Tag Archives: Italian-American

On Being Italian

OK. Not all Italians are easily excitable, dramatic, exaggerate and gesture enthusiastically but it is not uncommon and I’m afraid to say I got the gene! I do not speak for all Italians. I speak for me and those I know.  I can also tell you honestly that the times I’ve visited Italy it was heartening  and satisfying to see all the characteristics mentioned above, playing out in lively scenes that are deemed “too much” or too dramatic here.

Outsiders can mistakenly think Italians are upset, angry or yelling but we are just showing interest in a somewhat loud way. Every man who joined our family asked the same question, “what’s wrong?” What do you mean one of us would say quizzically. “Why are you all talking and yelling at the same time?”  Yelling!?! We aren’t yelling, we would say, looking at time as if they were crazy.  My interpretation is that we care about whatever it is that has caught our attention.  I would think people would appreciate this fact! I am always suspicious of people who don’t show any emotion…what are they hiding?  What are they not saying? Eh, must be the Sicilian in me.  I just don’t understand this I’m-too-cool-to-release-an-emotion, thing.  We all have them people, let them out!

Drama. One person’s drama is another persons way of life.  When an Italian says things like: You’re killing me here, Madonna Mia! (as in virgin mother not the stroppy singer), Va fancula (don’t use this one), A Fa Napoli (go to hell or get the hell outta here), I can’t take it!  (In Brooklyn “I caaaan’t”)….It’s language meant to express the feeling they are having. They don’t necessarily mean what they say. It is the same reason I exaggerate.  If I say it’s 100 degrees in here. I don’t really think it’s 100 degrees but that’s what it feels like.  When there were two dogs in the house I would say things like , oh God, I can’t walk with 27 dogs in my way!  Again, capturing the feeeling, nothing more nothing less.  I crack up when someone tries to explain the realities to me. “Dana it’s only 72 degrees in here.”  You’re killing me!

A typical conversation between my husband and myself:

Me: “When are you going to mow the lawn?”

Him: “Later”

Me: “But it’s 7:00pm now”

Him: “I know”

Me: “So you’re going to mow the lawn at 12 o’clock at night?

Again, simply underscoring the late hour. The come back is always an explanation of the actual time and how he didn’t say he would mow the lawn at 12 o’ clock. Sighhhh…message lost.

When I’m upset or excited about something, it will be expressed in hand gestures or my speech or both. One way or another it is coming out! It doesn’t matter what the reality is. So one will hear: I’ve had 100 calls today at work (20), I had to pay like $1,000 to get the car fixed ($350), There were 57 people ahead of me in the supermarket line….you get the picture.  And, when I hear something upsetting for myself or someone else, I’ll gasp or say WHAT?!!!  I think being Italian and apatheic is impossible!  Contrast this with my husband, a Brit, who would respond to the same information with “riiight” as he calmly took in the information.
I could write a post on the phrase Oh My God alone. It is used liberally and in many different situations. It is not reserved for a calamity.   There is “Oh my God!” meaning, I don’t believe it, I’m shocked or got bad news. Then there is oh-my-God which means, he or she is an idiot or something is ridiculous.  Let’s not forget  OhmyGod! which means I forgot something or someone or something is in danger and action needs to be taken. And lastly, Oh my Gaaaawd which is said as a cry (not a whine) which means I’m being stressed to the max . Usually because someone is doing my head in and/or annoying me. When this is used the receiver of the phrase will have a short amount of time to correct their offending behavior because the sender is about to blow up!  Each version is said with its own inflection and different words are stressed.  Of course Italians don’t own these three words and other nationalities have their own versions.

When I lived in England, exclamations were frowned upon. Though Brits do know how to curse and do so very well I might add, Brits do not appear to be comfortable with general outbursts as a rule, rather it seems to be a source of pride that one can keep it together in any situation. Keep Calm Carry On was a war slogan meant to remind people that they were not to freak out once bombs started dropping remember!  I once called (called mind you. I didn’t shout or scream) to my husband who was further down the supermarket aisle than I was and everyone turned around. His face went pale and I thought he was going to pass out. He looked at me as if I’d jumped into the refrigerated section and was throwing thing around like an ape.  I’m not uncouth and am appreciative of manners and etiquette.  I was innocently holding  a package of fresh mozzarella but when I saw that it had come from Italy, I had to share it and thought he’d be as happy as I was.

Ever see someone you hadn’t seen in a long time? Do you quietly approach them or call to them in whispering tones? Or do you act Italian and squeal “oh my God! I can’t believe it! Hiiiii!  How are youuuu??? Complete with delight and lots of hugs and kisses? Again, demonstrating care and interest!

I don’t know if it’s an Italian thing or a New York thing but when I get angry, I curse.  I don’t know many New Yorkers who have a problem with this. Cursing is not seen as coarse or crude, rather it is a creative way of expressing one’s self.  Cursing and degree of anger are positively correlated.  Spouses take heed!  Again, it was nice to hear people exclaiming, cursing, and generally expressing themselves in Italy without it being seen as a character flaw!

Italians talk. They talk with their mouths, their hands, their facial muscles, their shoulders, their whole bodies really.  You will always know what we think, how we feel and where you stand.  If we love you, you will be showered with affection and if we are angry you will know it, the offending situation will be addressed and it will be done with.  We are an expressive people and don’t usually hold things in.  What’s the point of having emotions and feelings if you can’t express them?  Viva Italiano!

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Grandma’s House

Grandma

My heart soared when we turned onto 110th Street between 101st and 103rd Avenues, my grandmother’s block in Richmond Hill which bordered Ozone Park in Queens a borough of New York City.  Her neighborhood was predominantly Italian-American at the time.  Now that I think of it, it was a very safe, clean and quiet neighborhood.  When I visited as a child, happiness would build as the car slowed beneath hundred year old trees which made a canopy above adjoined houses. I peered out the window of the back seat or from the perch above the engine in my mother’s Volkswagen (before seatbelts apparently) waiting for my grandmother’s grey sided house to come into view.  I always ran up the stoop and onto her porch to ring the bell excitedly.  Within a minute or two I’d see a head pop up in the window of the front door and I’d hear the click of her unlocking the doorknob and deadbolt.  The door would swing open and there she would be, all 5’ 2  inches of her. Slender build, delicate facial features, fair skin, thinning hair and a smile. With a big hug and a whiff of her Oil of Olay, I knew I was home.

My grandmother was considered working class, when working class was an acceptable term-working as a finisher in clothing factories not unlike those of the Triangle fire fame.  My grandmother lost the roulette game of love, suffering the loss of her husband after only 15 years of marriage during an age when one was expected to remain a widow and pine perpetually.  She returned to work and became a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union working in factories until her retirement.

Grandma spent the rest of her life alone-well, mostly alone.  She had to raise two young girls on her own.  It’s not that my grandmother didn’t have chances to remarry, she just got used to being alone and I think she didn’t want to give up her independence.  She seemed to feel that she would only have more work to do.  This passive, meek-seeming, quiet good girl was a rebel and an imp.  Her own father died when she was young and she managed to sneak out of the house to meet boyfriends, wiggling out from under her uncle’s thumb and paranoid eye.  She eloped when it was unheard of and bought her own clothes.   I realize now that she didn’t just instill a sense of home but one of independence and that no matter the circumstances there was a way to find my own path and my own happiness. I think all the women in my family got this indie gene (though she was the first to criticize when any of us used it!).

Grandma moved to Queens, renting rooms as she called it and being the Depression Era girl that she was, she saved her nickels and dimes and was able to purchase the two family house she rented for many years; moving from upstairs to down, from tenant to Landlady.  When I walked into the hallway with stairs to the right leading to the upstairs apartment she once called home, I’d notice the faded wallpaper, dated glass light fixture, complete with stoplight pull.  I would breathe in the smell of the house looking up through the stairs to the skylight above To this day I can not explain what the smell was made up of but I’ll never forget it, a unique scent created over 90 years.  However once the door was opened to my grandmother’s apartment, I was greeted by comforting smells, usually something she had just baked or cooked for my arrival or the arrival of any of our immediate family, always knowing what we liked.

After my mother and aunt had grown, married and left the house, they each returned to my grandmother’s house, at different points in their lives, to call it home once again.  As a matter of fact, we all did, we all found our way back there for one reason or another.  Each of us saw her house as our own and she welcomed us all with open arms, always.  As long as we were ok and got along she was happy. If we visited or spent time there she was content.  My aunt lived with her the longest and my cousin lived there for the first 9 years of her life.  So, there were stretches of time when she wasn’t alone at all.

As for me, I have moved exactly 21 times in my life. I was a young child when my parents divorced and suffered the slings and arrows of visiting a parent I didn’t see much, reversals of fortunes and learning to cope with step-parents and all that entailed.  The only constant in a swirling, topsy-turvy life was my grandmother’s house. My grandmother was 50 years old when I was born and she died when I was 38. Those years of even keeled routines and effortless traditions were a gift for me.  I always felt extremely comfortable at Grandma’s house but I didn’t realize until after she died that what she created was a sense of Home and really the only place I ever felt 100% myself.  It wasn’t what she had but what she did that made it this way and I think this is where people make mistakes-trying to have more and more, giving up the simple pleasures and most precious gift-time together.  Everyone in our family felt the magic of Grandma’s house.  My mother recalled that when she went to my grandmother’s house she left the world outside and experienced complete safety and nurturance by Grandma’s never ending consistency, steadfastness and peacefulness (her words). I lived at my grandmother’s house a couple of times and for a few years at a time, visiting often in between.  I think the only thing that flustered her was lack of security, rather the potential for loss of security.  If I took a vacation or sick day she freaked-why aren’t you going to work? You’re going to lose your job!  Luckily I had read Theodore Dreiser and understood the mentality.  If my grandmother could have instilled one thing in us it would have been to save, save, save-this may be the only endeavor in which she was unsuccessful!   Other than that she would say “Dan-a, don’t worry!” And I didn’t worry at Grandma’s house.

It’s funny, our core family consisted mainly of females as men drifted in and out of the picture-divorce, boyfriends who came and went, my brother who moved around more than I did and husbands who did not have the stamina to keep up with our never ending conversations and activities. One minute we’d be in the kitchen, the next minute we’d all be squished onto my grandmother’s bed looking at her jewelry, old clippings or going through her clothes.  Usually we’d emerge with someone having had an idea (Let’s watch Meet Me In St Louis, Let’s sing show tunes, Lets go get ices,  Lets go to the beach!) and we’d gather up the men to join us.

The Girls at The Plaza

I noticed a shift in us when there.  As soon as we arrived, we relaxed and were just ourselves. My aunt who never ate and ran around like a nut for her business, got hungry and well…ate.  She picked on anything that was around.  I remember her absentmindedly pulling nuts off pecan rings and nibbling like a squirrel.  She never slept but at grandma’s house she’d kick off her shoes, lounge or take a nap. My mother would come with a list of things to be done or appointments to take my grandmother to and would be lulled into submission. Many a quick visit or occasion turned into an overnight stay.

Aunt Maryann taking a nap-i-poo

I can honestly say that I may have gone to Grandma’s house with a problem but I never left with one.  No matter how serious the issue, it was somehow diffused just by being with the strong women that made up the nucleus of my family as we shared whatever was on my mind with warmth and laughter, always.  I think we all did it. My mother or Aunt could come into her house with furrowed brow and one problem or another but at some point, a disclosure would be made somewhere in the house and in no time we were all talking about it and trying to work it out.

My family had an expression that epitomized my Grandmother, small pieces, low flame because that’s how she cooked and everything she did was done in moderation. My grandmother could have worked for the Wallendas as she was perfectly balanced in everything she did.  She bought only what she needed and treated herself, within reason.  She didn’t buy on credit even though her credit was perfect.  I guess the only thing my grandmother did in the extreme was to save money as she was always afraid of the emergency that might befall her and that lay wait around the corner.  Slow and steady won the race which she proved by outliving all of her older and younger siblings and most other relatives as well.

St Mary Gate of Heaven. Photo Credit: Forgotten NY

The local Catholic parish was St Mary Gate of Heaven in Ozone Park which was located across the street from Furci’s a fresh pasta store selling homemade raviolis and manicotti for Sunday dinner. Next door was an Italian butcher shop where we often got meat for Grandma’s out-of-this-world meatballs.  Every year the church had a feast to raise money and big Italian men carried the virgin mother through the streets and down 110th Street to my amazement.

Unassuming and understated hang out of the Gambino Mafia

When I walked down 101st Avenue with my grandmother, we often passed men sitting outside of a non-descript building, on folding chairs, nothing special and I never gave them a second thought. It wasn’t until Rudolph Guiliani came into power that I heard about the Bergen Hunt and Fish Club which was that exact place.  I didn’t realize until years later that the men we passed were the captains and heads of the biggest Mafia family in New York City. They were the reason my grandmother’s neighborhood was frozen in time and a wonderful place to enjoy Italian culture in a cocoon of neighborhood bakeries, Italian delis, fruit stores, clothing stores and restaurants.  We walked under the el (elevated A train) on Liberty Avenue or on 101st Avenue, visiting mom and  pop stores with  “the wagon” in tow; a shopping cart that she clipped to her Keyfood cart at the grocery store. We would heave the wagon up and down curbs together then up the 5 or 6 steps to the house.  However when my grandmother lived alone she did this all by herself.  I walked with my grandmother onLiberty Avenue to get fruit from the Asian vegetable stand, ravioli, cold cuts and sauce from Pat’s Italian Deli and pastries or cake from Greenwood Bakery.  I don’t ever recall any crimes or ever feeling unsafe at night.

Best store bought sauce and great ravioli’s and food. Photo Credit: Pat’s and Sons Italian Deli

Oxford Bakery-where we purchased many birthday cakes. Photo Credit: Forgotten NY

The Stoop

When I was young, little old Italian ladies sat in folding chairs on warm spring evenings, sitting on their stoops with a piece of watermelon or a cup of coffee after dinner, talking to each other or with their neighbors who were mere feet away.  I remember chasing lightening bugs and screaming when I saw the Ice Cream Man come down the street-Graaaaaandmaaaaa, he’s cooomiiing, hurrrrry uuuuup!  She couldn’t get outside fast enough for me, clutching her coin purse and we’d both indulge.  My mother taught me to ride a bike in front of my grandmother’s house and I remember walking down the street with my aunt sporting diaper shorts, the latest craze! The stoop is also where crushes bloomed and faded as there were glances exchanged down or across the street as we sat together with our families. My mother and my aunt was asked out by a neighbor for probably ten years that I’m aware of. Every time he crossed the street I’d roll my eyes. I knew what was coming, the question, the rejection then back in the house to safety.  Many times I’d be allowed to play in front of the house as long as I didn’t cross the street and would wait there for my mother or Aunt to return home from work. Catching a glimpse of them walking up the street from the A train-I’d start jumping up and down and yelling to my grandmother, “Mom’s home!” “Aunt Maryann’s home!”

My aunt’s wedding party on the porch and stoop-me as flower girl.

Dining Room

The apartment door opened into the dining room and my grandmother would immediately hang up my sweater or coat in the coat closet. I still recall the French glass doorknobs that adorned every door and the clunk from her wooden bill organizer that swung from the door every time it opened.  How can one little closet hold so many memories?  On a shelf above the coats were all the photo albums that we never tired of gazing at together, games to play and coats of hers as well as ones that all of us had given up or left behind at one time or another.  There was the Electrolux vacuum that she must have had for at least 35 years as I remember playing with it when I was a kid.  Across from the coats was the linen closet for the house that held towels and sheets spanning decades; some I remember using when I was a little girl as well. Nothing was thrown out and my grandmother kept her things in impeccable shape. Before me was a big dining table, a server behind it and a large buffet to the right and on the long wall.  Grandma’s white terrine sat on that buffet as long as I can remember and now it sits on mine.

Grandma and Aunt Maryann

The first thing I did after hugging Grandma, when I was a kid, was to run into the kitchen and open the bread bin to find Ring Dings or Devil Dogs that she pretended to hide from me and my brother.  Later I would enter the house, fling my handbag on the table and within a couple of minutes I’d hear “Dan-a” a melodic mock criticism meaning “where does this belong” or “whose is this?”

Although my grandmother was very traditionally Italian, the apple fell pretty far from the tree as my mother and aunt were anything but.  My grandmother had to endure talks of yoga, meditation, alternate realities, sex, reincarnation, Soul Train and bi-racial dating, any new issue we decided to discuss.  She would shake her head in disbelief at times. I have to say that although if pressed, I’m sure she’d say she didn’t approve of things like homosexuality, she never said it. She is the only person I ever knew who lived by the idea that if one doesn’t have anything nice to say, they shouldn’t say anything at all. No matter the age differences or changing beliefs, she was there for all of us all the time and at all hours of the day or night.  She waited patiently as we lived out idealistic binges.

Mom and cousin Vanessa as we hung out in the Dining Room

No matter the conversation, it happened around the kitchen or dining room table below stained glass and leaded windows as we picked on Grandma’s zucchini pie, homemade potato salad or Entenmanns Sour Cream Chip Nut Loaf-when Entenmann’s was good that is.  I have fond memories of some sort of food on the table, followed by dessert and a percolator on a trivet on the dining room table.  All the while we would be talking, laughing or having heated discussions.  It was quiet, it was loud but to me, it was always love.

The dining room reminds me most of holidays and birthdays. Our holidays always gave a nod to our Italian heritage as we had Grandma’s huge trays of lasagna or manicotti before moving on to the second course we all know as Thanksgiving or Christmas Dinner!  A Primi Piatti as we say in Italian.  It was during this break between the pasta course and the next course that my mother and aunt would blast the stereo, dance the Lindy or make the rest of us dance and sing with them.  My grandmother would be busy but not too busy to flash a grin and wiggle her hiney!  Having grown up with dance halls, she could boogie with the best of them.  Birthdays were quite simple by today’s standards, and I’m not talking about 50 years ago!  We got together to have cake and open presents. Sometimes my grandmother cooked and sometimes we ordered pizza, probably from Ozone Pizza, the best Sicilian pie around. While my grandmother perked her Eight O’Clock coffee, we played games; board games such as Trivial Pursuit, Pokeno, and the Dictionary Game. My grandmother grew up playing cards and she always had a Planter’s Peanuts can filled with pennies at the ready for Poker.  When games didn’t satisfy us we made silly videos that cracked us up for years after. My grandmother donned black lace (I think it was a fancy apron she draped around her) and sang Besame Mucho, My cousin put a blanket over pillows that became her “piano” and freaked out to Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire.  My mother and aunt were the silly ones, coming up with crazy skits or acting out musical numbers complete with costumes.  Anything was possible at grandma’s house.  No prop was off limits, no act too silly.  We enjoyed each other as much as with any of our friends and probably more so.

My birthday at Grandma’s with a bunch of nuts

The Kitchen

The kitchen was off the Dining room at one end. It was small in size and only large enough to hold a table pushed up to the window and 3 chairs as well as a standing cabinet that held her magical wooden spoons and other utensils, crowned by a small TV.  The kitchen had steps out to a skinny driveway and a leaning garage which was held up by sheer will alone. As my grandmother never drove it was neglected for years however never one to waste, she rented it out to a neighbor who had an antique car.

My grandmother always cooked herself full breakfasts, lunches and dinners, even when she was alone. If I showed up unannounced there would always be some interesting morsel in her refrigerator: chicken soup, a bowl of homemade potato salad, half a zucchini pie, a piece of cake.  I remember showing up once when she and my cousin were about to have lunch and heros from the leftover meatballs she had from Sunday sauce.  Instead of putting a few meatballs on two pieces of Italian bread, she cut the bread into thirds, mashed the meatballs into chunks and spread it out so there was enough for 3.  She had a loaves and fishes kind of way about her which was awe-inspiring.  I don’t know about you but if I’m alone for more than a couple of days, I’m probably not cooking full meals every day unless I’m feeling particularly inspired. There was always enough for everyone and I think she learned this from a) being Italian and b) growing up poor.

Grandma teaching Vanessa to bake

When I lived with my Grandmother in my early 20s I worked inManhattan for a magazine.  My grandmother always had a hot meal on the table when I returned home and timed it perfectly with my entrance.  I always played a game with myself to guess the smell before I got into the house.  My grandmother hated this game as she always wanted her culinary creations to be a nice surprise.

“Pepper Steak and Rice?”   I’d say as I walked into the hallway from outside.

She’d sigh, and sounding like a mafiosa she’d say “how did you know?”  Little did she know I was blessed with a freakishly good sense of smell.

“Rice Pudding?”  She would literally stagger back as if this sort of knowledge was impossible and give a face of astonishment.  Stuffed Peppers, Fried Chicken Cutlets, Lasagna, Chicken Soup, French Toast, Cream Puffs, Macaroni and Cheese, Sicilian Meatloaf, Zucchini and Fresh Mozzarella, Arroz con Pollo, Lentil Soup, Summer Spaghetti with red wine and mushrooms, Spaghetti with Sardines, Pine Nuts and Fennel Sauce, Sfinge, Lemon and Garlic Chicken, Potatoes and Eggs, Peppers and Eggs, Pot Roast, Sicilian Stuffing, Pasta with Chick Peas, Pasta with Peas, Pasta with Broccoli and Ricotta, Asparagus Soup with egg and stuffed artichokes. She was a fantastic cook, making American and Italian dishes that delighted us always.  Anyone who was lucky enough to have slept over Saturday night, would be greeted by the smell of frying meatballs and the start of a magnificent Sunday Sauce.  When I lived with her or stayed over I watched her, rather I had to watch her cook as her recipes were pretty much useless when I tried to write them down.

“Grandma, how much cheese do you put in?” I’d say, pen in hand.

“As much as it needs” would come the answer as if I should have known this.  “I do it by eye”,“you just know” or “it’s done when it’s done” were even more helpful retorts.  I learned that I had to do exactly what she did, exactly when she did it and had to taste along the way to know exactly how it should be at every stage.  She had a very strange way of mixing meatballs and if I hadn’t watched her I would never be able to replicate them.  Her guiding hand and  instructions “no, not yet, no, let it start boiling first, ok now put in the tomatoes”  made me a good cook.  If I burned the sauce? No problem, she had a trick for that.  Too much salt? Don’t worry, she had a trick for that too. Grandma made me a foodie because she taught me to taste the subtle differences between mediocre and amazing. It warms my heart to know that she instilled her skill in me; cooking expertise and recipes that have been passed down through the generations and most of which came from a very small village in Sicily.

Before we ate, it was my job to go to the Italian Bakery to get fresh Semolina bread and dessert, usually Italian pastries-cannolis, cream puffs, napoleans, if I had my choice.

When it was just Grandma and me, we always had a great time sitting in the kitchen talking over a tuna sandwich (Italian tonno packed in olive oil only) or tea and cookies at night. In the spring and summer and before she sprang for air conditioning, the kitchen curtains would float up and over the table and then get sucked against the screen. It was as if the kitchen was a living breathing thing.  We could also hear the muffled sounds of neighbors’ conversations, clinking cutlery or the washing of dishes as they sat in their own kitchen across the way. That is where I learned about my Sicilian heritage, about my great grandparents and their voyage and immigration to America and these conversations were punctuated by the naturalization papers she proudly produced from a strong box.  It was here that I learned about my grandmother, the woman; what she liked, crushes she had, who she didn’t like, hurts she usually kept to herself. These were times when her traditions became my traditions and when a little piece of her became a part of me. On one Sunday as we dipped pieces of meat from our Cornish hens in the lemon, garlic and oil elixir at the bottom of the pan, my grandmother related to me the day she watched her brother walk up the street in his military uniform, returning home after years abroad during World War II.  The emotion of that day overwhelmed her still and in her little kitchen I was impressed by how much of an effect being separated from family had on her.  She choked back tears and looked out the window as if it was yesterday.

Did I mention the kitchen phone?  It was a rotary dial phone and had two settings. Loud and louder.  Every time the phone rang we jumped or gasped. It felt as if we were being electrocuted by sound alone yet we endured it for years.  It had a long cord that each of us used to stretch through the dining room and down the hallway to the bathroom where we would hide when we didn’t want conversations overheard. I kept that phone in my own house for 5 years before deciding that I didn’t need to lose years of my life from fright just to remember her by.

In my disco days, I went to clubs in Manhattan and pretty much threw myself into any car heading toward Brooklyn or Queens on the way home. If the light was coming up as we crossed the Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridge I went home but every once in a while I emerged squinting from the Queens Tunnel and I’d head to Grandma’s House. Sometimes alone and sometimes with a friend or boyfriend.  She didn’t miss a beat, taking eggs and bread out of the refrigerator and starting the kettle for tea.  Grandma’s house was not the Kool-Aid house however-it wasn’t open to anyone at anytime.  She liked to know what was going on and what to expect or if she was going to have to whip up a dinner for everyone.  If you were family, the door was always open.  If you were not, she was on high alert when people wandered into the kitchen or horror of horrors, opened her refrigerator.  She didn’t relax until company had gone and her house was back in order.  I could always tell when she felt like this because she would give a “heh-heh-heh” sort of laugh.  Others in the family didn’t seem to see this as they were much more gregarious and welcoming to all, however for better or worse, I inherited that same quirk of reserving my turf for close friends and family and react the same way as well so I was tuned in to this.  I always felt special to be on the inside and that I was one of the lucky ones to stay behind as she and I stood on the stoop waving good-bye when visitors left after one occasion or another.  When it was just me and Grandma it was cozy and special and I will treasure that always.

For a woman who lived alone, she had a lot of male visitors. Older cousins, assorted ex-husbands or husbands of our cousins all stopped in for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake in the dining room for a little haven from the world outside.  They seemed to stop in during lulls in their lives or after fights with their wives and my grandmother always had a sympathetic ear, rarely criticizing or taking any sides.

To the right of the dining room at the other end was a long hallway with the only bathroom that was decorated in pretty brown and blue and always smelled of Dove soap.  My Grandmother’s bedroom and a “guest” bedroom we had all called our own at one time or another were at the end of the hallway.

There was a basement which was dark and held a lot of mystery for me as a kid. There were cabinets down there where my grandmother stockpiled anything she found on sale such as: Scotts toilet paper, cereals, pasta, tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, cake mixes, Dove soap and Palmolive dish detergent.  To this day the smell of Palmolive makes my stomach flip flop as it reminds me of Grandma’s house.  My grandmother had a washing machine but no dryer and she was one of the last people on the block to hang her clothes on the clothes line which ran the length of the basement as well as an outdoor one that required her to lean out of her bedroom window to hang clothes. Even clothespins remind me of her!

Grandma’s Room

When my aunt lived at home and I visited during summer or Christmas vacations, I usually slept in my grandmother’s bed in a pink bedroom with 1960s style furniture.  In the summers she would put the fan in the window and a breeze magically appeared in another window opposite.  I thought the wind went out one window, turned the corner and came in the other window, not understanding cross-ventilation.  Waves of invisible air and the sound of the fan lulled us to sleep on crisp cotton sheets.  Each night my grandmother took off an antique looking watch and I was mesmerized by the art deco and diamond chip design.  I was enthralled with her beside tables that held the dream machine alarm clock I got her and a nightlight.  The drawers held mysterious items like teeny tiny Avon sample lipsticks of all different colors, coin wrappers and bank deposit slips which I loved filling out.  One of her drawers held old cards, rubber band balls and things collected over the years.  Another held her housecoats and aprons, all of which I remember her cooking in and on the morning of her funeral I inconsolably held them against my face, breathing her in for the last time.

Every evening around 9pm my grandmother had a routine of changing into her pajamas and robe and switching on the nightlight in her room, even when no one else was there.  When I slept over she put the nightlight on in my room too so when we went to bed we’d have a little light to greet us-a little thing but oh so homey.

Living Room

My grandmother’s house was always clean and tidy.  Her furnishings were modest warmed by family pictures and gifts she had received from all of us through the years.  Each trinket placed on a shelf or window sill and there they would stay for decades.  She purchased sturdy, quality pieces of furniture for durability more than fashion. Again, it was not until after her death that the feeling washed over me like a tsunami that the sense of home I dwelled in came from her and her alone as the things she left behind did not have great financial significance, rather they held memories of her or special times we all had together.

It was not uncommon for any of us to pull out the sheets and the hand-crocheted blankets my grandmother always had at the ready in case anyone slept over, getting cozy, on her enveloping sectional sofa.  Eventually, usually around 8 or 9pm, one of us would wander or sneak back into the kitchen.  If the rest of us heard the crinkling of aluminum foil, it was like a call of the wild and one by one we’d wander back in there to nibble on artichokes, stuffed mushrooms or to make hot cocoa or tea-returning to the living room with our treasures, all giddy with ourselves. My younger cousin brought this lounging to new heights, tucking us in and getting us drinks from the kitchen.  At grandma’s house we didn’t need a lot of money, big cars, the latest fashion trends.  We needed what we had, good food, family we could trust and be ourselves with and something to amuse us. I always felt so content there and try to do the same now, focusing on comfort and the comfort of those who come to my house instead of having the shiniest and best things.  If ever I felt less than for not having more, Grandma showed me that the simple pleasures in life nurture the soul more than any trendy thing could.My grandmother introduced me to Yankee baseball games and the Channel 13 PBS station, both of which have stayed with me. For a young literary mind, Masterpiece Theater was magical as I was exposed to great actors and works of literature-Lily Langtry, Upstairs Downstairs, I Claudius and Pride and Prejudice were favorites. Channel 13 was my grandmother’s university. She never went to college but she read and she watched programs about history and literature, programs of substance. For someone who was afraid to part with even a few dollars, she gave generously to Channel 13. She would question me about the accurate change I deposited in her hand after going to the store for her but when the telethons were on she thought nothing of pledging $250. We watched biographies and history shows together which were enriched by her own accounts of historic events. When I was little she let me stay up late and we always ended the evening watching the Odd Couple. She loved sitcoms and had the greatest laugh. I’d watch her as she watched shows like I Love Lucy, All In The Family, Cheers, Seinfeld and later Friends as she smiled brightly then threw her head back in laughter. She began watching TV with me on the sofa however as her eyesight worsened she moved to her rocking chair, having to move it closer and closer to the television set. Even in her 80s she would sit with one leg up on the chair, not your grandmother’s grandmother!We piled onto the sectional, watching old movies or musicals together or pulling out her albums and singing along.  A nothing day turned magical at Grandma’s house as the best times were when we all hung out together, laughing or talking about anything at all.Grandma was a teaser and a jokester and always had an understated one liner that would crack me up. One time I woke up and staggered into the living room sleepily and kind of flung myself onto the sofa in t-shirt and underwear. When my grandmother came in I thought she’d chastise me for not dressing or sitting more ladylike. She just passed by saying “Dana, position is everything in life!”

When we were out as a group at a family function, in a large crowd of cousins, my grandmother was usually very quiet. She had always been shy and always let others, louder than her, take the floor.  I think she was sometimes seen as weaker or without much to contribute.  In my younger years this angered me. I wanted to tell people off and encouraged her to stand up for herself.  When I got older I saw her more as a treasured secret. She belongs to us I thought, she confides in me and they may never fully or truly understand the depth of her strength, her intelligent mind, her generosity, her talent and humor as we do I thought.  She was our pearl, our diamond in a rough.  She was unassuming and self-deprecating, having low vision she sometimes got food on her clothes and would laugh, “I look good in anything I wear.” Grandma was demure.  She was a Lady, our beloved matriarch and my Grandma.

This story is dedicated to the beautiful women in my family:

My Mother, Rita, My Aunt and Godmother, Maryann, My Cousin, Vanessa

And with never ending gratitude and love, Grandma.

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