Beatrice, Your Love and Legacy Live On in Those You Loved

Saturday, May 9, 2020
This is the story of Beatrice Bullis Phillips, my maternal grandmother.  This story and tribute is written and shared today as a Mother's Day gift to her daughter, my mom.  I hope that in reliving these memories my mom will be reminded of the love her mother had for her and for the family who came after her.
Beatrice was born in 1911 to Mary and Stephen Bullis who were both immigrants of Austria.  She was the second oldest of seven children, two girls and five boys.  The family first lived in Mineville where my great grandfather was sponsored as an immigrant to work in the mines, later living in the Adirondacks in and around Chestertown, NY and Friends Lake.  Her life during and after the Depression was not an easy one. Circumstances left her a single mom and she lived with her two daughters, her mother, father and brothers in Mechanicville, NY, in a home with no indoor plumbing.  Although she met the love of her life in the early 1930's, she didn't marry him until 15 years later. Beatrice would now finally find love, joy and passion in her life, a passion that she would pass down the generations.
My grandmother was always an important part of my life, even before my first memories of her.
This is her on the left, looking on with my other grandmother, Irene, on the right.  I used to refer to her as "Grammy Bea".  Grammy Bea adored me, and I don't say that to boast, it's just the truth.  It may have been because I was her only grandchild, but there wasn't a moment when I didn't feel cherished by her.  In fact, the only time I saw her love anything more than me was when she met my firstborn.  
 I'm convinced my grandfather, Mike, was my grandmother's destiny and soulmate.  Like my husband, John, Gramps was a gentle and quiet soul.  I don't think I ever heard him raise his voice - ever - but when he was annoyed with Gram, he would say, 'B...e...a..trice' in an enunciated, stern, but calm voice.  Also like my husband, Gramps seemed to live to make his wife happy and he did so in a loving and humble way, always catering to her passions in life.  I call them passions because Gram was passionate about many, many things.  In fact, I don't think she felt mediocre or neutral about anything.  She loved life and everything it offered.  Gramps was at the top of her list.

Gram was a down-to-earth woman who wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty.  As a single mother she worked in factories and later at the G.E. plant, but she loved dresses.  She also loved a bargain.  My dad used to joke that if someone was giving away cow manure, she'd be first in line. While that may have been a slight exaggeration, when she died she had a lifetime supply of brand new house dresses  in her attic that she'd purchased from the discount dress outlet in Mechanicville, with the sales tags still attached to them.  In her defense, for most of her life, women only wore dresses.  It wasn't until the 70's that women began wearing pants.

Near the top of her favorite things was food - eating it and cooking it.  In fact I can't remember a food Gram didn't like.  Like all things in her life, Gram approached food with great enthusiasm.  Eating wasn't just a means to sustain life, it was an 'experience' that involved all of the senses.  This may have come from living through the Depression when money was short and food was anything but plentiful.  My mom has told me stories of Gram making Gramps abruptly stop the car so she could get out and harvest edible mushroom from the woods. Think about that - mushroom she could spot from a moving car.  I'm not sure if she had an enhanced sense of taste or smell, but something caused her to enjoy food more than anyone I know.  Maybe that's why I still recall the smell of toast and eggs cooking in her basement, or the taste of that toast dipped in her coffee.  Whatever the reason, Gram lit up when cooking, eating and especially when she was able to share that food with someone..... the more, the better.
  I think her passion for food rubbed off on me, but not so much her love of cooking.  She lived to feed the people she loved.  At the end of a holiday meal, the bowls and platters still nearly full, Gram would always exclaim, "nobody ate anything".  That was hardly the case.  The truth was that Gram cooked enough to feed 6 or 8 extra guests should they drop in.  Thanksgiving was never just a traditional turkey dinner. There was always also a ham, some pasta, two kinds of potatoes and vegetables.  Before dinner, we'd feast on roasted chestnuts hot out of the oven.  My grandfather, who had just come home from a morning of deer hunting, would shell the hot nuts for me and I always felt spoiled as I savored chestnut after warm chestnut. Naturally dessert was also a smorgasbord of delights.
Gram lived by the motto, if one was good, many are better.  That applied to dresses, house plants, gardens, and produce.  One of my favorite memories was taking Gram to Schoharie to the Carrot Barn and Shaul's in the fall where she'd (then already widowed) fill our trunk with heads of cabbage, tomatoes, squash - you name it, she bought it.  Always the enthusiasm and delight of a kid in a candy store!  
When Gram and Gramps married, they built a small Cape Cod home in Rotterdam with two bedrooms, one bath, a dining room, living room, and small kitchen.  Knowing what you now know about Gram's passion for cooking, it's not hard to believe that a tiny, standard kitchen wouldn't suffice.  So, Gram and Gramps converted their full basement into a make-shift kitchen/sitting room.  It had everything Gram needed to carry out her meal prep and hosting - a chest freezer, a long bank of countertops, a refrigerator, stove, a cold cellar and a big kitchen table with plenty of room to add an extra table for holidays.  Holidays might include 8-12 people and all were welcome, as we've already established that Gram cooked for an army.  
This is the 'sitting room' side of the basement.  The refrigerator was later moved and a television took its place.  Of course when that happened, Gramp's chair was rotated to face the t.v.  Gramps (r), my dad (m) relaxing after the feast. You can see from the photo below, with empty chairs and full serving dishes, that no one went home hungry. This efficient space was the heart of the home, a place where people gathered, everyday meals were taken and memories were made.  It wasn't until Gramps had died in 1977 that Gram eventually 'lived' upstairs.
Me & Gram
As I got older it became tradition that after Thanksgiving dinner, my folks would go home and I would stay at Gram and Gramps for a night or two.  I really enjoyed that and sometimes on Friday I'd spend the day with my Aunt Helen (mom's sister) and Uncle Ray.  Aunt Helen had a ceramic studio in her basement so I'd get to clean the greenware for her.  Once I even slept over at their house, which was just around the corner from Gram and Gramps.  That only happened once though because I was afraid to sleep upstairs alone in the spare room and ended up sleeping on a cot in the living room instead.  I wasn't the bravest kid.  When I stayed with Gram and Gramps, I slept with Gram in her room.  She always slept with a heating pad and she snored, but she always let me snuggle with her.  One time when I stayed over in the summer, I woke up in the middle of the night with a really bad ear ache. Unable to console me, Gram had to call my folks to come to Rotterdam to get me.  As a grandmother myself, I can imagine Gram must have felt terrible to not be able to comfort me, let alone have to drag my folks out of bed to drive from Cohoes to Rotterdam in the middle of the night.  

Gram was pretty diverse in her hobbies.  She and my grandfather owned a camp on Lake Champlain  and later had a trailer on the same campsite where we and my other grandparents spent summers on Saratoga Lake. Gram loved fishing.....which is evident in this photo where she's relaxing in a dress, winter coat and silk scarf as she ice fished on Lake Champlain.
 Fortunately she cast fashion aside and switched to a warmer snowmobile suit, which by the looks didn't hinder her ability 'catch' one bit.
Hampton Beach, NH

For several years, until we moved to the lake year round, we and both sets of grandparents had trailers at the lake.  Gram and Gramps' trailer was on the right, my other grandparents in the middle and ours the tiny one on the left.  Eventually the middle one became ours.  Growing up having the whole family together on weekends and summers was a special experience indeed.
Mom (l) and Gram (r)
 My Gram loved music.  She especially loved Englebert Humperdinck, Jerry Vale, Perry Como, Johnny Cash and even country western music.  In the early 1970's, she, my aunt and uncle and I had season's passes at the Colonie Coliseum and I'll never forget how she and my aunt swooned over the crooners we went to see.  Englebert really got their hearts racing.  I recently saw a him in concert on PBS and boy, the memories came rushing back and for a moment I felt I was reliving those times.

Gram also loved travelling and shared that passion with me and my mom many times over the years. My dad wasn't a traveler.  Saratoga Lake was all the paradise he needed so it was fortunate my grandparents generously showed me a world outside of my hometown. When I was eleven, my grandparents took me on a two week vacation to Florida.  Now this vacation isn't like Florida vacations of today.  My grandfather drove us in his Buick, without air conditioning....all... the... Florida! We didn't drive straight like some folks do. No, we took three, long, hot days to get there.  You can imagine how hot that trip was....Florida in July....without AC.  Our first night on the trip we stayed in Silver Springs, Maryland.  We called my folks to check in (using the motel phone).  I talked to my mom and dad and was doing great until my mom mentioned my pet beagle, Duke. Well, that set off the homesickness and subsequent waterworks, and for a few brief moments my grandparents thought they were going to have to drive me back to NY.  Luckily I made it through the night and woke up ready for a fresh start on our journey and my mom knew not to mention Duke on any subsequent calls.  One particularly vivid memory from that trip was a pit stop at a gas station along the way, somewhere close to Florida.  Gram and I went to the ladies' room. I used the toilet first.  While I washed my hands, Gram took her turn on the porcelain bowl.  As I turned off the water, there peering out at me from the overflow hole in the sink was a little head and two tiny eyes.  Surprised and scared, I hollered, 'there's a snake in the sink'.  Well my Gram leapt off the toilet, pulled herself together, grabbed my arm and exited the restroom in a hurry.  As we got outside, we noticed the blacktop was covered with little lizards.  Gram wasn't any fonder of lizards than she was of snakes so we quickly made our way back to the safety of our steaming, hot car.
We had a lovely trip as they showed me the beauty of Spanish moss hanging from the trees, Cypress Gardens, Sea World and so much more.  Disneyworld didn't open for another six years.  My gram loved the ocean but was terrified of the undertow.  I swear she held me with a death grip so I wouldn't drown.  In later years, Gram and Gramps also took mom and me to Hampton Beach a few times.  We always stayed at the Bluebird Motel.  One of the days, we'd drop Gramps off at the local marina so he could go deep sea fishing while Gram and I would shop or go to the beach.
When I was 20 my grandparents took me to Hawaii.  I'd never even been on a plane before so my first time flying would be a ten-hour flight.  Luckily I loved flying and naturally I loved Hawaii - Pearl Harbor, the pineapple fields, a luau, Don Ho, the volcanoes, coconut syrup on pancakes!  My grandmother had another passion in life - flowers - every flower, tree, shrub.  She never met a flower she didn't love and there was no such thing as 'enough' flowers or too many gardens.  You can imagine her excitement in tropical Hawaii with all the beautiful tropical plants everywhere.  Sometimes it was just too much excitement for a woman to endure.  On one of our island visits, we toured a huge greenhouse of tropical plants.  Gram ooh'd and aah'd as we walked up aisle after aisle of green beauties.  Gram was like a kid in a candy shop and could not resist pinching off small cuttings of some of the plants and stuffing them into her pockets.  Thankfully we made it through customs without incident.  My mom and I inherited the flower bug but unlike Gram, we are able to keep our passion legal. Here is an offspring from her own garden and a rose bush cutting, both that now reside in my garden:

 Gram and Gramps returned to Hawaii twice with my mom.  The second time Gramps was mugged in a restroom by a couple of active duty Marines.  It was after that trip that Gramps was diagnosed with leukemia.  He died in October of 1977 and never got to meet the man I married, a man so much like him, a man I know he would have adored.

 Gram lived another 12 years after Gramps died.  During those years and some years before that, Gram struggled with health issues related to her brain that required a few surgeries.  She eventually died of brain cancer in 1989.  Fortunately she lived long enough to enjoy being a great grandmother for nine years, something I know brought her great joy as well as great pain.  As a woman who expressed her love with food, it was especially hard on her when Katie was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 10 months of age.  I saw the heartbreak in her eyes every time she witnessed a finger stick or shot and she said, and I believed, that she'd take Katie's diabetes if she could.  It pained her so to have to refrain from feeding her like she enjoyed feeding those she loved and to see such a little girl have to endure daily finger sticks and shots.

One never forgets a grandmother, especially one who has been such a presence and role model.  Gram's life didn't begin without its hardships and heartaches but she didn't let that stop her from working hard to achieve happiness.  What I'll always remember is her smile, her unbridled enthusiasm and passion, the way she embraced adventure and her unharnessed expression of love, especially towards me and John whom she adored, and my girls.  When I get excited about a meal, or come home with a trunkful of flowers, when I listen to the roar of the ocean or want to squeeze the grandchildren, I'm reminded of how much I am like her and how lucky I am that she gave so much of herself.  She was an inspiration and her legacy will live on in me.  I can only strive to embrace life with as much fervor as she did.  Wishing you a Happy Mother's Day in heaven Gram!

In case you're wondering why I'm not writing about my mom today, it's because I already have. To read that story,  My Hero, My Bestie, My Role Model, My Mom

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