A fourteen year old me, flanked by the formidable Marys
My stories all seem to feature grandmothers. In my Italian Kitchen series, the character of Nonna is a composite of the two women in the photo above. Given that they were so strong a presence in my own life, I think it's my way of keeping them with me. Both my grandmothers were named Mary, but two more different women you could not imagine. One Mary was tall, big-boned, the kind of woman people termed "handsome." She started going gray in her thirties, but never dyed her hair. No matter what drama was enfolding around her, she kept her counsel and her cool. She suffered the losses of her husband and oldest son with a strength and grace I've never seen in another person.
My maternal grandmother as a young woman
Because she came to this country as a baby, she grew up without an accent, and Americanized herself with great success. I spent the first year of my life under her roof, and growing up, I felt extremely close to her. I have fond memories of trips to the five and dime store and the Grand Union, and I remember her endless patience as she attempted (unsuccessfully) to teach me to knit. When I got my first job, I used to go to her house on a weekly basis to do my laundry and have dinner with her. She's been gone for nearly two decades now, and I'm grateful that she lived long enough to know my oldest son.
My other Mary was pretty, petite, and unapologetically vain about her appearance--a trait I seemed to have inherited, along with her facial structure. Sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, she was unafraid to speak her mind. She was also a gifted seamstress. If you can get past the polyester, take a close look at the dress she's wearing in the top photo. Note the cute collar and the unusual seaming--her design, as were all her clothes. She made me every dance costume I ever wore, and mine were always the envy of the other girls! In many ways, I think she was a woman out of her time. She worked her whole married life, and once confessed to my aunt that she had always wanted to learn fashion design, but never had the money to go to school. It was from her I learned to sew, as well as to appreciate good tailoring. She retained her accent, her hair color, and her sassy attitude until the day she died--at the age of 102, by the way. I hope I've inherited her longevity as well. When I look at that picture above, I get a pretty good sense of what I'll look like in about 15 years. I could do worse.
My paternal grandmother at about 20
I feel that Nature has played a cruel trick on me. As a middle-aged woman myself, I've come to appreciate my grandmothers in ways I never did as a young girl. I have so many questions I'll never be able to ask them, and so much to tell them in return. In the meantime, I'll give my characters their nonnas. But I'll never stop missing my own.
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