It’s a sad week for my family and I as our dearly beloved matriarch of the family, my grandmother, passed away last Saturday. She died peacefully in her sleep at the lovely age of 96. Although we knew her time was close and we’d had months to prepare (she’d fallen twice in the last six months, had broken a hip each time, undergone full hip replacement surgery, and then endured physical therapy and rehab), and had said goodbye several times, it still doesn’t prepare one for the ultimate finality. And so it has been a week of crying and grieving and coming to terms with this finality.
However, with the tears of sadness are also tears of joy. For grandma Nettie lived a full and abundant life. For the last several days I’ve allowed my mind to drift back in time, to retrieve the memories that have been stored over the decades. I’ve been surprised and yet delighted at what kinds of things have been recalled for I’d forgotten many of them.
Gran was born in Naples, Italy in 1912. She was the third of four children, having an older sister Beatrice and brother Joseph, and younger sister Mary. Her life in Italy was short-lived as both her parents succumbed to the Influenza breakout in 1915/1916. Various relatives had migrated to America years earlier and so the four children, aged 3 through 10, were sent via boat in 1917 to join their aunt & uncle in New York. Gran used to tell the story about how shortly before she was due to travel, she was out getting the goats and she got caught on the goat’s lead and the goat dragged her down the hill causing injury to her head. With bandages around her head, she was put on the boat and sailed to Ellis Island. She was almost turned away because of the injury and a cousin had to argue with the authorities to allow her entry into America with her siblings, lest they break up the family. She got in.
Her childhood was somewhat tough as her aunt & uncle owned a small grocery and the kids all had to work in the shop. The girls didn’t get much schooling and I don’t think she ever finished high school. Gran was a tomboy and a stubborn one at that, and she used to tell us about how she’d climb out the window at night to go meet up with her sweetheart, James ‘Jimmy’ Santora.
She married Jim in 1932 at the age of 20 and together they created a family, having a son, Donald in 1933, and a daughter, Carmella in 1939. I’ve heard stories about them surviving the Depression, how grandpa would wait on the food lines, how they made do with so little. But they scrimped and saved and in 1944 they bought a house in New Rochelle – 14 Island View Place (that address forever sticks in my brain!).
My mom got married in 1962 and I was born in 1963. For the first two years of my life, we lived with my grandparents at the house in New Rochelle. I have such fond memories of that house and can still recall all the details of the rooms, the furniture, the yard, and all the smells that went along with it. My grandparents were the center of their extended families and their house was always a place of big gatherings and parties.
Some of the things I remember from these years were their amazing vegetable garden and giant fig tree, the spaghetti and ravioli making days, Saturday ladies-poker day with the cousins (where I got to tag along and often was given a few pennies as a treat), stopping at roadsides to pick ‘cicoria’ (Italian for chicory and/or dandelions), and the endless pasta dishes: pasta fazool (pasta with chickpeas), pastina with spinach & egg, and of course, Sunday spaghetti day with homemade meatballs and pigs feet (eeyeew!).
In 1978, gran and gramps retired to Rockledge, Florida where her eldest sister had already moved. Other cousins were also there. I was 15, Joy was 5. We made annual trips from New York to Florida, often for Christmas or Easter. And the thing that became associated with visiting them was going to Disneyland and Sea World! They created another garden and gramps was often featured in the local paper for growing some unusually large vegetable. And now they had an abundance of fruit trees.
They made friends easily. They were avid golfers and belonged to the local golf club (where we got to go for lunch sometimes); they bowled, they continued playing cards, and they liked to dance (polka if I recall correctly). It was during this time that I was taught to play pinochle and this has carried on over the decades as a family tradition.
They traveled the world and always brought me back a doll from each country. I think at one point I had a collection of 25 dolls from different places around the world.
In 1990, after 58 years of marriage, grandpa passed away from lung cancer. Gran continued to live in the house and carried on; the golfing and bowling had stopped, the card playing continued. I moved to San Francisco in 1989, and in the early 90’s, Joy, gran, and her sister Mary (both now in their late 70’s) came to visit. The four of us, separated by over 50 years in age, had a great time. We took them up to wine country, had a picnic, went sightseeing, played cards.
In 1997, my parents retired to Florida, a bit further south than where gran lived. She was now in her late 80’s and it was time for her to be closer to her children. So her house was sold and she moved within a few miles of my parents in Boynton Beach.
Over the last 15 years, my memories of gran are all centered around family vacations as we started to do ‘destination’ vacations in addition to having us kids congregate in Florida. Me, Joy, mom, dad, and grandma have been to numerous places together, often with friends tagging along. We’ve holidayed in Maui (1993), Cabo San Lucas (1995), Cancun (1997), California (1991, 2002, 2007), and cruised the Caribbean islands (1999). Always good natured, I seem to recall her dancing in the conga line on one of these trips!
Gran was a good friend, a loyal parent, a loving grandparent. She enjoyed life’s simple pleasures – a good home-cooked meal, a game of cards, a romance novel. She was a smart consumer (coupons are king!) and she always had friends.
I’ve really appreciated these past two years since I’ve moved to New Zealand and started my own garden. I would often share photos and stories with her about what’s growing and what we’re harvesting, and she would always have some words of advice.
I’m amazed at how similar all the women are in our family. We love a good game, we enjoy cooking, we love to travel, we’re all pretty stubborn and willful, we’re all quite social. Well, if we’ve inherited all these genes, I hope that we’ve also inherited the genes for a long and healthy life. I hope I am like her, spunky till the end, living on her own, mind as sharp as a tack, appetite strong.
Gran, I thank you for being you. It’s been wonderful having you for so long and I know you’ll continue to watch over us. Rest in peace. Till we meet again………. We love you.