Friday, April 9, 2010
This is my paternal grandmother Josephine whom we called Nonni. Despite the youth and beauty one sees in the above photo, this likeness is one that I marvel at more than recognize. I only remember Nonni as a grandmother, short and gray-haired with housedresses on most of the time and thick stockings rolled right below the knee. Nonni lived in New Jersey, in an apartment attached to my uncle's and she was already a widow as my grandfather had died when I was about four years old. The apartment she lived in was extravagantly clean and neat and smelled like bleach and linen and tomato sauce. She had few possessions, almost none of which I can remember -- two crystal lamps on either side of a lace doily-covered bureau, ceramic figurines, perhaps -- photos of her children and grandchildren. Her bed was always made, its top so smooth and straight you could, literally, bounce coins off of it. She had a black pocketbook with a clasp at the top and whenever we'd visit, she would open it up and a waft of the most wonderful grandmotherly smell would escape. Out would come some crumpled tissues and creased dollar bills, one of which she would tuck into our hands and tell us in her heavily accented English for the ice-cream man, for the ice-cream man. She had a heavy television set, the kind that looked like a cabinet and we'd sit cross-legged in front and watch shows with her sometimes. Despite having lived in the United States for at least fifty years, Nonni could neither read nor write in English or Italian, and she apparently never understood that the shows we watched were not real. She would clasp her hands to her cheeks during crime dramas, the lame ones of the seventies, say, like Starsky and Hutch and gasp in horror, even moan in distress. Nonni, it's not real, we'd say, it's just television. She was a wonderful cook, a master chef, really, whose meatballs and sauces and meats and vegetables I can still just about taste if I close my eyes. Mangia, she'd say and if we picked at our food, she'd screw up her face and mutter whassa matta with you? why you no eata my food? She was a devout Roman Catholic who carried rosary beads with her whereever she went and who helped us to memorize the Lord's Prayer in Italian. She wore black on Fridays and legend says every day after her husband died. I seem to remember some blue, but my memory isn't clear. She had the dark superstitious character of the southern Italian but also shifted her false teeth so that they jutted out of her mouth to make us laugh. She suffered from dementia as she grew older and could be quite cruel and demanding to her daughters-in-law, one of whom was my mother. I remember the summer she lived with us when I was in high school, when she accused the housekeeper of stealing her housedresses and screamed when our Great Dane ran up the stairs (she thought dogs were filthy). She grumbled a lot that summer and moaned, too, all day. Pray that I die, she would mutter to us in the house, out of my mother's earshot. She sat at our kitchen table and mushed saltines into her coffee and when I brought my boyfriend home, she would smile and ask whether he was Catholic. Yes, I would tell her, he's Catholic. Nicea boy, nicea boy, she said every time. I believe she gave my mother a very difficult time, but when my father came home from work, she would smile big and act like a long-suffering saint. It was a relief when she left and not too long after had to go into a nursing home. Many years afterward, when I had graduated from college I traveled to southern Italy and the small town where Nonni was born and lived until my grandfather brought her over to New York. I slept in the bed where she had given birth to my uncle and aunt, in a stone house set off the road in a dusty, hillside town. I walked the streets with a distant relative who spoke no English, and we stopped at every little store and bar where he introduced me and drank a shot of something or other with the elderly people who clustered around me and thrust bags of figs and cheeses into my arms. I nodded and smiled and tried to shrug off the heat and couldn't stop wondering how in the span of half a century, Josephine would move away from this tiny town that had not changed in hundreds of years, to the chaotic streets of New York City where she would raise five children.
--to be continued