“The Wrath of ‘Non’ “
For some reason, my mind drifts to my grandmother tonight (Nonna or “Non”). She was a formidable woman. She lived with us as we were growing up. She and my grandfather. We were a multi-generational family during a time when that was a sign you were still very much an immigrant with neither the means nor the wherewithal for family members to live independently.
I know my grandmother loved me, but she had no way of showing it. From the stories she told, she hardly grew up in a loving family – so where would she have learned to show affection? I’m told my great-grandfather was an alcoholic and physically abused his wife and children. He’s not here to defend himself, but that’s the story that’s told.
To give you an idea of just how formidable she was, here’s one quick story.
Nonna would braid my hair for me every morning before I went to school. And I didn’t grow up in a house where women used cosmetics, make up, etc. We had soap and shampoo. Breck Shampoo. But my hair was really long and in order to detangle it, she would pour a tablespoon of olive oil in my hair and pull the comb through. Don’t think of complaining if the comb became stuck in a knot. You’d find yourself on the receiving end of a whack on the head with the comb.
I went to school smelling like a salad. I didn’t feel that bad, though. Most of us grew up in multi-generational Italian households and we each brought our unique backgrounds to the classroom. At least I wasn’t in the same mess as J.A. whose mother made him roasted red pepper sandwiches for breakfast to eat after Mass and Holy Communion.
One of my non-Italian classmates, a beautiful blond girl named J, came to school one day in a short bob – it was the beginning of the Mod look making its way across the pond and I thought she looked so very cool – and British. And I was convinced if Paul McCartney saw J before he saw me, my chances of marrying him would be toast. Because when you’re 11, that can happen, you know.
I came home and told my grandmother I wanted short hair. She looked at me as though I had just told her I was about to rob a bank. “Sai pazzo?” – (Are you crazy?).
“No,” I said, “I want short hair!!!!!!”
Apparently, I put up quite a fuss because in a matter of minutes, she found the kitchen scissors she used to cut whole chickens and whacked off my braids.
“You want short hair – you have short hair. Now go back to school!”
The nuns were stunned when they saw me 45 minutes later. I left for lunch with very long, tightly woven braids. I returned from lunch looking like I had spent my lunch hour with Charles Manson. The cut wasn’t even. My left side was about two inches longer than the right – my head was greasy and my hair was stringy from that morning’s “ethnic conditioning treatment.” I remember thinking the nuns must hate teaching immigrants – we have no class. And we smell like a bad food.
When my mother came home from work, she asked what happened. My father did too. But no one dared reprimand Nonna for what she had done. It was my fault after all. I wanted short hair, I got short hair. My mother took me to the “beauty shop” the following Saturday so Rose could even out my head.
Yes, my grandmother was a strong woman, but in my opinion, she was strong and often wrong. Life wasn’t fair and she was pissed. She was pissed for 84 consecutive years.
At sixteen, she fell in love with a man she wanted to marry.
My great-grandfather would not permit it. He had chosen someone else for her – a man eight years older than she. A man she didn’t like at all. One night, she and her lover tried to run away. She made it all the way to the front door when my great-grandfather threw a hatchet at the door, just barely missing her face, but catching her hair and literally chopping it off. That was it. The lover was gone and my grandmother married my grandfather.
Grandpa was a very quiet man. His mother died when he was nine months old and he was raised by a woman his father married several years later. Although both my grandparents lived with us all their lives, my grandfather was painted by my grandmother’s brush. She would verbally attack him at the slightest provocation. He couldn’t do anything right. A cup was never clean enough, the homemade sausage was never cooked right, the homemade wine was either too bitter or too sweet, the chores he performed around the house were always scrutinized with the eye of a drill sergeant and the tongue of a viper.
They were married for more than 60 years. I remember my grandmother saying had she come to this country sooner, she would have left my grandfather long ago. He never responded. I remember him sitting in a chair by himself in the kitchen, his blue eyes grew paler each day, his spirit breaking just a little more each time she spoke. He never raised his voice to her, never hit her, never tried to defend himself. He said nothing, and we believed every word she said about him.
When he died of pneumonia at the age of 91, no one carried on more than my grandmother. Not surprisingly, after he passed away, he was a saint.
It has taken a long time to realize how difficult their marriage must have been. Maybe she would have left him if she had the means and wherewithal, but I don’t think so. I want to believe that after awhile, in spite of all the badmouthing, she had some feelings for him other than contempt. Maybe not.
I’m coming to terms with the fact THAT MAN never really loved me at all. We certainly didn’t have the kind of relationship my grandparents did, but I think I was more like my grandfather than I imagined. I never asked for anything. I tried to turn myself into someone he could love. I was willing to stay married, regardless of how unhappy I was, because if my grandparents could do it, so could we.
But the world changed. The ways of the immigrants gave way to the ways of the baby boomers and the ME generation. People didn’t stay in unhappy relationships. There were too many options. Besides, getting a divorce is as common as getting a cold in December. What’s the big deal, right?
I’m sorry, Grandpa. I’m sorry the woman you loved never loved you. I think I know how you must have felt.
I’m sorry it took this experience to show me what life was like for you. But in some ways, it is worth it for me. I’ve come to know you in a way no genealogy chart could show me. Please know, wherever you are, your granddaughter has a great deal of respect for you.
I had your name engraved on the wall at Ellis Island. You deserve to be remembered – not because you came, but because you stayed.
Rest in peace.