Grandma Lucia

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Beneath a self-crowned torus of silver braids
behind thick bifocals
my mother’s mother, Lucia,
imparted her aproned counsel:
“you’re growing up now,
and pretty soon those boys
are going to start making eyes, and maybe
some boy is going to ask you to go with him….”

“Sure, you can go along for awhile
and then tell him you are thinking about
a nice pair of gold earrings,
and pretty soon he gives you the earrings
and then, maybe you’re not so interested in him
any more and bye and bye another boy comes along.
So you go with him and make nice
and you want a pearl necklace …. “

This strategy wended itself up to gold watch
but meanwhile, I’d have amassed
a pirate’s chest of jewelry and possibly
several pubescent broken hearts.
Even in budding cluelessness
I had the immediate conviction
“This isn’t cool”!

Lucia’s ten sons and daughters –
competed with each other to redo her bathroom
or update an air conditioning unit
swayed by one of her oft wielded aphorisms:
“The sun shines on the one closest to it”
They compared highlights of her strategies –
fondly evoking Machiavelli’s name.

Born in the blizzard of 1888 in New Haven
to Italian immigrant parents
who had never seen snow
Lucia mentioned little of her childhood
beside a house “accidentally” burned down
when her father’s travel documents
were not forthcoming
and the immigrant child’s dilemma –
with a lesson attached.
“I went to school through the sixth grade
then my mother needed us girls to work.
We used to be the only Italian girls at the time –
they would call us Guineas and Dagos and I would say
‘Don’t you call me that you dirty stinkers!’
But we were kids. We didn’t know.
We didn’t know the the Irish were slaves under England –
We didn’t know that Rome dominated England for 400 years.
I love all people. The Irish, The Swedes, The Germans, The Polacks,
The Black people are still God Almighty’s children and still nice.
When I put my children to bed I sang to them and rocked them
and made them pray for all children.”

She was married off at 14 to a boarder in their house
15 years older and recently off the boat
who nevertheless seemed to have (as she told it)
his own gold watch hustle –
Pasquale’s watch had “gone missing” and if her parents
didn’t want any trouble
they could give their blessing.
I was so little when he took me”
she raised an indignant whiskered chin:
“I had to stand on a flipped over bucket
to just reach the sink …
and he was so jealous his eyes wouldn’t leave me –
I wouldn’t argue with him
but as soon as he was gone I’d raise hell,
dancing and singing and doing cartwheels in the fields”

Every 22 months another baby came
and of the 13, five girls and five boys survived.
She’d take the wheelbarrow uphill – carting
whichever children were too small for school
to the church for 25 pounds of corn meal
and 25 pounds of flour:
“They wouldn’t give you one without the other –
and I wasn’t ashamed with a bunch of children here –
It was the depression.”
Returning downhill the children rode on top of the sacks.

“I’d get the used feed bags
bleach them just as white as snow in two washtubs –
there was no such thing in them days as washing machines –
and sew nightgowns, pajamas, pillowcases, diapers …
Later we got goats, chickens, pigs, two milk cows.”
She wore her husband’s old boots going after the cows or else
“the snakes would twist around the bushes
and jump right out at you!”

Lucia canned milk and vegetables, slaughtered pigs
and stuffed sausage casings, crushed grapes,
was on call for an occasional midwifing sideline,
nursed a demented mother-in-law,
and brought eggs and chickens and wine to sick neighbors –
while telling her husband the chickens
ate their own eggs and were then run over in the lane –
and the wine jug had sprung a leak.
Her stories were riddled with spousal legerdemain:
“ He was stingy. You had to be one step ahead of him.”
In her Robin Hood logic:
“The right hand doesn’t see what
the left hand is doing”
“I was Robbing Peter to pay Paul’”

After 40 years of marriage,
her husband’s jealousy had not waned.
One of his friends informed him
that Lucia had been making eyes at Ottavio,
a widower, at the altar society meeting.
Lucia responded “If that man is telling the truth
may I be dead by Easter!” But if he is lying … “
The witness bearer was indeed dead by Easter,
as was her husband,
and she married Ottavio the next year.

“He had been a widower for ten years. I never looked at him,
I thought he was kind of sly.”
Her friends teased their tarantella bob-and-weave courtship –
He always seemed to turn up at all the church hall societies.
“He kept it up and kept it up.
One day I was so mad I went down on my knees and said
‘Dear Gawd Almighty, take me! I cant stand it any longer!
Take me!’ ”

Cranking the macaroni machine into which she fed her dough,
I heard many stories about the treachery of daughters-in-law,
(with whom she always magnanimously reconciled)
the various Italian Catholic societies she heroically
commandeered for fundraising banquet suppers –
1,800 meatballs a personal record.
After pasta was spread on clean bed sheets to dry
we packed it in shirt boxes for each of her ten children’s families.
She was still driving when we distributed the pasta
to my aunts and uncles –
we’d say the rosary while she drove
often with her cronies – the Kennedy sisters – riding shotgun.
But the rosary was talismanic – she welcomed in all proselytizers
at her door and quoted them verse for verse.
“I have Billy Graham’s Bible, I have the Jehovah Bible
I have the Catholic Bible, I have the Baha’i Bible –
they’re all the same – there is one Gawd Almighty.
And I believe in doing good in this world but if you can’t
or if somebody doesn’t know better – you have to forgive them.”

Forgive she did – I recall ‘Tavio and Lucia
in cataract induced scrutinizing collaboration
inches from the T.V. screen,
heatedly debating One Life to Live character intrigue
He with disgusted moral outrage – “Puttan!”
She with indulgent philosophical shrugs.
In the wake of another soap opera scandal,
passionate Calabrese dialect and gesture continued
while he stacked her Italian celebration cookies
with stiff slow patience
into huge exquisitely precise geometric domes
while, in clouds of sifted flour, she supervised her granddaughters
who mixed, rolled, baked, iced and embellished
for another family wedding.

 

Many of Grandma Lucia’s quotes were taken verbatim from an interview transcript
by the Ethnic Heritage Project in New Britain CT, on December 17, 1974 when she was 86 years old. Many of these quotes sounded quite familiar to me from stories she recounted to me and my cousins. The first quote she said directly to me, as I recall it.

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