Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Bushel and a Peck and a Hug Around the Neck

She was born 90 years ago today to Italian, excuse me "I-talian," immigrants. She was the first American born child, as her older brother Jerry, actually came over on the boat." They lived in the Little House on Henry Street, where she remained until a couple of years ago. She grew up speaking both Italian and English, translating for her parents when necessary. By the time I knew her, Grandma did not speak in Italian much. Although I did hear a few phrases yelled out while she was cooking in the kitchen. She told me the words didn't really have a meaning in English but loosely translated to "You silly fool." I'm pretty sure she may have been lying.

At the age of 17 she quit school to begin working, the third in her family (after her father and older brother Jerry) to bring home money. When she shared this story with me, she smiled devilishly and said, "I had to lie about my age so they would let me work." She worked in a pants factory and made around $5.88 per week. With three people in her family working, she explained that they weren't rich but they weren't poor. They had what they needed. After the Depression, their family was the first on the block to have a radio, and she remembered other kids from the neighborhood sitting under their window listening to the shows.

She told me something she learned from her family, especially growing up during the Depression. She said that people took care of each other and looked out for their neighbors. She told me, "My mother raised us to give. If someone asked for some bread, and you only had one slice left, then you gave them half." Neighbors and friends who knew you were sick would visit you and help you out by cooking and sometimes cleaning for you. This is what I remembered most of my grandmother. She was always looking out for everyone. Growing up, she would go from house to house, making sure the occupants had what they needed. She volunteered at the Greeman Center in Binghamton, NY until she moved to Auburn. One day I asked what she did at the Center, and she said, "Honey, I help the OLD people."

She baby-sat nieces, nephews, grandchildren, whomever. She ruled over us, her grandchildren, with a crack of the hand (or at least the threat of one). When grandma came to visit, it meant cleaning. I remember during one visit, I called my mom at work and said, "Mom, you have to come home. She's making Matt scrub the floors!" PS. Matt was only around 8 years old. Grandma fed us, bathed us, taught us to clean (and man, did we clean and scrub and clean some more), and taught us all how to do needlepoint.

But going to Grandma's House -- well that was all fun and no cleaning. The Little House on Henry Street was where we spent holidays and many Sundays. It would be packed full of people. I'm pretty sure that we've gotten at least 40 people in that house at once, more if you count the people we would put outside. During big celebrations, if someone in the front room needed something from the kitchen, it was fastest to go out the front door, around the side, and enter the kitchen through the back door. During lesser events, we would sit 10 people around the kitchen table. Those of us who were smart (or lazy, take your pick) sat in the middle, near the windows. Those seats meant never having to get your own food, clear your plate, or generally move. Of course, it also meant not being able to use the bathroom or stretch your legs until dinner was over. And at grandma's house, eating meals was the event and would last for hours. First the dinner, then the dessert and coffee or tea, and then just sitting and talking.

And there was always left-overs for us to take home. Up until around 5 years ago, Grandma was still making her sauce, pizza, and cookies. If you called before you visited, you could put in a "take-out" order with her. She would have whatever you requested ready to go. In fact, even if you didn't order it, she would pack it up and send it home with you. Constantly I remember telling Grandma how much I loved her homemade chocolate chip cookies or Italian chocolate balls. And constantly during my visits Grandma would hand me a garment box full of vanilla pizzelles. Now, I'm admitting to all of you today that I don't actually like pizzelles. I know, I know, I'm Italian and I don't like pizzelles. But no matter how much I protested, Grandma refused to believe me. She would say, "Honey, you eat these all the time." Despite my honest negation of this statement, and the support of most of my family, she would say, "No, you like Grandma's pizzelles. Take them with you. Someone will eat them." And I knew I had lost the battle. It's a good thing that 90% of my roommates have all enjoyed vanilla pizzelles.

After she had stopped cooking, she would bring home baked goods from The Center. We would visit, and she would say, "Oh honey, I brought you home some desserts from The Center. Take what you'd like." Unfortunately because our visits were not as frequent, the baked goods were usually a week or so old and a little unappetizing. It was apparent then how much the Depression had impacted her, no food could go uneaten... even if it was a week past expiration, in Grandma's mind, someone somewhere could eat it and would be grateful.

I think what I liked most about my Grandma was her sense of humor and sharp wit. She tolerated most of our teasing and once allowed us to take a picture of her holding a few empty wine bottles and an empty glass. She had a huge smile on her face, even though she didn't drink a drop. In fact, most of the time, when you thought she wasn't paying attention or wasn't following the conversation, she would come out with a doozy of a one-liner. A couple of years ago when my brother and I were visiting her in the hospital, Matt began poking fun at me. Grandma was a little tired from all the medicine, and Matt had pointed out that I was preoccupied with work for monetary reasons. Without missing a beat, Grandma looked him straight in the eye and said, "Matthew, dear, why did you move to Baltimore? It's the money honey."
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a
thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not
just to play with, but Really loves you, then you become Real."
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You
become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who
break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally,
by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes
drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things
don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to
people who don't understand." ~The Velveteen Rabbit

1 comment:

  1. i remember she always said i was her tall blonde grandaughter... and yes, i did love the vanilla pizzelles :)


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