(I know I look angry here. That’s just how my face looks.)
We don’t look exactly alike, but when I saw this photograph of my grandmother several weeks ago, I was startled by the resemblance. Part of my surprise came from the fact that I’d never seen a photo of her so young. All of the photographs of her at my dad’s house, she’s seemingly forty to fifty years old, no matter the age of her children. She just had one of those faces that seemed to spend so much time in one decade. Now, she’s 95, spending her days reading newspapers in an assisted living facility. She doesn’t remember any of us. When my father tells her how old she is, she puts her hands up to her cheeks and forms an exaggerated “O” with her mouth, a Macaulay Culkin-esque gesture of extreme surprise.
In this photo, Grandma is probably somewhere around 18-20 years old. Years ago, she used to tell me how ugly she was, how ugly her mother told her she was, how her mother used to dress her up and put makeup on her and place her on a chair out on the front porch and hope someone would see her and want to marry her. No one did. My grandmother’s parents were from Sicily, but she had been born in Ohio. My grandfather and his parents were from Sicily, too. That is no coincidence. You see, my grandparents were first cousins. Their mothers were worried about them. My grandfather was a womanizer. My grandmother would be an old maid. The solution? Arranged marriage!
As you might guess, that didn’t turn out so well, though they did remain married until my grandfather died in 1991. My grandfather was an abusive alcoholic. He slept with many other women and did little to conceal it. My grandmother accepted this, and she grew hard and mean and abusive herself as the years progressed.
Old-school Italians, at least the ones I grew up around, are not kind to their women. Their women stay inside and spend hours kneading dough and allowing it to rise and baking it into bread and serving it with sauce and noodles and pig ears and feet and kielbasa. They stand and sit and stand and sit, retrieving forks and napkins and coffee and ice, and finally eat their meals when they are cold. The men move to the other room and the children move outside, leaving the aftermath, which the women dutifully clean. The men grunt and smoke and curse and watch t.v. They compare cars and sons. They beat their women if they talk too much.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother had a minor stroke. Her life had been centered around him for over fifty years. A couple of years later, she was visiting his grave and saw a man visiting his wife’s grave. They went to coffee and became girlfriend and boyfriend and eventually moved in together. He is dead now, too, and it is just my grandma again. As she has lost her memory, her edges have softened. She doesn’t remember any of us, but she is happier than I ever remember her being.
My father is Italian-American and my stepmother came from Mexico. Neither of these cultures, in my experience, is kind to their women. Though I was not placed on a porch, I was raised to know my place. I was hit for talking too much. I was told no man would ever love me. And I believed that for a little while. I might have spent a life filled with despair and hardness, like my grandmother did. But I rejected all of that, because I was able to. I had options that my grandmother never had.