The Boss we called her, though in life her authority barely reached beyond the aroma-stained walls of her over-worked kitchen. She came to America from Puglia in 1920, seven months pregnant with my father. A woman on the run from who knows what. Poverty, or the threat of it. Of my grandmothers, I knew her best, this woman of sad brown eyes, whose drawn lips withheld somber secrets no matter how many times I asked, “Why did you leave Italy?”
After her husband died, The Boss ruled, a dowager empress, her queenly attire, a plaid or flowered house dress, a simple apron, with or without pockets, anointed with meatball grease, stained with red sauce, flour, egg yolks, and sweat. Immacolata, her mother named her, a mother who died before her sweet girl-child turned four, leaving a hollow of want in the young girl’s bones (the onset of shrouded mystery?).
Immacolata, a reverential name, spiritual, resonant, heavenly with authority; Mary, the immigrant papers insisted, their official stamp stripping my grandmother of native identity, unraveling the umbilical thread that bound her to her dead mother. A minor indignity one might say, though one would be wrong to misname it so.
Mary she became and Mary she was called, though her older sister,the one who could still recall the scent of their mother’s skin, the one who had also sailed to America in the belly of a big boat, bore that name from birth, etched as it was upon her brow by long-lost maternal lips.
In America, Immacolata, the junior Mary, her mother’s cherished, last child, lived in a cramped house in a small town, an hour’s drive from the elder original Mary. Distanced so from sister and from what her native tongue refused to recall, The Boss reigned over Sunday suppers, holiday meals, a bevy of seven children and dozens of restless, hungry grandchildren, each with American Italian mothers who did not die, but abandoned them nonetheless to assimilation, a different kind of silencing; each child burdened with secrets, like their grandmother, yet more fierce and unyielding, defying the proscriptions, refusing to change their names, slam shut their hearts, be silenced.
My mother’s mother was named for aromatic bouquets of petals and stems, flowers fresh from the loamy Tuscan soil. She gifted me with a small string of faux-pearls when I was born, my mother Margaret’s first daughter. After four sons, a blessing for which Mom had prayed, Fiora, too, lighting vigil candles for a girl this time, to please her youngest daughter. To please herself, as well.
Fiora’s tiny necklace a promise of affiliation, a miniature garden of iridescent blossoms strung together, a collection of whispered prayers, the bequeathing of lineage, a gift I used to wear as a young girl, liberating the delicate strand from the velvety confines of the small box on my mother’s dresser.
Unclasping the silver clasp, I would display the pearls around the pink curve of my small neck, until one day I misplaced them, never to be recovered. Lost they became, amid the clutter of life in my family’s chaos, perhaps buried beneath a pile of dirty clothes or cloaked by dust or by tears.
Fiora died when I was two, passing beyond my earthly grasp. I do not recall if her skin smelled of roses or peony petals, if her smile was as fragrant as her name, if she would have taught me to till and transplant, coaxing brilliant buds from the dirty American soil, had she lived to see me grow into a woman determined to outsmart the aphids, coax reluctant seeds to swell, inhale every aromatic blossom.
My mother did not name me Fiora; perhaps I did not remind her of cultivated plots or terra cotta urns overflowing with brilliant red zinnias. Spurning convention, my mother sandwiched an adjective between my surname and my first, calling me Mary Immaculate, shunning the too-Italian Immacolata, foregoing homage due The Boss, my father’s mother, as was custom; unwittingly planting a mistrust of tradition for its own sake in my ever-listening soul.
Isabel, whose German practicality does not grace my arteries, became my grandmother by default, perhaps the only hidden blessing of my mother’s second marriage. No Nonna she, Isabel did not possess The Boss’s sassy, sad aura, Fiora’s soil-savvy touch, or their lingering ache of a motherland lost.
Grandmother nonetheless, Isabel bequeathed not genetic memory, but something else – something as posh and pink and elegant as the curtains that hung in her fancy living room, something as fragile as the cut-glass, crystal goblets from which I drank cold milk when first I was invited to her dinner table; the same milk my ten-year old hands splayed across her finely woven, lace tablecloth.
Isabel did not chastise, did not raise her groomed eyebrows to shun my reddened face, name my embarrassment, my ineptitude; she did not scorn or pity me. She merely retrieved a cotton cloth to sop the pool of white liquid that puddled before my plate of grilled steak and creamed potatoes, a meal so foreign to my second-chance immigrant mouth as to befuddle my senses.
Once the pond of milk was contained, Isabel commanded that the meal go on, as if I belonged there; as if the youngster who sat at her refined table was accustomed to bone china, sterling forks and spoons, instead of mismatched Melmac and chipped tumblers; as if the accident I had caused was minor, nothing more than a causal, commonplace spill, easily dismissed and forgiven, instead of the deeply disquieting sin that stained my insides, unaccustomed as I was, to absolution and exoneration.
“My Three Grandmothers” was originally published in September 2004 at: www.mothertongued.com; all © copyrights retained by the individual contributors
|Mary Saracino is the novelist, memoir writer, and poet whose work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, both in print and online. Her newest novel, Heretics: A Love Story is forthcoming from Pearlsong Press in 2014. She is the co-editor of She Is Everywhere! Volume 3: An Anthology of writings in womanist/feminist spirituality (iUniverse 2012) and the author of the novels, The Singing of Swans (Pearlsong Press 2006), No Matter What (Spinsters Ink 1993), and Finding Grace (Spinsters Ink 1999) and the memoir, Voices of the Soft-bellied Warrior (Spinsters Ink Books, 2001). For more information, visit: www.marysaracino.com and www.pearlsong.com/newsroom/marysaracino/marysaracino.htm
“As a writer, I’m interested in how ethnicity, place, gender, and class influence and affect our lives. Much of my work explores the aftermath of assimilation on the psyches of Italian Americans. My writing strongly focuses on breaking silences, reclaiming the truth of women’s lives and restoring the power of women’s voices.”
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