Two years ago today, I woke to a telephone call from my father. At the age of 96 and after a month of being confined to bed, my beloved Italian grandmother had passed. I read the following as her eulogy.
My first family death wasn’t until I was in college when my mom’s dad died suddenly of a heart attack. When I sought comfort from friends, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted them to say. But what meant the most to me was my friend Steve who looked at me and simply said, “tell me about your grandfather.” I did and it was cathartic and exactly what I needed.
So now I’m going to tell you about my grandmother, Laura.
She was born in 1915 and for me, it’s staggering to think of what that means. She would see two World Wars, and several smaller ones. She would see incredible advancements in technology. I think it’s amazing how far we’ve come the past 20 or 30 yeas but she was born at a time when cars were a novelty. When most people weren’t quite sure this thing called electricity was going to work out, and more often than not, people still used outhouses. Movies were still new, television was decades away, and even telephones must have seemed magical. I know she was amazed at how much our cell phones can do nowadays and it’s no wonder.
The most amazing thing for me was that she never seemed to change or age for me. For 40 years she was this ball of energy who always seemed to be on the go. When I told people that she was in her 90s and still lived alone, they were amazed. And then I told them she was still driving. She drove until just over a year ago and I know it broke her heart to give it up but I loved that it was her choice. She said her eyes just weren’t good enough anymore. Up until a week or two ago, her mind was as sharp as ever – we took old pictures in to her because none of us knew who some of the people were in them. She knew every one. She knew every person who came to visit her. She knew everything.
When she decided to stop driving, it was decided that I would buy her car from her. It was older than mine but in much better shape and my car needed replaced. We agreed on a fair price but when I went to pick it up, she met me at the door, smiling, and said, “Now I have a surprise for you.” She wouldn’t take my money. I said, “We had a deal.” But she wouldn’t budge and you simply do not argue with a 95-year-old Italian grandmother. In college, I interviewed her about some family history. There was a lot she didn’t seem to think was important but I did. I asked how she and grandpa had met. She said he was just another guy around the neighborhood and she hadn’t thought much about him at first. I had to really delve to figure out what had made him stand out. Finally, she said, “he was the only guy who had a car.” I love that they were married for 57 years – until his death in 1995 – because he had a car.
My cousins M– and M– – who are two and four years younger than me respectively – and I spent many a night at our grandparents house while growing up. We would get up early Saturday mornings and grandma would make what she called pitz frites – when I googled it recently, I found that they’re apparently called pizza frites but that’s not how she said it. She would make the dough from scratch and I remember waiting impatiently for it to rise. Once it did, she would make what looked like hot dog buns and then fry them. We cut them open while they were still warm, spread jam inside and sprinkled them with powdered sugar. They were delicious.
We’d often walk up to what grandma simply called the Corner Store, so named because it was a convenient store at the corner of their street. I think I was at least a teenager before I realized it had an actual name.
Once we came inside and got cleaned up or were getting ready for bed, she’d always say the same thing – “You’re gonna sleep good tonight!” I’m guessing now that she and grandpa slept better than we did but she never would have let on that we were in the way, too loud, or a bother.
I remember when it felt like an accomplishment to be taller than someone. Of course, at just around five feet tall, the first person all us grandkids passed was grandma. It seemed like such a big deal at the time.
I remember thinking Tang was orange juice. Grandma was a big fan of the drink because it was what the astronauts drank. I was probably a teenager before I realized orange juice was a completely different thing. She always seemed to have something baking and I’m pretty sure the smell of anise will forever linger in her kitchen. She was always giving me homemade pizzelles which I would share with friends and coworkers (I like them but could never eat as many as she gave me). Everyone in the family got a pizza for their birthdays. Couples got them for anniversaries. Every special occasion seemed to warrant a pizza. Sometimes there was no occasion. Sometimes she would randomly call and ask, “would you like a pizza next week?” Of course I always did.
And then there were the cookies – mountains of anise toast, pepper cookies, chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies, and more. Every Christmas. Or just because she wanted to.
Ten years ago, when I was getting ready to move back to Cleveland from western Ohio, dad’s entire family came to help me move. Grandma included. She was 85 but she was there for support which I have always thought was amazing. Last year, I started a small chocolate making business and she was always one of my best customers, buying stuff for church friends and young cousins last year at Christmas. She bought more at Easter and I’m pretty sure she paid me twice though I couldn’t convince her of that. Growing up, grandma made our Easter baskets. She molded chocolate (apparently it’s in my blood), wrapped meat trays in tin foil, and put the chocolate and other goodies in there before wrapping it in saran wrap. She even had a mold of the Last Supper and apparently I was quite scandalized by this when I was very young, thinking it too “holy” to actually eat. It seems silly to quote from a t.v. show right now but I recently heard something that rang very true for me. One character was comforting another because their parent’s health was failing. The adult child expressed how difficult it was going to be to watch her father decline. The other person said, “You’ll see. As soon as you walk out that door, you’ll remember him exactly the way he used to be. Everything is good outside that door.”
And it’s true. When I remember grandma, I will remember the vitality, energy and love that defined her for more than 96 years. I’ll remember her smile and that sweet voice