I’m not sure if my grandmother was born on a Sunday, but I know that was her name. Her name was Domenica, which translates to “Sunday” in Italian. Her friends knew her as “Maggie” or “Madge”. I never even thought to ask why. I knew her as “Gram”.
If you ask most people how they remember Maggie, the response is often negative. You’ll hear stories about her being irrational and demanding. You’ll hear about the time my father returned home from the Vietnam War and many of his possessions were missing/sold/gone. You’ll hear about her blind hatred for her step-mother and her apparent inability to relate to her own daughter. You’ll hear about an ungrateful woman full of bitterness and impatience. That is not my story… and most people know better than to argue with me on this subject.
I’m a worrier. I was born serious. I was a serious child. I’m a serious adult. I’ll be a serious elderly person. The world, if it remembers me, will remember me as… Serious. Maggie was also serious, precise and deliberate. I’ll save the details of the serious child-Marie discussion for a separate blog. Or, let’s face it, a series of blogs. Back to Gram…
Gram listened to me. In a world where people don’t often pay attention to unaffectionate children, she paid attention to me. She made it her mission to embrace my nature and to point me toward a life of self-sufficiency. For those who know me, mission totally accomplished. Probably to an extreme. I tend to be a bit… productive.
Gram would often take us to interesting, out of the way places. She took us to fish hatcheries to learn about fish farming and to learn about forestry. She also took us to “the brook”. I have no idea where this brook is. It’s in Berkshire County, MA, USA somewhere. It was a typical New England Brook. Rocky shore. Clear running water. Minnows. Trees. We ate egg salad sandwiches on the rocks and waded around in the brook.
If there were ever other people around, it was usually another family or a couple of teenagers drinking Genesee Cream Ale listening to the radio. This time, there were two men in their 30’s. No swimming gear. No fishing poles. No picnic baskets. They were staring at me as if they were waiting for something to happen. Gram came over to us and said, “Girls, everything is ok. We might have to leave. If I say something, you obey.” She had never used the word “Obey” before. I noticed she was side eye-ing Beauregard and Jimmy-John (Pretty sure these were totally their names). Something wasn’t right.
About 2 minutes later Gram (who was calm, beautiful and, of course, serious) started walking sideways toward us. She was walking calmly in a way that she could see us, and our unwelcome guests, at the same time. Calmly and deliberately, she stepped into the brook. She picked up Sissy in one arm and me in the other. B and JJ sprang into action.
They were probably 100ft away and started running toward us. “Girls, stay calm and do as I say”.
With two lanky primary school children in her arms, Gram ran at what felt like a gazelle’s pace. At first B and JJ were so close that I could smell them. I could see their calloused hands reaching forward as if they were trying to propel themselves faster. I looked down and saw Gram’s legs outstretched and strong. Huge strides on an uneven terrain of oddly sized rocks. Wet and dry land. Tree limbs and rusty pieces of metal. In her bare feet. “Don’t look back”. I didn’t. She didn’t. Sissy didn’t. I failed to mention that in order to get to the brook you had to walk down a very steep hill with a winding dirt path. So steep that it was hard not to fall forward on your way down, and hard to catch your breath on the way up. No time for the path now. No time to catch your breath now. Like an Italian Superhero she flew up the rocky slope. I could hear rocks falling down the hill behind us.
We finally reached the road. “Almost there”. I see the blue Dodge Horizon in the distance. Tilted at a right angle half on the paved road and half on the dirt path. I hear her shoes fall from her fingers and hit the ground. I hear panting and footsteps of B & JJ but can’t tell how close they are. I obey and don’t look back. “I’m dropping you now. RUN”. We fall to the ground and run. These were the days of unalarmed, unlocked cars. Her right arm reaches out and grabs sissy by the back of the shirt, shoving her through the open driver side window. I open my door, jump in and curl into a ball. Driver door slammed. Key into the ignition and the car starts. Tires burn out leaving skid marks from the driver’s side tire. The acceleration slams my door shut. I sit up and look out the back window and see B & JJ bending down, hands on knees, exhausted.
Gram, serious and calm. Her hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles looked like they would pop out of her skin. Her right leg pressing so hard on the gas pedal trying to make the piece of shit engine go faster. “It’s over girls.” Wet bathing suits. No shoes. Calm Gram. Life continues as usual.
I was confused, but not shaken. I wasn’t shaken because she wasn’t shaken. She behaved how I now behave. Behavior that is often mistaken for unemotional or cold. In reality, it’s just serious. We went to the Friendly’s take-out window for ice cream. None of us wearing shoes. Life went on.
Gram in a nutshell:
She took me to see every breakdancing movie that came out. Ever. She was obsessed with gang wars being resolved by dance battles. This knowledge hasn’t come in handy in real life…. Yet… (I’ve got my cardboard slab ready to throw down)
She felt it was important that I could find my way around by myself. She would tell me our destination and I would have to tell her how to get there. I now have a keen sense of direction and no fear of getting lost.
She knew that I didn’t enjoy life. She knew I was capable but that I just had no desire to enjoy it. I felt it was unproductive. One of the ways she countered this tendency was to bribe me to enjoy myself. I would be allowed to stay up late, or to try on her clothes, or watch soap operas if I would enjoy myself for 30 minutes. She chose to do this by taping songs from the radio and playing them back on a small, portable tape player. She played the music loud. Very loud. No breaks. I had to dance the entire time. Not move my feet around. Not move my hands around. DANCE. I had to dance my ass off for 30 minutes. It was an order. It was also amazing.
I really dislike sports. I refused free Red Sox Tickets so many times when I worked in Boston that my boss asked me if I was crazy. I explained to him that sitting through a sporting event for me was akin to him having a crying baby held in front of his face, and asked if he wanted free tickets to that. No… no he didn’t. Gram was one of the most dedicated NY Yankees fans I’ve ever seen. She took me on a tour bus to the Bronx to see a game once. This was her happy place.
My grandfather was a stone mason by trade by a guitar player by heart. Gram played saxophone. In their basement was an oil tank covered in signatures from people having partied with them over the years. I loved that oil tank and wonder if the current residents have painted over the signatures.
Natale / Ned / Grampa (Added bonus, Natale means Christmas in Italian)
She complained about housework constantly. Her house was spotless. You could eat off the bathroom floor. Her complaints to me weren’t just annoyance or regrets over life choices, they were direction. Don’t be like me. Be something more. Do not do housework. Ask my husband, I don’t do housework. I should, but I don’t. Blame Gram????
Gram loved Bruce Springsteen. She would lecture me on his music with detailed explanations about why he was the best musician, and best human being, on the planet. “The Boss” really understood life, apparently. She was very interested in pop culture and fashion. I knew all about which dresses Nixon’s daughters were wearing and how Nancy Reagan was a fashion nightmare even though she meant well. Poor thing.
She taught me that health is our most important asset. She hiked every day. She also loved to eat (and loved forcing others to eat… a lot… and then eat again). She taught me about balance. Ok Marie you can eat a Jim Dandy for dinner but then the next day you’ll want to just have a salad. Don’t deprive yourself or life isn’t worth living.
For those not from New England, USA. THIS is a Jim Dandy. Hellll yea.
She taught me which plants you can eat and which plants could heal you. She taught me how to survive in the woods to the extent that I always felt being stranded in the woods was something inevitable… I’m still basically waiting for it to happen.
Gram learned as much as she could about rap music. She loved Run DMC. She bought me the Christmas in Hollis 45 record. We played it constantly. To me this was all very normal. In hindsight I re-think the scene. Me in my black, leather jacket, red nails and Metallica T-Shirt. Eating piles of pasta with poppy seed rolls. My grandmother in her Madonna-esque, but very appropriate, black outfit and thick silver, short, modern hair. Listening to Christmas in Hollis over, and over and over and over. When RUN DMC and Aerosmith later decided to collaborate, this was basically a national holiday for us. All very normal…
She must have told me a THOUSAND times to “Work in Computers”. “Computers are the future”. “You’ll never make it if you don’t know computers”. Yup, she nailed it. In 1981, she knew.
She was a fierce democrat. This isn’t uncommon for Italian immigrants, especially during this time. I would post the photo of us at a Mondale/Ferraro rally but my sister would stop speaking to me. Let’s just say we didn’t look our best that day (or that decade if I’m being honest).
Waste NOTHING. I swear this woman’s garbage on the curb was the size of my fist. She would find a use for everything, and if someone was wasteful I had to assume they were basically going to hell. Quickly. And we would be judging them as the descended.
She drove fast. She told it like it is. She did not GAF. She really didn’t. Except when she did. And when she did GAF it was about me. So she gets her own blog post, and she gets me punching anyone in the face who tries to tell me she wasn’t amazing. My often irrational, demanding, ungrateful, bitter and extremely loyal Italian Superhero.
Gram / Domenica / Maggie