Olympia

My grandmother died yesterday.

After Dan got home, he said, “I miss her already.”

My feeling is a little different. I’ve been missing my grandmother for years now. I feel like now I can begin to grieve. I wrote about it in this post two years ago:

In contrast, I have been losing Gigi for a number of years now. Her memory started fading probably 10 years ago. Five years ago, it started fleeing. And then about two years ago, she took a fall and fractured her pelvis, and her memory loss was, abruptly, memory lost.

When we visit, she says she remembers who we are, but I have my doubts. These visits are pleasant because my grandmother, despite her complete absence of presence, is cheerful. She isn’t angry, or depressed, or crabby. She just smiles and hmms and nods as we tell her our stories, remark on the weather, or talk about food. She doesn’t seem to be in any pain or discomfort. She is in good health, although my mother reports she is steadily weakening. Unlike Nanny, Gigi isn’t struggling. What would she struggle against?

If I had one wish before Gigi dies, it would be, for one day, to spend it with the grandmother I remember from, say, fifteen or twenty years ago. That woman, my children, and a tape recorder, for 24 hours. I would like Monkey to have something more than the vague woman she has met. Bun may not have any memories of Gigi at all.

Which leaves it up to me, I guess. To remember for all of us.

Olympia was a first generation American. Her parents’ love story is right out of an Italian romance novel — the older man spotting the teenage beauty in the piazza; his travel to America to “make his fortune”; sending for his love and her family. They had children; they lost a daughter in an accident when she was only 6 years old. My grandmother used to tell us how much that hurt her mother. The parents died within a year of each other.

My grandmother grew up in Little Italy in Erie, Pennsylvania. She was a hat check girl at the Italian Club, and later, worked in the Marx Toy factory. My grandfather, Frank, worked there too. I wonder sometimes how he caught my grandmother. She was a classic Italian beauty — small in stature, with dark eyes and hair, a smile that seemed to hold secrets. Not that my grandfather was not a handsome man. I just used to watch them bicker sometimes and wonder.

The story I learned later was that the house in which they lived — the one that wasn’t in Little Italy — was bought by my grandmother after her second son was born. Olympia and Frank had a boy, then a girl (my mother) and then, nine years later, another boy.

With an infant, two school-aged children, herself, her mother-in-law, and her husband all under one roof, my grandma decided it was time to move. Her MIL wasn’t going to budge from Little Italy, and it looked like my grandfather wasn’t going to either. He didn’t think they needed to move and he didn’t look at houses. But my grandmother was a working woman, too, and she had some money put away. So she found the house. My grandma gave my grandpa an ultimatum. She and the kids were moving; he could come with ’em if he wanted. My mom always said that until they moved there, her parents never fought with each other.

It was a great house for grandkids. My grandfather had a garden and there was a huge plum tree in the backyard. They had toys from Marx — a Big Wheel, a two-seated pedaled scooter. The basement and the attic were treasure troves. I remember Sundays of speeding around the driveway with my cousins; exploring upstairs and downstairs (even though we weren’t supposed to be in the attic); of dinners of lasagna and raviolis. I remember my dad eyeing his jelly glass of dago red suspiciously, and the men — my dad, his father-in-law and two brothers-in-law — sitting silently in the living room watching football.

I don’t think my dad ever had more than one glass of that wine each week.

My grandmother was a widow for more than 30 years. Frank died of his second heart attack, in the doctor’s office. She used to joke with my sister and me: “The first time you marry for love; the second for money.” We used to ask her when she was going to find a rich boyfriend.

She never did. She considered herself married…. well, I can’t say until the day she died. I don’t know what was locked inside my grandma’s head in the end.

We had just been in Erie in July, and had celebrated her 92nd birthday on the lawn of her long-term care home. I’m glad, so glad, we had the time with her we had. She may have faded from the lively Italian grandma I knew, but I like to think that somewhere in her heart, she still knew us all and loved us all. That she still remembered. Everything.

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9 thoughts on “Olympia

  1. Your post is a wonderful tribute to an amazing lady. Thank you for sharing her story; there was so much I didn’t know about her. But I did know that your grandma was a classy lady; a great combination of independence and tradition. And the baking! Oh my goodness, the cookies! Losing her slowly must be so difficult and I am sorry you and your family had to go through it. My sincere condolences.

    • As difficult as it was, I was glad that she didn’t suffer. She wasn’t in pain; she didn’t seem sad or angry. That made losing her slowly a little easier. Still painful, and I don’t honestly know how my mother did it week after week. And now that’s she altogether gone… Well, I just feel sad. I want to remember the good times and the special grandma that she was to me.

  2. Gosh, RPM, I am very behind in reading your blog. I am sorry to hear about your Gigi. I love that family picture from her birthday. I hope the old memories of the good times with her come rushing back to you.

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