Gram

Continuing George’s topic of random thoughts, I wanted to share some musings about my grandmother.

After the death of my grandfather, gram came to live with us and became an integral part of our family.  At sixty-nine, she was still a great cook, mobile, and strong-willed.  She could also sew everything and anything having been a seamstress in Bucharest Romania as a young girl.  At the time, we lived in a comfortable 4-bedroom ranch in a small but growing town in Westchester, just north of the Bronx where Gram and Grandpa raised their family.  Gram had her own room as did I.  My sisters bunked together and my mom had the master suite to herself as my father had disappeared from our lives leaving behind nothing but his empty side of the bed.

Gram was always there when we came home from school.  Food was her love language and there was always a snack or treat for us before we went out to play.  

In the summer of 1960 we lost our home to whom someone my father had sold the mortgage and we temporarily moved to a motel until the lease was up on my grandmother’s cottage.  In the fall, I went off to college, gram went to stay with my uncle in Long Island, and my mom and sisters rented a summer bungalow.  With only a kerosene heater for warmth, they managed and eventually moved into Gram’s 650 square foot, 2-bedroom, one bath cottage in mid-winter.  This is where I called home through college and into my first two years as a teacher.  Gram had one bedroom, my mom and sisters shared the other and I had the fold up bed stored in the living room closet.

Throughout my college years, grams health declined and she eventually became bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis.  She was no longer able to move around much and was unable to cook.  However, she could still hold a needle and thread and would often mend a tear or put on a button for us as needed.  It gave her great pleasure to be able to help us despite the struggle it was for her to use her fingers.

Gram had few things that motivated her to sit up or venture off her bed and into the kitchen or living room.  She loved good food and looked forward to my mom’s meals.  Of course it always needed a pinch more salt or slightly more sweetener, but she always ate it up.  And, every day at 3:00pm, Gram would will her body, aided by her small wooden cane, into a chair in the living room.  She would lean forward and pull out the on/off button on our 15” black and white TV and watch General Hospital.  How she loved that show.  She would laugh, get angry, call a particular character names, and become completely involved in the story as if it were really happening.  Her eyes would sparkle as she spoke aloud to them as if they could hear her warnings or displeasure with a decision they made.  I loved watching her watch her show.  Then, when it was over, she would use the tip of her cane to push in the button to turn off the TV and amble back to her bed hoping someone was home who wanted to hear what had just happened in the lives of those doctors and nurses.

Gram also loved money.  She loved seeing cash, feeling the bills in her fingers, and counting them one by one, over and over again.  This was the ritual every two weeks after I would get paid.  I would cash my check and bring home the bills for Gram to count.  She was thrilled that I had a regular job and was able to bring home what she considered to be a considerable amount of money on a regular basis.  But somehow it wasn’t real unless she could see it, feel it, and count it.  I still remember how animated she would get as I watched her lick her fingers to be sure she didn’t allow any bills to stick together as she checked and rechecked the amount.  

We didn’t have much during that time, but somehow Gram always gave us something to smile about and something to feel good about.  

A.K.A—Gamma

Baby Girl: Maria Matiacchio  ……Born June 21, circa 1881(birth records a little sketchy back then)  …..Cirigiliano, Basilicata, Italia.

A.K.A.— Gramma

Definition- unconditional love

Where do I start?  I never knew my grandfather.  He had had a stroke and was bedridden from before i was born til he passed away when I was 2.  My first memory of Gramma was when I was maybe three or four.  Gramma and my two aunts lived on the corner of 1st Ave and 23rd St on the Lower East Side in a 6 story walk up apartment building.  We lived a few blocks away then and every Sunday we would walk to their apartment for Sunday Dinner. I remember turning the corner and we could see Gramma sitting in her fire escaped kitchen window waiting for us to get close enough to throw down sugar cubes for my brother and I.  As silly as it sounds it was very exciting for us.  She said it gave us the strength to make it up the 6 flights of stairs!  I question the science there but if Gramma said it it had to be true!

She was unconditional love and I would feel totally safe wrapped on her lap, she in her house dress and b old lady black Italian shoes.  For some reason my dad was the patriarch of the family and relatives from far and near would come to see him to get permission to get married, or buy a house or move out of the area.  The only person who had any kind of authority over him was Gramma.  She was a tough old broad, and I mean that in the best of ways.  She loved American tv!  Her “shows” were sacrosanct and everything had to stop when The Millionaire came on and she would keep listening to hear someone walking up the stairs to the apartment with Mr. Anthony who she was convinced was going to give a check for her a million dollars.  She would always remind us that John Bears Fatipta would provide for us.  You have to be old enough to remember that show to know what that was.  And above all shows was her all time favorite….Hopalong Cassideetch!  You could not make a sound when good old Hoppy, as she called him, was on the tiny 13 inch screen with the rabbit ears on top.

Life was pretty simple back then and routine was rigidly enforced so we saw Gramma every Sunday til we finally moved out to the country when I was 5.  My folks wanted me out of the city before I started school and we bought a house in Flushing, Queens.  My dad soon after found an apartment for Gramma and the aunts two blocks away from our house, so I could now stop in and visit on my way home from school to see if they needed anything from Bohacks or the A&P just around the corner. 

She and I had a special bond.  On my 12th birthday, a few months before her death, she got me a miraculous medal.  Most Catholic kids in the city had miraculous medals, but this one was special.  My dad worked for a prominent doctor in NYC who had high end clients.  One client that my dad became very friendly with was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. (He is currently up for saint hood).  He had a TV show called One Life to Live and he was a very controversial, sort of liberal, Catholic Bishop who was expected to become the next Cardinal for the city, but he did something to tick off the powers that were and Cardinal Spellman got the promotion.  My grandmother insisted that my medal be blessed by Bishop Sheen and so my little MIraculous Medal that to this day still hangs around my neck was blessed by Bishop Sheen.

Several months later, just before midnight we got a call from my aunts that Grandma was having one of her spells.  Dad and I rushed over to the apartment and even I knew as a 12 year old that this wasn’t just a spell.  Gramma was trying to hold on but I remember her saying good bye to my two aunts, my dad and then me.  She took my hand, squeezed it as bet she could and said good bye.  My dad got on the phone and called Bishop Sheen and within 45 minutes a limo pulled up in front of the apartment and His Eminency came rushing up to the apartment to give Gramma the last rights.  She passed quietly shortly after he finished and I saw my dad close Gramma’s eyes for the last time.  It was a very intimate moment and I will never forget my dad’s face, my aunts silently crying in each others’ arms and Bishop Sheen’s hand on my shoulder.  But for the last 52 years that medal hangs around my neck and at difficult times I still hold it in my hand and conjure up the one person who always made things better for me!

Pop

I envy Hen’s relationship with his Gram.  My maternal grandmother died when I was three or four and for a number of reasons we did not have a close relationship with our paternal grandparents. Luckily, our paternal grandpa was a treasure.

My grandfather was a man small of stature, but solid. He led a physical life – as a farm worker, shepherd, navy cook, iceman, and masonry contractor. He was an orphan, unschooled, who taught himself to read and write, both in Italian and English. As a young man, he prided himself on his luxuriant handlebar mustache – bright red. No wonder he loved my red-haired, blue-eyed brother so much! By the time we knew him, the mustache was trimmed and gray.

This man was always cheerful, whistling and singing Italian folk songs. But perhaps this was not always the case. In early pictures, you could sense a steely-eyed gaze. Grandpa had one distinguishing physical mark: his nose was crumpled with a pronounced scar, the result of a fight. Supposedly, his opponent had tried to bite his nose off. That had to be painful! I read somewhere that a guy had bees sting him all over his body to measure pain – and he reported that the nose was clearly the most painful place (thank heavens for such pioneering research).

Well, this is the stuff of legends — and hard to reconcile with the gentle, happy-go-lucky guy everyone call ‘Pop”. And when you think about it, what kind of fight results in someone trying to bite off your nose? I mean, seriously, who gets close enough to do that? Sounds like a last act of desperation. Let me ask you, would you want to bite off someone’s nose? Food for thought. Okay, enough about that…

I have many memories about Pop, although we did not see him regularly. He lived with my aunt, cousins and second-cousins in a stucco three story block building in Rockaway Beach – two blocks from the ocean.  The place looked like a white fort, built flush to the sidewalk with a courtyard behind the building. You entered the rear of the building through a stucco arch, which is generally where we would be greeted by Pop with an orange and a dime. He had an apartment in the back where he kept his fig tree and goat. 

So many stories: Pop was the one who had his own method of potty training (taught me to pee in a bottle – a habit I’ve since broken, but may be revived in further old age). He considered wine quite healthful, so he started my brother on 8 oz. glasses of wine – at seven years old (‘Mom, come quick!’). We had our first taste of raw goat’s milk from Pop’s goat. I remember him staking out the codfish on a board in the sun to make Baccala – salt dried codfish (another taste sensation – not!)

Pop used to make coffee in an open pot on the stove. He’d bring the water to boil, then add coffee grounds to the pot and liberally pour in Four Roses whiskey to make sure it all went into solution properly. I guess that’s how the pre-WWI Italian Navy rolled…

However, what I remember most about this man is how he took my brother and me aside for a discussion one day. In his broken English he told us “You be good men”. This was not a throw-away line – it was a moral imperative which we took – and still take — very seriously. It’s the prime value I assign to people: is this person a ‘good person’; am I acting like a good person? I hope so, because I’d like to please him. 

Anthropologists talk about the strength of the ‘skip-generation’ relationships. It makes some sense in that grandparents can be life coaches without the day-to-day authority issues parents have to deal with. My life coach kept it simple: ‘Be a good man’. I still have his beat up fedora and briar pipe…

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