grandma's looking, put your hat on!
There was a scene in The Sopranos Sunday night where a group of old Italian women were in a restaurant. When the meal was over, they grabbed their doggie bags and began stuffing the remains of the dinner into them. Not just the leftover food, but the sugar packets and anything else that wasn't nailed down to the table.
My grandmother used to do this. I remember once we were at Friday's, having lunch after we went shopping. When we were about to leave, she started stuffing sugar and napkins and leftover bread into her purse. I just looked the other way.
Between that and Aunt Jo's funeral, I've been thinking of Grandma all week. This Friday, December 6, will be the fourth anniversary of Grandma's death.
(Yes, another long one. Click MORE to read the rest. )
To understand the force that was Grandma Millie, you have to understand my family. My then husband and I moved into Grandma's house when Natalie was born. My parents live across the street. Next door to Grandma, sharing a yard, is an aunt and uncle. Behind Grandma's house, with a yard connected to ours, is a cousin and her family and next door to her, another cousin and his family. Neighbors call it the compound. And Grandma Millie was the ruler of the compound.
Grandma could curse like nobody's business, all in Italian. Along with teaching us how to cook a mean spaghetti sauce, Grandma taught us how to let out a stream of vulgarities in a foreign language. She also showed us how to give the evil eye to someone, and to make sure we spit as we did so.
As much as she was a strict disciplinarian (especially when it came to Grandpa and his wine) and we feared her at times, she also had this incredible soft spot in her heart. She was the one who came to our rescue when she thought our parents were being too harsh on us. She stuck dollars bills in our pocketbooks and worried excessively about our lives.
As all the cousins got older, got married and had kids, Grandma became the ruler of our children as well as us. She was rarely seen without a stroller or carriage; she fed our babies and changed them and tried to convince us it was ok to stick cereal in their bottles when they were only two months old. She threw all her superstitions at us and watched which way we held our children and what kind of words we said in front of them and what we fed them, lest we unknowingly put some evil hex on them.
She watched us like hawks when we took our children out. You could not pass her house without hearing her yell out the window "Put a hat on that baby!" She watched when we left the house and when we came home and yelled at us for keeping the kids out too late. She was obsessed with how we dressed them; the thermometer meant nothing to her. It was the calendar she went by. So even if it was a balmy 80 degree day in October, it was still October and thus fall, and how dare we have that baby in shorts in the middle of October?
We always knew she meant well. It still aggravated us and made us yell at her more than once, but we knew. She just wanted to keep all of her progeny safe and secure and most of all, free of chills. Our kids got used to this, and, in fact, it became a running joke between them. Here comes Grandma Millie, put a hat on! And they would laugh. Yea, she was a pain in the ass, but in a way I think our kids appreciated her more than we did.
Living downstairs from Grandma was a story in itself. Three, four, five times a day, she would yell down the stairs for me. Did I want some soup? Did I want some peaches for the kids? Did I have the heat on? Up and down the stairs all day, getting food from her, returning her Tupperware, bring her coffee every morning.
In the evenings we could hear her tv blasting, always Wheel of Fortune. She would curse out loud "That bastard! I didn't want that son of a bitch to win!"
I got used to the sound of her chair scraping across the kitchen floor, of the creaks in the wood as she went down the hallway into bed each evening, even the incredibly loud belches after she finished dinner.
We threw an 90th birthday for Grandma in August of '96. There had to be a hundred people there, gathered for three yards across. We took a ton of pictures; her with all the grandkids, her with the great-grandkids. It was the first time since Grandpa died five years earlier that we saw Grandma smile; a real, heartfelt smile. As much as she complained about fuss, she liked being the center of attention.
When it came time for her birthday cake, we gathered all the grandkids around. We had rehearsed this moment for days before. Some families, in tribute to an older relative at their birthday, may recite a heartfelt poem or present the birthday person with a plaque or framed portrait of the family. Not us. We had a special birthday song ready. On the count of three, all the grandkids sang:
Happy birthday to you!
(Put your hat on!)
Happy birthday to you!
(Put a coat on!)
Happy birthday Grandma Millie!
Happy birthday to you!
She nearly fell off the chair. The kids were cracking up, the hundred or so guests were cracking up and for a moment I thought Grandma was crying. When she looked at us, she did indeed have tears running down her face, but she laughing. And laughing. That's one of the memories of Grandma I keep tucked away in a special place.
In October of 1998, Grandma got sick. She remained in the hospital until she died on December 6 of that year.
And now, four years later, I still have her the last batch of meatballs she made me in my freezer. I still panic when I pull into the driveway a bit too late at night, worried that she will see that I have the kids out at such an hour. I still make sure DJ has an undershirt on when it's cold out and Natalie has her ears covered when she heads out the bus stop in the morning.
My aunt and uncle live upstairs now, and every time the chair scrapes across the kitchen floor I have that flash of a second when I think it's Grandma.
She was mad at me when she died, for reasons that will remain private for now. I hope she knows things worked out for the best and that I made the right decision, even if it wasn't the one she wanted me to make.
I still miss her sauce, I miss her soup, I miss the way her kitchen used to smell. I miss the way her hands felt, her skin so soft and loose with age, but always comforting. I miss the way she yelled at me constantly, the way she opened the door just a creak and called my name and I could tell from the tone of her voice whether she wanted to give me something or chastise me for something.
I miss the sound of Wheel of Fortune and her constant cursing, I miss the smell of her toast burning in the morning and roasted peppers cooking at night. I miss the creak of the floorboards as she walked from room to room and the way she held my children when they were babies, as if they were the most precious things on earth. I miss the way she used to cross herself whenever she got in the car with me, and how every time she said she would never drive with me again, but always did.
I do miss her a lot. But every time I make sure my coat is zippered all the way up before I walk out the door, I get the sense that she's not really gone.