|Grandma and me, 1967|
(Note: This was published as a Des Moines Register guest essay in December 2005.)
Three years ago Christmas, my grandmother died. The date is significant; my grandmother was a diva before the word entered the popular vernacular, and family members joke that she wanted to make darned sure no one forgot the anniversary of her death.
Even more significant to me, though, is the fact that she wasn’t my grandmother at all. Not really, if you’re a purist who would classify a grandmother as a flesh-and-blood relative. But she was more a grandparent to me than any of my “real” grandparents, one of whom died long before I was born, two others who died when I was 4, and a fourth who died when I was 20 after never really seeming to know my name or like me much.
Grandma came into my life shortly after I arrived. Her son was preparing to marry my sister, who is 20 years older than I. Grandma, an only child, was the mother of an only child, and she reportedly became excited at the possibility of having a baby around. The first mention of her is in my baby diary, written by my sister because our mother was ill after my birth. “Louise brought a beautiful velvet romper suit from Younkers,” the notation reads. “I’m afraid Lisa has already outgrown it.”
As also is chronicled in my baby diary, my mother never shook the infection that took hold of her when I was a newborn, and cancer claimed her when I was 4; during her last two years, she was too ill to care for me, and my sister and brother-in-law, Jon and Teresa, took me in, as well as my father, who came to live with us after Mom died. Jon and Teresa started their own family at the same time, giving me, for all practical purposes, siblings.
Into this confusion swept Grandma and Grandpa, as well as Grandma’s parents, Nana and Papa. Nana and Papa lived next door to Grandma and Grandpa, and in the two houses that made up their little compound on Des Moines’ southwest side, I became the princess. Whenever anyone says, “Oh, it’s so sad that your mom died when you were little,” intimating that my life must have been awful, I wish I that person could have known the kindness with which my new relatives treated me.
Part of their regard for me was, I believe, borne of being Italian. In the Italian culture, children are revered; there is no such thing as “seen but not heard.” Every Sunday at noon, when we walked into Nana and Papa’s house for dinner, I promptly was handed peanut M&Ms and a Pepsi, even though I made a mess every time by dropping the candies in the soda to watch their colored shells dissolve. And although I was too little for the Chinese checker game on the top shelf of the closet in the foyer, I could play with the marbles, even if I had lost some the previous time.
It’s impossible to approach Christmas without thinking of them – in particular, Grandma. Walking into her house on Christmas Eve was a child’s wonderland come to life: elegant tree and presents, trays upon trays of sweets, table that had been set with china days before, then covered with plastic to keep out the dust. And there was Grandma herself, lacy apron over festive pantsuit, planting kisses our cheeks, sometimes leaving traces of lipstick or flour. Telling me, awkward and frizzy-haired as I was, that I looked beautiful.
And when it was time to open presents, hers were always, always my favorites. Books, usually -- Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott when I was little. Later, the Bronte sisters and poetry – the Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath volumes I yearned for, as well as her own preference, Robert Frost. Gradually, my family came to realize I could not open a present from Grandma first, or I’d go off to a corner and bury my head in a jumble of pages the rest of the night.
Grandma was not a conventional type of Italian nana; she preferred décolletage to housedresses, heels to sensible oxfords. She smelled not of pasta and sauce – she cooked, but preferred baking -- but of Tabu, her signature fragrance. She and my grandpa loved for us to visit, but didn’t relish our spending the night; they kept their beautiful home tidy and liked to go to bed early, and we tended to interfere with both those things. She was artistic, painting china and doing elaborate needlepoint. She believed in her talents and loved the praise she received when she showed them off.
She also believed in me. Perhaps because of the early loss of my mother, I was slow to trust, slow to reach out. In a book of poetry Grandma self-published when I was a young teenager, she called me “aloof,” a word that stung at the time, but was no doubt accurate. And yet she, along with Grandpa and her parents, persevered. They loved me wholeheartedly and accepted that I loved back cautiously.
As I grew into my teens, I began to lower the wall that had kept me from being as demonstrative as I so wanted to be. I finally was able to become the affectionate granddaughter, the one who was able to reach outside myself and visit on my own after school, to sit in Grandma’s kitchen as she baked. We would talk about boys, about my schoolwork, my plans for college, for life. Grandma had quit teaching when she married, and she told me again and again to work, and to keep working. She kept trying to make me believe I was beautiful, but she praised my brains more.
When you’re a child who has lost a parent – even if you have the most wonderful parent-substitute and functional nuclear family – you are different. The effortless way Grandma and her family accepted and loved me made me feel less so. Names and labels are important to children, and labeling relationships was a big deal to me; I may not have had a mother, but I had a Grandma. She called me her granddaughter. Later, she called my son and daughter her great-grandchildren. She went a long way toward making me feel whole.
It was hard to let her go. It still is. She died in the early hours of Christmas morning after having spent Christmas Eve surrounded by all of us. My sister and I had stroked her smooth skin and told her how lovely she was. She wasn’t able to speak, but her dry lips shook a little, and she smiled.
I think of that moment tonight as I rush around my kitchen. I’m not much of a cook, but do I like to bake, and I’m going to make trays this year, the way she did – different kinds of cookies, even candies if I can manage it. As these things tend to go, I wish I had told her, when I had the chance, how much I appreciated her for loving me. For being my Grandma.
She would have told me it took no effort at all – that God had given her three grandchildren, and I was simply the eldest of them.