relocated to North Carolina to a house in the country. My sister and I spent part of our summers there, sometimes wandering around the expansive property or hiking into the mountains to pick blackberries.
A devoted grandmother, she filled my days with excursions: trips to the lake, shopping in town, pink nail polish, pilfered lollipops from the pantry. Always the fashion plate, she rarely ventured out without lipstick, perfectly coiffed waves, and a silk scarf carefully knotted at the neck.
I miss her kindness, her sense of humor, her laugh. I miss her fun-loving nature that had us dancing around her living room to Bach in a twirl of silky skirts and dramatic, ballerina-like gestures.
Mostly I miss not having had the opportunity to know her as an adult. There are so many questions I have that never would have occurred to me then. I would love to know about New York in the ’40s, what her favorite Newsday assignment had been, what kind of life she had envisioned for herself when she was a girl, the country she most regretted not seeing. Was she happy in North Carolina, or did she yearn for the energy and possibility back in New York?
For now, I only have photos and scraps of family history to fill in the blanks. And these often leave me with more questions than answers. For instance, I have no idea who took the photo of her on the steps of her home all those years ago. Likewise, the identity of the photographer who snapped the shot of her boating off the coast of Long Island is also a mystery.
What was she thinking in this picture? Of an upcoming party? A dinner she had to ready herself for that night? Of how madly in love she was with my grandfather and with New York and with those summer afternoons spent exploring the Long Island coastline?
Or maybe she wasn’t thinking of anything at all, just immersing herself in the sun and salt-tempered air that accompany a long day on the sea. I wonder also about what the photographer was unable to capture: A striped beach umbrella just outside the frame, the mainsail of a nearby boat, a line from a collection of Polish poetry at the tip of her tongue, a fleeting thought of other, distant shores that she would never reach.