Tag Archive | "remembering grandparents"

Of Roses, Thorns, and Stevedores

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He’d inadvertently witnessed a Mob slaying when his wife was eight months pregnant.  Under cover of night, taking virtually no possessions, they fled New York City for Boston, grateful to be escaping with their lives and that of their unborn child — their first of ten boys and girls.

Thus was the unborn child in this real-life drama, my grandfather, the only one of his siblings to emerge from the womb not in The Big Apple, but in Bean Town.  Due to the very real fear of a Mob reprisal, my grandfather’s birth in 1891 was so clandestine that all his parents ever recounted was, “Joe was born on a hot day in July.”  Since that was like saying that Eskimos lived in the cold, my granddad, as a boy, adopted the Fourth of July as his birthday.  It was a date appropriate for a budding patriot and future war hero.

As an American-born kid of Italian immigrant parents, he grew up fast and hard in a town a lot more Irish than Italian.  When the Mobsters in question were all safely behind bars, the family moved back to New York City, a literal stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Bridge.  Joe took with him his street smarts and wry sense of humor.  Both of these stood him well in his job as stevedore on the rough Brooklyn docks.

In those days, mobs of n’er-do-wells, tipped off by their buddies on the wharf, would lie in wait at night to overcome and sometimes kill the stevedores in order to loot the valuable incoming freight.  The Irishmen on the docks didn’t like Joe any better in New York than they had in Boston, but he never backed down from a fight.  Eventually, they grew to respect him, his fists, and his “never say die” attitude.

Joe worked hard, but so did his wife, my grandmother Rose.  Rose only married him to get out of the house, or so she’d vowed, and often, right in front of my grandfather!  But theirs was a true love story, bittersweet and inspiring.

Held a virtual captive under her father’s roof seven days a week for eight long years as her family of eight’s sole source of income (she sewed gloves purchased by a manufacturer in the city), Rose was not swept off her feet by Joe, whom she had met at a rare family function, in a rare moment of respite.  But he fell hard for her beauty and natural charm, and she liked his humor.

She liked the fact that he stood up to her father, the family despot.  She liked it that Joe dressed nattily when he wasn’t dockside, with diamond pins in the lapels of his fine suits; she liked it that he’d been to the opera as well as the motion pictures (unprecedented treats for her).  She liked that he was knowledgeable and passionate about politics.  She liked that he took her to ice cream parlors in the days when women were still frowned upon in such establishments, and that he proudly showed her off there.  Joe was a man of the world and she, a quiet Italian immigrant eleven years his junior, an immigrant, at the time, with no English language skills.

On the eve of their marriage, in church, Joe and Rose sat a little too close together for my maternal great-grandmother’s tastes.  She told her future son-in-law to keep his hands where she could see them.  Joe grinned his famous mega-watt smile and asked if his mother-in-law-to-be would like to sleep between him and his bride the following night!

Joe taught Rose English.  She taught him spirituality.  They shared a sense of humor wrought of growing up in hard times.  All went well with Joe and Rose, and their growing family, until he became permanently disabled as a result of an old, increasingly debilitating injury sustained in World War I.

Theirs had been a traditional marriage, but when my grandfather was no longer fit for dock duty, or any job for that matter, my grandmother secured work in a factory, sewing those gloves.  Her skill, persistence, and strong people skills earned her the job of supervisor: a decent-paying job to which many men of her class aspired, particularly during the Great Depression, when so many were jobless and hungry.

Joe stayed home to raise their four children.  Rose made the money and eventually purchased a family home in a nicer section of Brooklyn, all on her own dimes.  Once, pushed to the limit and knowing her rights as a sworn-in American citizen, my grandmother broke the back of a corrupt union.   She did it single-handedly, logically, and courageously, knowing that she had five mouths to feed at home and knowing how rough the unions were, even in those days. Methinks she learned a thing or two from her husband, the former stevedore — but her victory was won without ever striking a literal blow.

My grandmother was a strong, spiritual woman; my grandfather, a strong, spiritual man.  Neither one of them groused about their odd but workable role reversal.  They were simply partners, life partners supporting each other and their family.

The habits that Joe had acquired during the early days of this role reversal were never discarded; as a small child growing up under his roof, I saw them firsthand.  Never have I known a woman to keep a house so neat and orderly as my granddad, never — and in the Italian-American culture, this is saying a lot.  He kept the house, cooked the meals, gardened, and made sure his kids toed the line and grew up right.

As the first grandchild born into his house, I became his primary lifeline to the outside world.  He had his daily newspapers, TV, radio, and Life magazines, of course; he had the neighbors and his nine siblings and their families for conversation and company.  But it was me he took an interest in most.

From my grandfather, I learned about politics; from him I gained an appreciation for the early, laudable mission statement of the Democrats.  I’d come home every day in my little Catholic school uniform, and he’d want to know what I had learned in school.  We’d discuss those things, and then he’d illuminate what the nuns had not: who President FDR was, why he was such a great man, and how he’d saved the nation during the Great Depression.  He’d speak also of the intrepid Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.  He’d held up John F. Kennedy as the greatest President we’d ever had, after George Washington and Abe Lincoln, of course.

We’d peruse the newspapers together and he shielded me from nothing.  The Vietnam War raged on during my grammar school years, and the animosity between a tiny, brave nation (Israel) and a bloodthirsty Middle East was really heating up.  The papers, and Life magazine, were filled with the most horrible stories and photos.  Although a decorated war hero, my grandfather would turn his dark, solemn eyes upon me and say, “War is never glorious; war is hell.”

I don’t think they ever realized it — and my grandfather barely lived to see it — but his patriotism and hatred of war, coupled with my grandmother’s courage and fundamental knowledge of U.S. law, set the table for me to demonstrate peacefully for positive change, both in New York City and our nation’s capital.

During the summer, when school was out, I’d become my grandfather’s secretary.  He’d dictate letters to me and I would write them out longhand. But he always posted them himself.  He’d joke, “I want to be sure you put them in the mail box and not the fire alarm box.”  Some of the letters were to his cousin, one of the founding Sisters of the Carmalite order, of whom he was very proud.  Others went to a surviving war buddy; still others were sent to family friends.  When I finally borrowed a typewriter in my early teens and he spied the results on paper, he was astounded, wanting to know how I got the print so very neat!  He taught me politics and I taught him the technology of the times, including the benefits of a transistor radio during a major blackout.

My granddad, along with my grandmother, also taught me the joy of cooking.  It was he who taught me never to overwork dough for pastries, for it would become tough.  Upon my first solo attempt at cinnamon rolls, he cracked, “We can send these to the Israelis to use as weapons.”  I was hurt, he apologized, and we both had a good laugh.  And never again did I muck up the pastry dough!  He died at the age of 80, as a direct result of that old war injury, the worst of which he’d managed to keep at bay for decades.  My grandmother had told me many times, “In those days, men died like flies on the operating tables, with injuries like that.  God spared your grandfather for many good years.”

Some of my relatives still recall my grandfather as a hard man, intractable in his views and, like his political heroes, speaking softly but carrying a big stick.  I remember a man who still flirted with my grandmother when they were both senior citizens, a man who always took the time to speak with me as if I had a brain instead of being a child to be “seen and not heard,” a man who quietly solidified the unflagging spirituality that had bolstered my grandmother through some very hard times.

To this day, I do not carry a single bad memory of my grandfather.  All I have are fond memories that never fail to make me smile.  When he passed after I’d turned 16, I had a dream about him, almost as soon as we’d buried him.

In the dream, I was walking along the avenue on which we’d lived.  I ran into my grandfather coming from the opposite direction and cried, “Grandpa, what are you doing here?!?”  Even in dream state, I was well aware that he had passed on.  Excitedly, he said, “Kat-a-leen, we always talked in life.  You always gave me good advice and I gave it to you.  Up in heaven, where I am now, I met this Jewish lady.  She’s very nice.  But more than that, she knows her politics.  We have wonderful heated discussions; they’re so lively and I enjoy them so much.  What do you think about that?”

He seemed to want my approval.

Shocked, I blurted, “Grandpa!   If you’re having a relationship with this Jewish lady, even a friendship, what are you going to tell Grandma when she joins you in heaven?!?”

He looked just as stunned as I’d felt.  “You’re right!” he exclaimed.  “Of course, you’re right. I didn’t think about that.  Thank you!”  With that, the dream ended!  

In retrospect, I am not so sure that it was a dream; it may have been a nighttime communiqué from my granddad, from the other side, for it was so very like him.   To this day, I wonder if my grandmother, when she got to Heaven to join him, went looking for that nice Jewish lady to give her a piece of her mind! 

In Grandma’s Garden

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When my grandmother was thirteen, she was yanked from the place of her birth, a lush island off Italy’s western coast, a stone’s throw from Amalfi, to immigrate to America.  There, she had a rude awakening.  Not only were the streets not paved with gold, as a young teen, she was forced to become the sole support of her family of eight, toiling seven days a week with but an hour off to attend Sunday Mass.  Many years later, when she’d purchased her second house singlehandedly, after my grandfather became disabled, she cultivated two beautiful and very distinct gardens in the little patches of land front and back of that house.

Now that I look back on the love and care that she poured into those gardens, I wonder if they were her way of reconnecting to her homeland blessed with volcanic soil, abundant produce, and all manner of luxuriant flowers.  When I was a child, however, I simply enjoyed the gardens.

The front garden boasted tulips, daffodils, deep blue “snowballs” (hydrangea bushes), two small evergreens, and her signature roses.  Although my grandmother never showed any of her blooms formally, they would have snagged First Prize in any competition.  She used no Miracle Growâ„¢ or store-bought fertilizer; all she used were table scraps for compost, along with time, effort, and the magic ingredient: love.   The flowers were so huge and so gorgeous that, when she allowed me to take a few to the nuns in school, the good Sisters of Mercy assumed that they were fake — they were that perfect!  Mortally offended, I set the nuns straight.

However, no such problem existed with my grandmother’s show-stopping roses grown in sherbet colors of candy pink, cherry red, lemon yellow, and tangerine.  Wafting their heady scents, the Sisters understood at once that these were genuine. Whether my grandmother’s talent was a reflection of her given name, Rose, I’ll never know.  Despite the bounty that the nuns and my family enjoyed, many of the roses were grown for no human nose, and woe betide us if we attempted to sniff those on my grandmother’s watch!

My grandmother was a deeply spiritual woman, spiritual in a practical sense.  She was fully convinced that her unwavering faith had interceded to save the lives of not one, not two, but three family members.  In manifesting that faith, she reserved the very best blooms for a statue of the Blessed Mother, not in the garden, but in the house.  The more roses she cut for the Blessed Mother, the more grew to take their places, somehow even more stunning than their predecessors.

Eventually, my grandfather must have gotten a bit miffed with my grandmother claiming all the glory of that garden.  He took himself down to his workshop in the basement one day, and using a drawing he’d asked me to sketch as a guide, fashioned a little wooden donkey drawing a cart.  Into the cart went, you guessed it, some of my grandmother’s flowers.  Neighbors and strangers alike often stopped in front of the garden to admire the teamwork and handiwork of my talented grandparents.

The garden at the back of the house, however, was a different story.  While this was not totally wild, it was a lot closer to an English garden than the carefully manicured plot in front of the house.  Red roses of a more plebeian variety climbed and twined profusely about a white wooden trellis that my granddad had constructed and erected at the garden’s entrance.  My grandmother didn’t care if I picked these, or the others, creamy with a near-pink center, nearly obliterating the back fence from view.  The only thing that made these roses plebeian was their size and form.  They were smaller than the show-stoppers, and the petals looser.  Freely, they opened their fragrant heads to the sun, displaying golden stamen and serving as playgrounds for the bumblebees, which were frequent visitors.

I hadn’t remembered how very profuse those everyday roses were, until my parents unearthed a photo just this past weekend. The roses were everywhere, dwarfing little old me.  But somehow, in that small patch of earth, my grandmother also found room for a large birdbath, a fickle fig tree, some herbs, and squash.  Although every inch of soil was maximized, I never really knew what that garden would yield.

The deep yellow-orange flowers of the squash, my grandmother dipped into a secret batter and fried.  They were the most delicious snacks on warm summer days.  Sprigs of mint growing in the little herb patch went into iced tea (the real, brewed kind), baked fish (yes, and it was superb!), and sautéed squash with garlic, oil, and vinegar, served cold and scrumptious.  The figs were the best, when the tree cooperated.  Their plump dark skins were but masks for the bright, sweet, moist and delicious fruit!

Brooklyn, New York is not known for its wildlife, but whatever was wild staked a claim to the garden.  Once, I spied a cat chasing a squirrel that was, in turn, chasing a bird.   The squirrels were clowns and my parents tore their hair out over my antics with them.  I’d feed them, you see, and coax them to run along our clothesline until I’d toss a peanut butter sandwich down below, or a handful of walnuts that always seemed to be in our pantry.

Once, I attempted to feed one of the squirrels by hand.  I borrowed one of my dad’s thick leather gloves and laid out a trail of nuts leading directly to me … to where I crouched, motionless, with another nut in my outstretched hand.

Over the course of weeks, I repeated this ritual, nut in hand, hand in glove, and squirrel just out of reach.  It was always the same squirrel; I grew to recognize him.  He came so close that I could count the hairs in his gray-brown coat, but he never trusted me enough to snatch that last nut out of my palm.  Maybe it was a good thing he didn’t.  I did not understand, then, that it’s not a good idea to tame a wild animal, for too many two-footed animals abound that take pleasure in harming the four-footed.

The gardens are long gone now.  I paid a visit to my childhood home about ten years ago, and Tom Wolfe was right: you really can’t go back again.  However … after I had moved to New Jersey and buried my beloved grandmother, I dreamed that my family — including my grandfather, who had passed on many years earlier — was gathered in our front garden.  My grandmother was not on the scene, and yet, we all sensed her presence and her love.  The blooms were even more colorful and fragrant in dream land than they’d been in waking life.  And the sense that I got was that my grandmother was asking us all to take care of her garden.  Not the physical garden, but the garden of spirituality that had yielded so many blessings for a once poor immigrant Italian girl. 

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