MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Every family has its own mythology—stories we tell again and again, until it’s difficult to distinguish the colorful characters in our heads from the real people we know and love. These stories are true, or at least, they feel true. But they don’t just record our history—they also illuminate the forces that shaped us and the values that continue to define us.
In my family, our legend was the marriage of my parents, Donald Jacobs and Bonny Jean Godfrey—two young star-crossed lovers, up against the world. And while not every tale needs a villain, every protagonist needs an antagonist—an obstacle to overcome. Fair or not, the legend of our family wouldn’t be complete without its adversary: my grandmother Ma Godfrey.
I’m told Ma Godfrey could hardly hide her disappointment when I was born. There was no rational reason she should have been upset that her daughter—more than a year into her marriage—had given birth to a healthy baby girl. But despite my parents’ wedding, despite the home they had bought and the future they were planning, my maternal grandmother still hoped against hope that they might separate. She simply believed that my father—who was from a poor family in Hammonton, New Jersey—wasn’t good enough for my mom.
Having a child had, in her mind, sealed their fate together—and deep down, some part of my grandmother blamed me for it. Making matters worse, I looked like my father, with my blond hair and blue eyes. “You’re not a Godfrey,” she’d tell me. “You’re a Jacobs.” She might have meant that as an insult, but I took it as a compliment. Yes, I was a Jacobs, and proud of it.
Ma Godfrey’s ambivalence toward me wasn’t overt. She didn’t treat me much differently from the way she treated my four sisters; she read me books and played the same games she played with all of us. She didn’t withhold birthday cards or Christmas presents. But there was always an edge behind her comments. She was always a little faster to reprimand me, or to make a cutting, offhand remark. We all talked back at times, but I alone got a beating. Ma wasn’t a warm woman, not with any of us girls, but her lack of affection seemed most pronounced with me.
When I was twelve years old, I’d had enough. I can’t remember what she said to set me off, just that it was mean and unfair and made me absolutely livid. I decided I wasn’t going to spend another minute with a woman who might love me but sure didn’t like me much, so I called a cab company to pick me up. Luckily, my destination was just a few miles away.
My father’s mother, Grandmom Jacobs, was the perfect opposite of Ma Godfrey. Every time I walked in her door, she would smother me in kisses. Her home was old and lived in and smelled like burnt Italian bread toast—a smell that to this day takes me right back to her kitchen. She always bought me my own cantaloupe for breakfast. She kept candy in the top drawer of the dining room buffet. And she loved us—all of us—fiercely and without reserve. When the cab dropped me off, she opened the door, pulled me inside, and wrapped her arms tightly around me. Safe in her grandmotherly embrace, I heard her whisper, “That bitch,” followed immediately by, “God forgive me.”
* * *
Maya Angelou once wrote, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” That was what my parents’ love seemed to me: unstoppable, indomitable, and full of hope.
My father came from a working-class family of Italian heritage; his name, Giacoppa, had been changed to Jacobs when his grandfather, Guytano Giacoppa, arrived at Ellis Island. In 1944, at age seventeen, my father decided he wanted to fight in World War II. Too young to enlist, Donald needed his mother’s permission, and though she wasn’t keen on having her young son go to war, she signed his papers. He trained as a signalman and was sent to the South Pacific. Dad was very proud of his military service, and when he returned after the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill to attend business school in Philadelphia. He studied finance, which led to his first job in the banking business, working as a teller in Hammonton, New Jersey. It was a respectable job, but not the illustrious career my maternal grandparents had hoped would support their daughter.
A couple of times a week, Dad would stop by the Rexall Drugstore in town to order ice cream from Bonny Jean Godfrey, who worked the soda fountain. Today, their story seems too Norman Rockwell–esque to be real: the handsome young GI and the sweet girl behind the counter, the marshmallow-topped ice-cream cones and black-and-white tiles. And as in all good love stories, there was conflict: my grandfather, a pharmacist who owned the store, and my grandmother were determined to stand in the way of this growing romance. They watched the lanky young nobody from across the store, dismayed as he charmed their obviously smitten daughter.
My maternal grandparents, Ma and Pa Godfrey, had both gone to college, and they were determined their only daughter would do the same. Worried that Bonny Jean might decide instead to marry Donald, they forbade her from seeing him.
Bonny Jean did enroll in college courses, but she left within two years’ time and didn’t graduate. And she and my father never did stop seeing each other. Instead, in a secret act of rebellion unbeknownst to my grandparents, they sneaked away to Elkton, Maryland, to elope.
My parents continued living separately in their respective homes, and a year later they had an intimate wedding at Ma and Pa’s home, with siblings and parents in attendance. My mother’s parents went to their graves never knowing about the secret betrayal of their daughter. But it was a rebellion just the same, and it represented the pact of devotion my parents made to each other above all others. They created a sacred circle of loyalty that day, one that expanded with each daughter born—me, Jan, and Bonny at first, and then, when I turned fifteen, the twins, Kim and Kelly. My parents always had each other’s backs, and they taught us to do the same. We might squabble with each other, but if anyone outside the family hurt one of us, they’d find all five of the Jacobs girls ready to fight back.
* * *
Every weekend of my childhood, my parents would pile us into our brown-and-white station wagon and drive us from our home in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, to New Jersey to see our grandparents. We’d fly past the Nabisco factory, my sisters and me playing and arguing in the back seat. We’d ride past the row houses in Philadelphia, then across the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, finally arriving in Hammonton. Once there, we split up: my father and I would stay with his parents, and my mother and sisters would stay with hers. I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure Ma and Pa Godfrey refused to allow my father to sleep with my mother in their home.
I didn’t mind, because I preferred being at Grandmom and Grandpop’s house with my dad. Grandpop loved to fish, and some days we’d come in to find dozens of rockfish spread out over the kitchen counters, the back porch, and even on the washing machine. I was mesmerized by their sleek, black, shiny scales, even as my grandmother screamed, “Maledetto, Domi!”—her nickname for Domenic. “Who do you think is going to clean all these fish?” She didn’t speak Italian, but she’d made it a point to learn a few curse words for such an occasion.
My grandparents showed their love for my sisters and me through incredible food. It was at their house that I learned to appreciate pasta, homemade tomato sauce, and good Italian bread. My grandfather always sat next to the toaster, popping in thick slices of Italian bread and making sure we all had toast. The Italians have a saying, “Finire a tarallucci e vino”—to finish with tarallucci (little cookies) and wine. It essentially means, no matter our differences or our arguments during dinner, we finish as family. All’s well that ends well—or at least, I think you’re dead wrong, but let’s put it aside so we can enjoy the pleasures of life together. That was Grandmom and Grandpop’s home: a place where every meal ended with satisfaction—in our stomachs and hearts alike.
Copyright © 2019 by Jill Biden