Sunday Morning ~ Angels
December 9, 2018
My grandmother’s house was dark and cluttered. My father was the only one in the family who moved away and we‘d visit a few times each year. The house always spooked me. I only wanted to go to my cousin Janice’s, who had a bright new house on a sunny street across town, and we’d get there eventually, but when Nana was alive, hers was usually the first stop. My siblings and I would stand outside Nana’s house and argue about who would go in first. It smelled bad inside and I wanted to hold my nose the whole time. I remember pushing my brother and saying, “You go in. I went first last time!” My Nana didn’t speak English. She always wore (what I thought was) the same black dress. She wore a little hair net that made her head look like it was on an ancient doll, still in the packaging. We were afraid of her, or at least I was. If we moved anything in her house she’d yell at us in Italian. Maybe she wasn’t yelling, but I thought she was. We’d line up and she’d give us a hug and we’d go sit in the dark living room to look at Italian magazines. There was a section that had two identical-looking drawings, and the challenge was to find the twenty-one (or was it twelve?) differences between the two. It was the only thing I liked about going there. As we kids sat there looking for things that didn’t match, we’d hear all this Italian coming from the kitchen, animated and angry sounding to my little ears. My mother (who was not Italian) must have just sat there smiling. I never heard her speak. In summer months, we’d be given empty kleenex boxes and sent out back where there were huge raspberry patches beside a grape arbor. We’d fill the boxes with raspberries to eat on the way home. Beyond that was a river, but we never ventured there. I don’t remember being warned to stay away, but I don’t remember being tempted to go near it, either. GE was upstream; it smelled bad.
I haven’t been to Pittsfield in years, but a month ago, my first cousin Johnny died after a long and very unfair battle with dementia. My aunt Gene, his mother, had the same fate. Johnny, who’s gone by “John” for many decades, lived four houses down from my Uncle Aldo and Aunt Gene’s house where he grew up. We didn’t make it to Johnny’s funeral. He was 73 years old––– my generation, but older than me. His dad was the oldest, my dad the youngest; seventeen years between them. It set us apart a bit. I revered Johnny and his brother Tom (my godfather). Tom was handsome, debonair, and might as well have been a movie star. Johnny was more in the cute category: impish, funny, and fun. He always made me laugh, always eager to help, always fixing things.
Gone for a month now, we went to visit his widow and living saint, Bobbie. (What do you call the wife of your first cousin? Cousin in law?) We passed Uncle Aldo’s house and I was struck by how tiny it was. The backyard was smaller than my house! As a kid, I thought that yard was enormous! There was a huge (I thought) vegetable garden. The tomatoes were state-fair quality. It was lush and giving. I remember barbecues in that yard with about thirty people! As we looked at it yesterday I thought, how did we all fit? Maybe there weren’t that many people? But I’m sure there were! We had outside tables to sit on (I’m sure), and grills with charcoal briquettes, and I remember running around with my siblings and cousin Janice, whom I worshipped. She was only two years older than me, an only child, and to me, the older sister I always wanted. She was my mentor, heroine, and friend. We’d cry when we saw each other, and cry when we parted. The adults thought it was adorable. I thought it was tragic.
Yesterday, we drove by Nana’s old house; it’s still in the family. We pulled into the driveway and I got a tinge of the old anxiety. I looked at the backyard and thought, “It can’t be this small! And it’s on a pond, not a river! I always thought that was a river! How did a grape arbor and raspberry field fit here? It’s tiny!” The house is red now, not the greenish yellow it used to be, but I recognize the asbestos shingles. The house is still a little tilted, which, I found somewhat comforting. At least that was how I remembered it. Tilted.
As I ponder my inaccurate recollections, I wonder what else I’ve gotten wrong? Was Nana really that scary? Janice doesn’t think so. She loved her. She liked going to that house. I wonder if, on those long-ago visits, we’d gone to Janice’s house first, like I wanted to, and I went together with her to Nana’s, would I have had a totally different experience of that place? Would I have followed her lead? Learned a little Italian? I wonder now what I missed out on. My aunt, Janice’s mom, is still alive at 107 years old. She’s sharp as a tack, can remember everyone’s birthdate, and still surprises and amuses us with her poignant statements like: “It’s such a relief to have nice relatives.” It’s inspiring to be with her and part of her. We’re with her now in Vermont and both the company and setting are luscious. We never used to visit family at Christmas time. We stuck close to home and had the holiday with friends. It’s nice now to visit and see the season without frenzy and stress. Without frantic jobs and young children, it’s more reflective and peaceful. Discussing the topic of mortality today, Janice and I reminisced about when Nana died. We were still young, and when my father got the call, I remember feeling relief that we’d not have to go there again. Janice’s experience was very different. Her’s was more appropriately filled with grief for the loss of a loving matriarch who’d survived bringing her family across the ocean to a strange land, living in poverty and hardship, and loving her offspring in a way I never understood.
I felt badly about missing Johnny’s funeral. I believe in those rituals and wanted to be there. But I’m grateful to have had this weekend as it was, connecting with those I love and admire in a quieter way. When someone passes, I imagine them as an angel, happily pain and anguish-free. And instead of seeing them once in awhile, I feel like they’re around whenever you need them. They understand.
Love to all,