I never knew whether to correct her or go along with her imaginings. So I did a little of both depending on her mood and mine.
Her adult children, however, were quick to set her straight. Her memory lapses left a void they weren’t prepared to fill. She’d always been the matriarch, the one struggling to control them, well into their adulthood. Their resentments ran deep.
I adored her.
My grandmother Anna was born in 1891 to an Irish mother and Italian father, both newly-arrived immigrants. Her daughter-in-law believed it was the Irish half that made her tough. Anna never liked my mother much; they were both strong‐willed. My mother was intrigued by Anna’s ability to exert influence at a time when women were afforded so little voice.
At the age of 16, Anna had been coerced into marrying a man twelve years her senior, a shepherd from Italy. He was a soft-spoken, gentle man who’d taken a job as a janitor in the New World. I learned this after her death when a distant relative contacted me to ask if I’d like to see some old family photos. I was delighted to hold my grandparents’ 1907 wedding photo in my hands. Until I turned it over and read the hand-scrawled note: “She doesn’t love him. Had been engaged to someone else.” The relative could shed no light on the cryptic caption. But through ancestral research, I discovered that my grandmother was pregnant in that nuptial photo and that child subsequently died at 18 years of age from pneumonia caught while watching the factory where she worked burn to the ground in a snowstorm a few miles from her family home.
Perhaps it wasn’t the Irish, but rather the hardship, that made Anna tough.
My grandmother’s wit could be caustic. But never toward me; she saved that for her offspring. She swore eloquently in two languages, excelling in the correct placement of adjectives and adverbs. As one of only two grandchildren, I spent every Sunday with her. She gave me Tonette permanents, which never smelled or looked good. She cooked my favorite meals and baked cookies. She bought me beautiful dolls, several as big as I was. And she was the one I’d call sobbing from my college dorm after a verbal lashing from her son.
“Gramma, Dad yelled at me again, called me selfish. Said I never come home, that I don’t love my family. But he’s the reason I don’t come home.”
“I’ll kill that son of a bitch,” she responded. And slammed down the receiver.
Her two surviving daughters never married, living at home with their parents as was expected of good Italian daughters. (She also opened and read their mail, and listened in on their phone conversations.) All three traveled to my wedding, before which my grandmother, in her navy-blue dress with white polka dots, climbed steep stairs to give my future husband advice: “You be good to her, and she’ll be good to you,” she said sweetly before holding a fist to his face and warning, “But if you ever give her one of these, she’s going to give you one of these right back.” She didn’t wait for an answer before descending the stairs to attend the ceremony, rosary in hand.
She’d buried a husband and another daughter by the time she showed signs of dementia at the age of 90. I first noticed it at a relative’s funeral mass when she made Don-Rickles-worthy cracks about everyone lined up for Communion as we sat together in the front row. “Look how fat that guy got!” she said in a too-loud whisper. And “What’s she doing here? She never even liked him.” I couldn’t help chuckling. Her filters were off, and her assessments were accurate.
Some of my fondest memories of her are from her time of confusion because she needed me, after all my years of needing her. Her wit did not diminish; in fact, she became more creative in using it to mask her limitations. She always considered escaping from her children the best option – perhaps a lifelong fantasy. And thought me her worthy accomplice.
Sitting on my parents’ couch one Easter, she asked my father, “May I please have a glass of iced tea?” He fled the room, eager to serve his failing mother. She turned to me as soon as he was gone from sight. “C’mon, Patty. Let’s get the hell out of here!”
“Where would we go, Gram?” I asked, stalling for time.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she retorted, heading to the front door. “Hurry up!”
That became her favorite cover when she didn’t know the answer to a question: “Wouldn’t you like to know?” She had other standard retorts as well, such as “I’d hate to tell ya!” and “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” She’d say them with such authority that it stopped interrogations cold.
When my father would insist she do something she didn’t want to do, she’d look at him defiantly to ask, “Who’s gonna make me?”
“I am,” he’d respond with bravado, his athletic form towering over her diminished stature.
“You and what army?” she’d retort, dismissing him with a look. She was the only one who could get away with that.
Years later, in professional counseling for dealing with my father’s unpredictable rage, the therapist suggested we examine Anna’s influence on her son through her modeling and enabling. I wasn’t willing to let him tarnish my image of this woman; I held my version of the family dynamic sacred.
She died at the age of 93. Violating health department regulations for funeral homes, my mother broke open a bottle of Irish whiskey to toast and honor Anna’s gutsy spirit. We sang “When Irish eyes are Smiling.”
I inherited the engagement ring Anna had bought for herself with waitressing tips because she’d been embarrassed by her shot-gun wedding. When I’m asked how I came by the old mine cut diamond, I begin the tale with, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Patricia A. Nugent writes creative nonfiction to give voice to those who would otherwise be silenced. She’s been published numerous times in trade and literary journals, and her essays are featured in three anthologies. Since retirement as a public school administrator and adjunct professor, she has authored two memoirs and edited one anthology. She now volunteers to teach writing to lifelong students. She’s not as proficient at swearing as her grandmother but does a respectable job at it.
© 2022, Patricia A. Nugent