My little Italian grandmother’s house was the heart of the “Catholic Compound” in our Midwestern town. The family gathering place sat across the street from the priests’ rectory, catty-cornered from St. Joseph’s Church and school, and next door to the nuns’ convent. Originally owned by her parents, Grandma lived there most of her life, first as a daughter, then a single mother, and finally as the beloved matriarch of our family.
Grandma’s kitchen was the cafeteria for her baby-boomer grandchildren. The cousins, spanning grades one through eight at St. Joe, settled around her dining room table five days a week — excluding feast days of course. The weekly menu never varied, except when the birthday boy or girl got to choose a favorite meal. I always picked the Tuesday special, Grandma’s Soup. Mini-meatballs and pasta that looked like BB’s swam in a chicken broth, tinted orange by a little tomato paste. Once my oldest cousin, Frankie, flipped a whole spoonful of that soup on my dress, just because I dared him to.
Every Sunday and every holiday, all the families gathered at Grandma’s. On Sundays, the grandmas and grandpas went to 8:00 Mass, and the parents took the kids at 10:00. Afterward, somebody would make the donut run while the grandmas got the spaghetti sauce going. Since there were streets to cross, the older cousins were assigned the responsibility of walking a few blocks to the bakery. Once there, they had the privilege of selecting a variety of breakfast treats that included “Long Johns” with vanilla, chocolate and maple icing, and donuts with powdered sugar coats and jelly-filled centers. The hard-crusted rolls were reserved to accompany the Sunday fare—always spaghetti and meatballs, often with a side of braciole (round steak stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese, rolled up and tied with string).
While the parents talked, drank and smoked, we kids pounded through the house and grounds with sweaty, dirt-streaked faces, in oppressive crinoline dresses and crumpled white shirts — absent the clip-on ties. The “Cousins, Inc.” snuck into the nuns’ backyard, where stubby fingers tried to pick marbles out of the concrete grotto housing the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary). The basement hideout was an old root cellar with an earthy smell, whose shelves held jars of unidentified foods that would never pass our lips.
Our games included taking turns locking each other in Grandma’s bedroom closet. The only way a prisoner could escape was by punching the skeleton key out of the lock, allowing it to drop down onto a piece of paper. Sliding the paper under the door, the rescued key could then be used to unlock the door from the inside.
In the living room, somber faced ancestors hung from the ceiling on tasseled ropes. Built-in shelves with locked glass doors protected golden treasures from our great-grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Here we threaded rolls of paper dotted with square holes onto a spindle hidden behind wooden doors in the upright piano. Sitting side-by-side, fingers gripping the edges of the bench, my favorite cousin and I pumped old-time music from that player piano with two feet stomping on each pedal.
Older newlywed cousins, who had the misfortune of living in the apartment above Grandma’s house, often ended up with three or more small cousins nestled under the covers with them on Sunday morning. Amazingly, they raised four children of their own.
Petite patent-leather shoes tiptoed up the musty stairs to the attic. Peeking at the old furs hanging in massive glass-fronted armoires, it seemed they had been encased there by some mad taxidermist. On sunny days, the cousins lined up on the half wall in front of Grandma’s house and played “Truth or Dare,” which almost always involved challenging a hapless kid to ring the convent’s doorbell.
Sometimes the gang would troop off to sit in the balcony of the Roxy Theater for a parent-approved movie, guaranteed to bore the oldest cousins stiff. Once in a while, the parents trooped off, too, leaving the grandparents in charge. Did they go see an unapproved-for-kids movie? Take a ride in the country? Go to one of our houses for an afternoon cocktail? It didn’t matter to any of us. We had enough endurance, creativity and friendship to sustain us through the long afternoon.
But after a big Italian midday meal, the grandparents only had enough energy to haul themselves into the living room. Uncle Willie, after loosening his necktie and belt, got dibs on the pink recliner. Aunt Jo waddled in from the kitchen mopping her brow with a hankie, and plopped down in the low slung green arm chair. With Aunt Toots in her sensible, lace-up black heels curled up at one end of the sofa, blind, old Aunt Cosima felt her way to the other end. Grandma eased herself in between with a sigh.
Our parents returned from whatever adventure they’d been on, and there sat our babysitters—the women still in their coverall aprons, Grandma with the Sunday paper in her lap—sound asleep. They didn’t even flinch when Dad’s flashbulb lit up the entire room.
Diane M. Perrone grew up in a large Italian-American family in a small Indiana town. During her 30-year career with Cincinnati Public Schools, she wrote instructional units, training manuals, grant proposals and articles for educational publications. Eight years ago, Diane and her husband migrated to Jacksonville, where she only writes what she loves, and enjoys entertaining groups of family and friends. Diane has been published in the Grapevine, a newsletter from Beaches Jazzercise, and in the Times-Union newspaper, featuring a story of her sister’s successful battle with breast cancer. Babysitters is a story of memories of her paternal grandmother and her sisters, who spent decades cooking and baking every week for their lively, colorful family. Diane is one of the founding members of Chat Noir Writers Circle.
© 2012, Diane M. Perrone