Dezolina and Dorothy – my paternal and maternal grandmothers. Strong women. I don’t know if I actually appreciated the paths each of their lives took and the challenges they faced. Or how inspiring they would be to me now as an adult.
We lived with Dezolina, Nonny we called her, in the house where my dad was born, after the realities of the costs of life with two young children caused my parents to sell the home my father had built for us in San Mateo on the Peninsula of the San Francisco Bay Area and move in with his mother. Nonny adored my younger sister and me, her only grandchildren at the time. She passed away when I was very young, around 3, and I have few memories of her, but they stand out. She was important to me.
It’s hard to imagine life for her when she unexpectedly and tragically lost her husband Pietro (Pete) as a result of an asthma attack at the age of 39. She became a widow left to raise her two boys, my dad age 13 and his brother a year younger, and carry on the family businesses – a dry cleaning shop and a liquor store.
She didn’t give up. She didn’t have the luxury of “checking out” to deal with her grief. She took on this life challenge. I don’t know how she did it; I don’t know how hard it was for her; I don’t know who helped her.
I wish I could have known her in my adult life. I don’t have many stories about her since I was so young when she died. One memory that I cherish: We are in the kitchen of the home we shared with her in Daly City. Dinner is just finished. Sitting at the table are my parents, uncle, younger sister, and Nonny. I do something silly and sort of dumb that I’m afraid will get me in trouble, but instead all the adults are amused and laugh (I can still feel my relief!).
Another: It’s late, the house dark. It’s just Nonny and me, looking out the window at a neighbor’s cat that had perched nearby – it felt like a secret that only we shared.
I can see us walking into her hospital room with our parents, probably close to the end of her life. She is happy to see my sister and me, and we are happy to see her. Funny how these seemingly random memories stick with me.
I try to feel her personality through old photos we have of her with her two teenage sons, she looking serious as they clown around.
Dorothy – Nana – my mom’s mother, was a big part of my life until her death at the age of 93 in 2007. The youngest of ten (nine girls and one boy in the family), she grew up in San Francisco in the early 1900’s. With parents too busy with their large family to pay close attention to little Dorothy, by the ripe old age of 8, she was happily and independently traversing the City by bus until dinner time.
At the age of 12, she lost her father. And then her mother died when she was 17. Her older sisters took her in (more like passed her around) until her marriage to my grandfather in the early 1930’s.
Despite the tragedy that colored her young life, she was a survivor and had a playfulness to her personality. She was a city girl who married a country boy, and that became her life in the rural landscape of Sonoma County, California.
Nana loved to sing and be with friends and family. She was a bit of a flirt. I remember holidays around her dining room table with aunts and uncles, lively Italian conversation and lots of singing! Her conversation could be peppered with colorful language (read this: cursing) if her mood was in the right place. She wasn’t happy about growing old, and on more than one occasion proclaimed that “growing old is the sh*ts.” She never let her hair go gray and enjoyed feeling “cute” to the end.
My last memory of her the night before she died is one I cherish. We were at the local hospital emergency room where she was being examined for an irregular heartbeat. In answer to the question “How old are you?” by her young-ish ER doctor (chart in his hand and a subtle sideways glance and wink at me), she coyly replied, “How old do you think I am?” A flirt to the end!
I think about these two women and wonder where they found their resilience and their courage in the face of the tragedies and challenges life gave them. I haven’t had to face anything close to what they experienced. I would like to think that some of whatever got them through is passed on through genetics and example. I hope that if and when life tests me, I, like my grandmothers, will be able to face that test the way they did: with courage, resilience, and grace.