My Italian grandmother was a real character. Everyone in my family has numerous Nana anecdotes, and whenever we get together the stories flow. She’s been gone for over 35 years, but we share these stories over and over again, and we never tire of them.
I plan to tell a few of these stories here, but the first one I want to share is all mine because I was the only one with her at the time.
When I was very small my mother would take me to Pennsylvania each summer to spend it with her family. She was much closer to her siblings than my father was to his, and she missed them once we moved from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the Washington, DC equivalent.
Summers in western Pennsylvania were magical. We kids could walk everywhere easily, and being the early 1970s we were granted levels of autonomy that modern life doesn’t allow. We would play for hours by the creek — pronounced ‘crick’ by my cousins and their friends — hunting for crayfish, mudpuppies, frogs, etc. We would wander to the local playground and play tag or Red Light, Green Light. In the evenings it was Flashlight Tag or catching fireflies — we called the lightning bugs. We would beg for change from our parents and walk to the small store up the road to buy penny candy. We would ride our bikes everywhere. When I was a kid I wanted nothing more than to live in Pennsylvania and be around my cousins, my many aunts and uncles, and my summer friends.
My grandmother grew up in rural southern Italy in poverty and never had an education. She couldn’t read or write. She signed her name with an X. She couldn’t do any math at all. She spoke broken English, but some of that was for show. She’d often pretend she didn’t understand English when what she heard was something she didn’t like or want to hear. Her husband, my grandfather, passed away 10 years before I was born when my mother, the “baby of the family” was a sophomore in high school. I don’t recall ever learning if he had any formal education. He worked in the coal industry and died of black lung, so my guess is that he did not.
One summer while we were visiting my grandmother was charged with watching me. I am not sure why it was only me or what my mother, her sister and my aunt’s kids were doing that meant that we weren’t all together as usual. My guess is my mother simply wanted a break from her rambunctious boy. I recall my Nana not being too happy that she was on baby-sitter duty, and that I was somehow interrupting her busy schedule of talking on the phone or watching daytime soap operas. She referred to them as “me storias” in her broken English, and mixed them all up. As far as she was concerned The Guiding Light, The Young and the Restless, and Search for Tomorrow were all one show. When she’d watch Little House on the Prairie she would refer to Michael Landon’s character as “Little Joe” mixing up his character on that show with his character on Bonanza. She was a busy woman.
On this particular summer day, with me in tow, my grandmother announced that we were going to the shoe store. It was hot and yet she was dressed in her Italian widow’s wear, which meant that she was wearing all black. When we got to the shoe store, she told me to wait outside. I sat on the stoop and watched the other children playing in the street. She wasn’t long, but I was bored and I peered in the store’s window, but couldn’t see her. There was a black curtain between the shoes and the interior of the shop. What I did see was that the shoes on display were covered in a layer of dust.
She came out shortly thereafter, and we were back on the sidewalk and heading home. She gave in to my request to get a treat from the corner store, but only because she wanted me to get something for her. Not ice cream or anything tasty like what I craved. She wanted me to buy lottery cards for her.
By the time we returned to my aunt’s house the others were home, and I relayed my adventure to my mother who laughed. It wasn’t until years later that I learned why she laughed or why the shoes were covered in dust. What I discovered was that in addition to playing the lottery — or as Nana would say “me numeros” — my frail little grandmother was also placing bets on horses with her bookie who used the shoe store as a front.