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Saturday, January 21, 2017

ZIA FRANCESCA

Everyone called her: Zia Francesca, I called her Grandma.

If grandma had taken better care of herself, she would have been 120 years old this January! But no, she ate whatever she wanted, drank anything she wanted, and worked long hard hours. She passed at 97, much too young to go. Her idea of a vacation was a pilgrimage to Italy, to support an orphanage she created for children who lost their parents during the war and the Church named it after her. Grandma organized bus rides to upstate New York for those very same kinds of needy orphan children.

She, like all the Italian grandmas in Brooklyn: wore black. This was very unsettling for grandpa, and he always avoided naps when she was home.

Grandma ran the house, the family and my grandpa like a prized stallion, he was always doing something because Grandma wanted it done. Every little creak was attended to: the house was in tip-top shape and it was almost a religious experience for grandpa.

On Sunday, he would sneak out to the Republican Club next door for a good card game, di Napoli cigar and a demitasse while holding his own in a pinochle game and some rest or respite from grandma. This, of course, irritated grandma who wanted him attending Mass on Sunday. The Sunday ritual was after Mass at Our Lady of Loreto grandma would cook her sauce for the dinner or should I say feast that would follow about one or two o'clock that afternoon. On her gas stove stood a pot that could hide a fat man over 6 feet tall. Her kitchen was the size of Texas and everything was done in it. Cooking, sewing, yelling and eating, plus laundry and paying the bills. She ran a self-sustaining farm with every kind of vegetable and spice she could fit in it, the ground lovingly nurtured by grandpa, down to the marbles he had scattered for some reason. With all those marbles, he never lost one!

In the garden stood a fig tree wrapped in the winter in linoleum carpets, and grapevines that overhung the cement patio and started to bloom in Spring. Figs were a big part of the diet, you ate them with a glass of wine, and they were sweet and delicious, juicy and succulent and inviting when I looked at them. The grapes were sour white grapes, that would eventually turn red and sweet, for his homemade wine. In his cellar, he pressed them and then after a while everything was bottled.

Grandma did have one habit that stuck with the whole family. On Saturday night, she would cook up a steak. As I grew up in Brooklyn, a steak was the meal for Saturday nights, as it is in my house every Saturday night. But grandma's steaks were special, nothing fancy but they were cooked over an open flame on an old gas stove in her basement. The smell was just so tempting, so delicious and so darn good. When mom sent me off to the confessional on Saturday afternoon to lie to the priest, I would be getting hungry knowing that a steak was in my future in an hour or so, cooked on an open flame, just like grandmas.

Grandma never smoked and had her daughters and nieces hiding from her so they could puff away, but in the end, she didn't care if you smoked, after all, it was another nail in your coffin.

It was hard to say goodbye. Grandma would see to it that everyone had a private audience. Saying goodbye meant that you would receive special attention as you tried your darnedest to get out of the house. There was a long whispered conversation, filled with expressions that told stories you couldn't understand, hand gestures that punctuated the thoughts and little children, standing next to their mothers fighting off sleep. Husbands would be yelling at their wives to get going they had to work in the morning. Gossip was saved for the end.

In grandma's cupboard in her kitchen was a collection of wedding favors, all wrapped with sugar coated almonds in a lace material, that was distributed on Easter Sunday for a small snack before the nuts and pastries. Life was good and so were the pastries. Grandma must have attended at least one wedding a week because she knew so many people, people she sponsored or financially helped, people who needed favors and she went out and got it done for them, people who needed her and she needed to have them need her.

Grandma was a big deal in the church. She made the pilgrimages for orphans but also for the special needs of the church, building funds, repair funds, dances and whatever Jesus called her to do. She also enlisted my Dad, a non-church goer who was a bit if an artist, painting a banner for a procession she was organizing for the streets of East New York and surrounding neighborhoods.

To coincide with the special church events, she organized, we had to go to her all Italian speaking church for the kick-off Mass. My dad not being a regular church attendee, would sit next to me to avoid my getting into trouble, Mom made him wear a suit and tie, a tie that hung on Dad loosely knotted, his top button of his shirt opened, sitting with his legs wide open in the seat, as he waited for the final bell so he could get home. I would watch the little old Italian ladies chirping away with each other as the priest gave his sermon, he would then pause and yell out: "SILENZIO"! The little old ladies would fall silent for a short while and right back at it they went. Then the consecration came, and I couldn't wait for it anticipating the sound of the fireworks that were set off on the roof! Bells ringing from the altar and BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! overhead kind of led to my excitement.

And so, her grandson writes about her, thinks of her bravery as a 15-year-old girl who couldn't speak English and yet owned a fruit and vegetable store, a restaurant and apartment houses, and wonders: was that the American dream? I love you Grandma: you make me proud.

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