Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Grandma

Two and a half years ago I became a granddaughter. In life very often you will marry into a family and receive in-laws of all shapes and sizes- sister, mother, brother. This was not the case. The actual truth of the matter is- in the divorce-someone ELSE's divorce- while party A (my husband) and B (his ex-wife) split their marital assets amicably and divided custody of Elder and Little between them with grace, there was one asset that didn't quite fit into that careful, politically correct and oh-so-modern "happy divorce" settlement. That asset was Grandma Annie.

VLH and I were fortunate enough to find a house literally around the corner from where Elder and Little live with their Mom. This fell into the picture of the "perfect" divorce. I say these things in quotes because I know how much pain and even as time passes bouts of discomfort arise as fallout of something as emotionally devastating as the breaking up of a family. Finding a house so close to the boys felt just a little bit like even if they had two homes- at least they were close enough together that forgotten mittens or lost iPods or just a little unscheduled Dad or Mom time could be had with relative ease.

As the newcomer to this equation I understood all the benefits of moving into the neighborhood. But there was one benefit I hadn't anticipated. That benefit arrived on my doorstep the morning after we moved in. We spent the 1st night in outhouse with Elder and Little who were excited to "move in" but not so excited that they felt moved to unpack anything so day one dawned with me attempting to wade through boxes finding clothing and two shoes that matched for all parties. The bedrooms looked like a gypsy caravan had parked in them overnight with hastily thrown together beds, the living room was awash in wires and the only clear spot on the 1st floor was between the TV and the couch, because my husband and the boys had their priorities in order- we couldn't find a drinking glass but HBO and Showtime worked perfectly.

While I could find the TV I could NOT find VLH. I figured he was in another pile of boxes and I would find him eventually- like in the Spring when I went searching for the seder plate.

I was upstairs trying to decide between locating clothing from this decade and making the bed when I found my husband. I actually HEARD him- he was opening the entry door and I heard him speaking rather loudly- to someone and then I heard a stranger yell "YOOOO-HOOOOOO". "Come Down" VLH yelled up the stairs "I got someone you need to meet".

Standing at the bottom of the stairs beaming up at me was a - well- a little old lady. White haired, wrinkled comfy-shoed. I walked down the stairs smiling but unsure. "Hello,,," I said tentatively. "Melanie!" she yelled (I was standing in front of her) "I'm the Grandma!"

That was the beginning. Antoinette Dellaquilla roared into my life - 5'2" of solid enthusiasm. At first I was confused- shouldn't this elderly Italian lady be... well, MAD at me or something? Where was the spiky discomfort that came from the idea that somehow *I* had something to do with the divorce. All of that was definitely my issue, not hers.

At first I called her Annie- we would visit often as she lived literally around the corner in a house she had occupied since about 1960. VLH would cook things and send them over or we would stop by so a lightbulb could be changed or a smoke alarm battery replaced. Annie's front door is unusual- there is a traditional screened storm door in front of a wooden door with a 50's style cut-out of three circular windows that allow you to peek inside. The front of the house had all manner of small decoration- little American Flags, decals of flowers, 2 plastic chairs sit on the porch and through the little windows of the entry door you could see a little paper sign tacked up with a charicature of a man, grinning and the words, "Keep Smiling". A wooden sign to the right of the door reads Dellaquilla and there is a woodcut of a butcher carved into the face-Annie's husband John was a butcher. In the time I knew Annie I also got to know John- though he had been gone for almost 25 years he was alive in that house and in Annie.

Annie very quickly became a part of my everyday life. There was always a reason to stop by- a piece of cake or a bunch of flowers that caught my eye as I came home from work. I never really needed a reason- and she never asked why I came. She greeted me as if I were visiting royalty running to make coffee or tea, pulling cookies from a drawer or artichokes, beans or peppers from the freezer, each plastic container labelled with a yellow post-it note shakily inscribed in blue ballpoint script "Broccoli OK " or "Peppers OK ". We never understood why she labelled them that way but VLH would joke that he would not eat them if Grandma didn't label them "OK".

Yesterday morning Grandma passed away. It is an almost unbearable torture to sit here and write this. Remembering her and our time together when the loss is so fresh hurts more than I have words for. But the thought that today, and tomorrow and each day after that, that I would begin to forget all the special little things that made her so amazing- that tomorrow or some day soon after they will begin dismantling the house she spent fifty years putting together and the life and love she stored in those walls will be scattered among children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are things I don't want to forget

She loved vegetables. After being married to a butcher for 49 years Annie almost never cooked meat after John died. She lived on artichokes, broccoli, beans and escarole. Her grandchildren and great grandchildren among so many other things will miss grandma's broccoli as it was the first solid food most of them ate- tiny pieces fed lovingly by hand into their mouths. Last night as we missed her we wondered about the fate of the pot she cooked vegetables in- some women leave jewels- here the family will carefully decide the fate of the broccoli pot- so many memories of her invested in that small bit of cookware. Elder's new baby brother though fortunate enough to have been held by Annie will have to taste his first artichoke leaf from his brother's hand. A tradition, I am certain he will follow, scraping the tenderly cooked leaves on tiny lower baby teeth.

She did not like figs- there was a tree in her back yard that yielded a bumper crop of black mission figs each Fall. Annie tied everything including pouring bleach on the roots of the tree to kill it, to no avail. I think ultimately she respected the tree's ability to withstand adversity and with good humor distributed the figs among friends.

When worried she would pray to Saint Anthony- a statue on her bedroom dresser. She prayed for her health and for the hopes and prayers of those she loved. Though she spent a fair amount of time talking to Saint Anthony I am certain he knew who was boss because if Saint Anthony didn't answer her prayers she would turn him upside down- on his head- until he gave her what she wanted.

She loved to dance. I danced with her at her daughter's 50th wedding anniversary party- she outlasted me and three other partners before sitting down.

She wore hearing aids in the last year or so of her life- she did not want to miss any bit of a conversation. But she really didn't need them- I know only how she was with me but she always knew without being told how I was- if I felt a bit off- "You're Mushy!" she'd say- "What's wrong?". I arrived at her house one evening stressed after work and she began speaking of a man who had just died. Annie claimed he made himself sick from worrying- "We don't worry about little things do we Melanie?" And whatever small issue from work faded away. Life was too short to waste worry on little things.

She used to hit and occasionally she'd give you a bite, proud, I think that she still had her own teeth. I know that sounds strange but Grandma only greeted you politely if she didn't like you. Each time I visited Grandma would slap my chest or grab my shoulder or reach around my neck to pull me close and whisper to me how much she loved me. And remind me to love my husband when I got home. I watched her pull the hair and punch the shoulder's of VLH's friends- often endangering their lives as she would do so while they were driving!

And speaking of love-from the very first day Grandma was very clear with me about her views on love and marriage. Literally on day one she pulled me aside and told me You love him? she said- Of course you do. Love him up she said- Don't be stingy. Men don't like that. She often spoke about sex- not in a vulgar way- but she let you know that it was very much a part of her life with John- up to and including the day he died- and that you should love every day. It was even more than that-

Grandma would speak about Love as if it was all that mattered. She had no bad word for anyone she knew-" Love each other" she'd say. That was the thing I think she'd want me to remember, that and her neighbor's recipe for escarole, I promise to try. I will miss you so much- I am missing you now.

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