Esther is the name of my mother’s mother. To me, she was Mom Mom, and I just realized this morning that she’s still having an impact on my life.
Typically, the words “Italian Grandmother” conjure up images of a little old lady wearing a black dress and an apron, spoiling her grandchildren with affection and food. Well, that wasn’t Esther. She was never the grandmotherly type. As a kid, I resented her nonchalance toward us, but as an adult, I not only understand her behavior, but have developed a strong respect for her.
Her father (my great grandfather: Grandpop) used to tell us stories about how he knew he was in trouble with his daughter when she lost her shoes (and the family temporarily lost her) as a toddler on the boat heading from Italy to New York. She didn’t disappoint him, either, eloping years later with my grandfather while Grandpop was headed back to Italy to get a new wife (that’s another very interesting story).
My great grandfather was a character in his own right. His name was Carmine (the “i” is short, not long, by the way), and was a fireplug of a guy. He was barely more than five feet tall, but even though I’m more than a foot taller, our hands were about the same size (and I can stretch to reach ten keys on a piano keyboard). He was barrel-chested, and your first glance of him would illustrate the fact that he never lived the soft, office-life of privilege many of us live today. He worked for everything he ever had.
His birthday was the day after Christmas, so every year, as a kid, my parents would pack us up and drive to Grandpop’s house to celebrate. He was usually holding court in his living room while Grandmom (Grandpop’s second wife) toiled in the kitchen making the most amazing Italian cookies ever to be eaten. Many of those recipes died with her, by the way, but that’s a different story.
Grandpop came to America with virtually no money, not knowing the common language, and only knowing one person. He was lucky. In many cases, immigrants knew no one.
On the occasion of one of his post-90th birthdays, my great grandfather shared a story of what life was like when he first came to America.
He and his buddy heard there was work where a new reservoir was being built. They walked a few dozen miles to get to the site, only to be shunned by the supervisor. Apparently, this boss hated “greaseballs.” Grandpop and his friend didn’t take “no” easily, so they tried to prove they would do anything the supervisor asked. Since they spoke virtually no English, they pantomimed to get their message across. To paraphrase my great grandfather’s broken English: “There I was with my big ‘moosestash,’ flexing my muscles, trying to show what a big man I was.”
The supervisor conceded, and instructed the two guidos to grab a particular crate from the southern end of the reservoir, and carry it more than a mile to the northern end. That may not sound like a big deal, but lugging a couple-hundred pound crate that far over rocky terrain, in the hot, humid Philadelphia summer was going to be an all-day task. Thrilled with the opportunity, the two immediately set out to earn their day’s wage.
The crate was heavy, and in many cases, they both lifted one end and dragged it over rocks, and pushed it down hills. They sat on the crate when they took breaks, and popped the tops off their drinks by banging the bottles off the top of the crate. By the time they reached the north end of the reservoir, the work day was concluding, and all the other workers were congregating around the bursar to collect their day’s pay.
The crate was battered and spilt in some places, but its contents were intact, so the day was a success. Grandpop and his paisano dramatically dropped the crate at the foot of the bursar and the crowd scattered, running for cover. Grandpop was confused until one of the other workers, who spoke Italian, informed him and his friend that they just carried a crate full of wet dynamite.
It was a miracle that crate didn’t explode when they first picked it up, let alone all those times they dropped it down hills, or dragged it up hill across boulders. If it had exploded, yours truly would not be telling you this story. That much is certain!
So this gives you an idea of what kind of stock Esther came from, and she didn’t break stride. And she was as narcissistic as they came! Whenever there was a camera in her presence, she would strike, what our family came to know as, “the pose” – left foot pointing at the camera, right foot pointing at a 45 degree angle from there, shoulders back, head up and hands clasped in front at the waist. There was never a hair out of place. Her clothes were always impeccable, and her body never changed. She was about 5 feet tall, and weighed about 100 pounds her entire life. When I was a kid, in her 50s and 60s, I would watch her exercise every day with Jack Lalanne (who was three years her junior). She bowled a 200 after her 90th birthday, and walked three or more miles every day.
She was also a total extrovert. She would step onto a silent transit bus, and three stops later, when she got off, everyone would be talking, and bidding her adieu. She was a frenetic, insomniac, drama queen who had little patience for children or fools, and spoke her mind freely.
When my older brother and I were little, we always looked forward to spending time with Mom Mom … Dad’s mom. She was the prototypical grandmother who treated us like young royalty. My mother’s mother (Esther) was another story entirely.
It was apparent she would only tolerate us if we behaved and conformed to her terms. The TV would be tuned to Jack Lalanne, soap operas, or Lawrence Welk. If we wanted to watch something else, we could go home and watch it there. We ate what she ate (which was virtually nothing because she was always starving herself to maintain her diminutive frame), and we weren’t allowed to make any noise. The only thing Esther and I ever did together when I was a kid was walk.
She’d enter our house, sit for about five minutes and then get up, point at me and say “Let’s go for a walk.” She didn’t so much enjoy my company as need someone to keep her company and protect her from god-knows-what. She was one of the most paranoid people on the planet.
We lived in a bucolic suburb where crime was limited to claiming too many deductions on one’s income taxes, yet when Esther spent the night, she’d check all the doors to make sure they were locked, look under the bed and check the closets to ensure no boogie monsters were preparing to lunge out and eat her in her sleep, and then lock the bedroom door, which provided all kinds of safety because it was hollow, and made of balsa wood!
Anyway, I’m pretty sure she only had me accompany her to keep her safe. She wasn’t delusional enough to believe I would protect her, but rather she could outrun me, and possibly throw me at threatening people, facilitating her escape. Mom Mom loved me …
I don’t recall ever actually speaking during any of these walks together. It wouldn’t surprise me if no words were ever exchanged, but I came to really enjoy heading out with her. Oddly enough, we actually developed a bond. Of all her grandchildren, I’m the one who would “moon” her when she’d ask me to do something, and she’d tell me how bad I was, but would still laugh. As a teen, I was the one who would drive her around on her errands, and would drive as fast as I could to scare her. She’d tell me to slow down, but only half-heartedly, because she enjoyed the thrill as much as I did. She always took special care to tell me how much she preferred her other grandchildren, but in the end, we became friends.
As kids, I think we tend to classify grandparents as old people, but we seem to emphasize the “old” part, not the “people” part. I didn’t realize until I was much older, but my grandmother was a pistol all her life. She didn’t like rocking babies to sleep on a chair. She wanted playmates. Her body may have gotten old, but her mind always remained youthful. To this day, I attribute my inability to sit down for more than 5 minutes to my grandmother.
Esther lived to the ripe old age of 91 (almost 92). She’d have lived longer, if not for her accident. She was out taking her three mile walk one day when she crossed the driveway of a bank and some dipshit in a stationwagon pulled into the bank at speed, never noticing Esther in his path. She weighed next to nothing, and the impact threw her fifteen feet in the air, and she landed hard on the parking lot. Her pelvis was broken, and she was rushed to the hospital. Her bones healed (albeit slowly), but the clots that were formed resulted in a series of strokes. Her muscles atrophied during her recovery, and she was wheelchair-bound until she died within the next year, or so. She would turn 100 this Fall, and if it hadn’t been for that accident, she’d probably still be around, walking my legs off every time she came to visit.
As much as we didn’t like one another when I was little, our relationship blossomed to the point where one night, in my mid-thirties, she was visiting from Florida and my wife and I took her out bowling – her favorite activity. It was a Friday night, and I was exhausted from working all day (so was my wife, and for the same reason). I was going to try to back out of taking Mom Mom out, but when I arrived at my parents’ house, there was Mom Mom, sitting on the couch, clutching her bowling bag on her lap, feet together, hair made up, outfit clean and pressed, looking like a fresh bag of mail waiting to be picked up by a passing train. There was no way I could tell her no, so I changed my mood, took her hand and left.
It was one of the best nights of my, or my wife’s life. We played two games with Mom Mom – she kicked our asses – and then went to a local Italian restaurant for dinner. She talked our ears off about the old days, and her various escapades with family and friends, and when we finally got home at around midnight, she was still so full of energy, she asked us to go for a walk. It was my last walk with mom Mom.
We strolled my parents’ neighborhood for about an hour, until my wife and I were exhausted. It was about 1 AM, and Esther still had energy in the tank, but we called it a night, and for the first time in my life, Mom Mom thanked me. For years after that night, my mom and aunt would tell us how Mom Mom always reminded them of that night, and how much fun it was. It was the first time I actually understood her.
Thank god I didn’t cancel!!!
Walking has always been my “go to” form of exercise. In any given week, I probably walk between 20 and 25 miles. It’s a great way for me to relax, formulate thoughts, enjoy music through headphones, and basically get into a “zone.” I enjoy playing sports and hitting the gym (now and then), but walking has always been a part of my life. It wasn’t until this morning, while on my way to the pastry shop to pick up breakfast treats for the family, I had a denouement. Walking is a part of my life because of Esther. She trained me to do this. – not sure if she recognized similarities between us, or not, but I share her energy, her obvious ADD, and her desire to “do” and not to “sit.”
My oldest son is starting to take walks with me. Hopefully, one day, 30 or 40 years from now, he’ll still be taking walks, and will think back on the times he and I spent together. Sometimes holding hands and chit chatting, and other times, just walking quietly, enjoying the scenery and the presence of a loved one. Maybe he’ll start a walking tradition with his kids, and Esther’s legacy will continue.