By: Linda J. Dimitroff, ISDA Contributor
Rose, my maternal grandmother, was the most stubborn and loudest woman I have ever known. Grandma lived by her desire to control everything and everybody in her life. She lived true to this all the way to her death.
“OH DEAR GOD!” I imagine her screaming, clenched fist pounding her bosom. “WAIT! WA-AIT.”
“Wait for what, my child?” God replies.
“WAIT!” She commands, “I can open ‘da dam’a gate myself!”
That would be my Grandma, Rose Gaetano Esposito, giving God herself directions. After 90 years, 10 months of living and 2 months of dying, Grandma passed on, but not without last rites administered by the priest three different times.
“Gimme a hot sausage sandwich!” she demanded six days before her assault on heaven, “and a shot of whiskey!” I pray they have Brioski in heaven.
I am four. I go to Grandma’s house to help her bake a cake. Grandma carefully measures the flour, salt and baking soda then shows me how to sift it into the mixing bowl. I make a mess, but Grandma doesn’t yell at me. “Carmen, CARMEN!” she booms, cursing LOUDLY in Italian, until Grandpap, mumbling under his breath, goes down the stairs to get the broom and dustpan to clean up.
Scooping Crisco into a measuring cup with a stub of a spatula, Grandma slowly scrapes clean the contents into the bowl. Adding eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, and sugar, she beats them with a huge wooden spoon. Whipping the batter round and round, the huge bowl nestles to her ample bosom, as did her six babies born at home long ago. She pours the batter into round cake pans. Painstakingly, she scrapes the bowl clean, except for one last lick. Singing softly, “Little Leenda, leapin’ Leenda, would you like’a to licka ‘da spoon?”
Grandma’s house smells like dust, garlic, onions, pepper, and anise, an “Italian” potpourri, with distinct yet mostly compatible odors tossed together. I am five and love to visit. I wander around into the living room where the mantle clock chirps…tick-tock, click-clop. A glass snow globe rests on the coffee table. Inside is a red rose. A red red rose for Rosa, Rosie, Rose, I sing.
This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s monthly newspaper, which chronicles Italian life, culture and traditions. Make the ISDA pledge and subscribe today.
I lay on the scratchy carpet. To my delight, Grandma’s kitten “Puffnick” sniffs me. I crouch cat-like, I think, a yarn ball offering in my hand. “Puffffff-nickkk, here kitty, kitty,” I croon. “MeOWW-YEOW” yodels Puffnick as he scratches the right side of my face. Crying, I rush to Grandma’s bulky lap for comfort. “CARMEN, CHOOCH, ANIMALE!” she growls at Grandpap in her special mix of English and Italian.
I know it wasn’t Granpaps fault. It never was.
Granpap dropkicks poor Puffnick down the stairs into the dank cellar, muttering under his breath, “Goda dama cat.”
I stay overnight at Grandma’s. I am eight. Grandma wears a patched cotton housedress.
Working the iron treadle on her Singer sewing machine, pump-thump-pump, small seeds of sweat surface on her brow. I wait my cue, and then guide stacks of shirts and housedresses as Grandma directs my sewing. Triumphantly, the clothes march forward under the needle. The chorus of chores follow a strict order every week–Grandma washes clothes on Monday, irons them on Tuesdays, goes to the Market on Wednesdays, changes the linens on Thursdays, bakes on Fridays, bathes on Saturdays then rests some on Sundays.
Grandma wants to shop downtown. I am twelve. I watch her dress. Pulling on a clean housedress, she rolls up her stockings and squeezes her bunion feet into sturdy black shoes, powders her face, rouges her cheeks, sprays on lilac water. Combing her thinning but still brown hair, she sprays on All Net, and tucks exactly two bobby pins into her hair behind each ear. “Leenda, little Leenda,” she sings, “brunga’ my handabag, please; onda hall table.”
I skip over. It is large, black leather, opening on top like a doctor’s bag. I think I’ll break my arm carrying that handbag.
“Grandma, why is this so heavy, what’s in it?”
“Oh, all ‘da necessities a lady needs!”
Inside was a comb, lipstick, compact, crocheted handkerchief, old photographs secured by a rubber band, bus pass, social security card, letters from Italy, coin purse, 10 lbs. of hard tack candy, plastic rain scarf, a small umbrella, and a pair of galoshes.
Grandma is ready–for anything!
On Sunday, Grandma makes a special birthday dinner for me, the only daughter of an only daughter, now her College Girl.
I set the table with the good linens, the good china. Italian olives, proscuitto, cheeses, and butter to ripen to room temperature. Homemade meatballs, sauce, rolled round steak, hot sausage, rigatoni, fried eggplant, zucchini and cauliflower strain the table set with the extra boards. Pour some of Grandpaps’ homemade red wine into dime store juice glasses, dress the salad; time for everyone to sit at the table. Blessings said–and platters pass around. “Saluto alla famiglia! Mangia, mangia, mangia!”
The birthday cake, chocolate frosting trimmed in pink, has pink rosebuds, one for each year. We sing Happy Birthday and I blow out the candles. Grandma gives me the same gift every year; an envelope with a crisp ten dollar bill, a bottle of Breck’s Shampoo and a big can of All Net hairspray, (the price sticker still on), wrapped in used gift wrap. Grandma lived by Depression Era rules: never, ever throw anything away!
July 1994, I am visiting my family in Pittsburgh over a weekend. I lived and worked in Cleveland.
Mom and I visit Grandma at Mt. Lebanon Manor Nursing Home. Mom goes every day. Grandma has an enlarged heart, hardening arteries, incontinence and her strong will.
Grandma quietly sits in a wheelchair in her room; a hand crocheted shawl over her shoulders, another covering her lap. Shrunken to near normal weight, Grandma’s floury skin decides to hang on her limbs, limply like pasta waiting to dry.
“Hi, Grandma!” kissing her metallic tasting forehead, “how are you?”
“I’m doin’ good for an old lady. Who are you?”
“I’m your granddaughter, Linda–your daughter’s daughter. Don’t you remember me?”
She vigorously taps her temple as if she could loosen her memories. “No.”
“Mum, don’t you recollect her high school graduation?” Mom prompts.
“No, I don’d…you have two boys, never had a daughter.”
“Yes, I did, she’s right here. She lives in Cleveland, now, remember?”
“Cleveland?” She blinks. “Rachel? How’s my brudder, Tony?”
“Grandma, I’m Linda, your granddaughter,” I croak over a gush of tears, “Rachel is your niece, Tony has been dead for awhile.” She rocks slightly, tapping her temple repeatedly, sing songs in a soft raspy voice, “I don’d know why I don’d ‘member.”
After her death, absent her strong maternal presence, for a while the family was like a chorus singing out of key and off tempo. The only daughter of an only daughter, I score the music and lyrics of our opera “Famiglia,” as a tribute to my grandmother, Rose, before the melody of memories fades away and the rhythms of family forgotten.
Ringing in my head, I hear her voice singing softly a familiar rhyme, “Leenda, Leenda, leapin’ Leenda, I’m ‘a watchin’ you.”
I know she is.
Linda is a third generation member of ISDA. Her maternal grandparents are Rose and Carmen Esposito. Her mother’s family traces their roots back to the Calabria region of Italy.