Thursday, April 17, 2008

Grandma Anna

Story Jar April 16, 2008

When she was a child, my grandmother, Anna Mallia, didn’t ponder her future. Futures were predictable – carved in stone and woven through history. She learned to cook, crochet and keep a house running. Her greatest skill, the ability to love, constantly bubbled inside bringing happiness and hopefulness, traits she no doubt needed.

When it was decided that she would marry Sebastian Schillace, he immigrated to the United States in 1900 at the age of nineteen to work as a bricklayer in Buffalo. When there was enough money to establish a home, Sebastian returned to Italy, married Anna and brought her to Buffalo. Somehow, her family let her go, knowing they would never be together again. They believed that she would find opportunities for a better life than their small village could provide.

She must have been afraid sometimes but hers was an era when duty dictated activity so Anna left all that was familiar and came to America with her vows to love, honor, obey and bear children, seven of them. The children honored Anna and even as a tiny child I could feel her presence. Treating Anna with dignity was natural as getting hungry in her kitchen.

When their son, Peter, became ill, they moved to the country – North Collins – to the house where, decades later, I would play while my grandfather sat silently smoking his pipe at a square, weathered table outside the back door, surveying his dominion while household chores bustled inside.

Their house was clean and uncluttered. My favorite area was the busy kitchen where Grandma, short and round, sparkling and energetic, was always cooking, washing or eating in her sensible black heeled shoes and apron. The kitchen flowed into a wide, butterscotch colored staircase, a great place for lining up toys, launching a slinky or sliding down the side while Grandma smiled.

At the top of the stairs was a cupboard-lined hall with the entrances to five bedrooms and one secret room, a large closet full of trunks with linens and precious memories of the family in Sicily, Grandma’s treasures. Kids were forbidden to enter that room or to touch the trunks so I assumed, through childish illogic, that the trunks held treasure or dead bodies. (It was the era of The Hardy Boys.)

Sebastian was the breadwinner but Anna was the bread maker. She purchased flour in huge sacks and made rows of loaves of bread. Later, she bleached the flour sacks, cut them in half, sewed a hem and crocheted or tatted lace along the edges with bright green or pink threads turning sacks into wonderful towels. Some of Grandma’s work stayed in those trunks.

Grandma cooked, ate and prayed with gusto. There was always some kind of sauce simmering and everyone who entered Grandma’s home ate - two or three helpings if Grandma’s spoon was quick enough. Aunt Florence said that Grandma could eat an entire loaf of fresh hot bread all by herself. Before eating, her prayers were said with fervent Italian words.

Braided in the back and wrapped around her head like a crown, her long, silver hair fascinated me. When I was about four, I had permission to comb her hair but her faith in me was poorly placed. As I stood on a stool to reach her head, the comb went through her shinny, wavy hair but my little arms couldn’t reach the end and when I pulled the comb back up some hair was still in it. Trying to pull the comb free made it gather in more and more strands until it was hopelessly knotted.

All the aunts and uncles tried to remove that comb, scolding me mercilessly in two languages while Grandma tried to shush them and I cried. In the end, someone used scissors to free the comb and so ruined the cherished braids. I hid among the trunks the rest of that day.

Anna’s Italian voice was strong and musical. She depended on that language, augmented with some tuneful English words, spicing all with her smile, making me feel her ideas from the melody of the words.

Near the end of her life, Anna suffered a stroke. Her eyes and mind remained quick, young and lively, but her body couldn’t move out of the wheelchair. The stroke didn’t end the song of her life but she needed help so Aunt Florence cared for her. I stayed in the big house for a little while and, while Aunt Florence went to work, I answered the phone, delivered drinks of water, turned on the tiny, round-screened TV. I proudly served as “Grandma’s little legs.”

When Grandma died, the whole town came to sit in her parlor where the sound of the little television was replaced with tears and tales about Grandma. People said that Grandma was a saint and, through years of childhood prayers, hers was the face I’d see. Even now, writing about Anna wraps memories of her around me like a hug, her soft grandma-skin against my cheek.

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