My mother taught me that being a stay at home mom was a very noble profession but that working outside of the home was sometimes necessary and could also be a good decision, especially when there was a Grandma nearby. When I was about four years old, my mom went to work part time, but I had my Grandma to spend time with me.
My grandmother’s parents had been bakers in the city many years earlier and they taught their daughter Clara all the family secrets. Grandma went to public school for three years, and then at her father’s direction, left school to help full time at the bakery. As a young child, she delivered bread and rolls to families in the neighborhood and as she grew older she started baking.
That experience, along with her desire to feed her family of seven, paved the way for me and her other grandchildren to reap the benefit that her years of practice provided. She made the most extraordinary bread, rolls, and pasta. Even today the aroma of fresh baked bread signals some of the best childhood memories that include watching Grandma’s strong and weathered hands mix the flour, eggs, and warmed yeast on her homemade wooden board and then knead and punch the dough several times after rising. She showed me how to form perfectly shaped rolls and place them on the cooking pan to bake. I could barely wait until they came out of the oven, golden and absolutely delicious.
I remember sitting at our kitchen table smelling the rolls baking, coloring and pretending to read, while Grandma ironed. I watched how she “dampened” the laundry to prepare it for ironing then tightly roll each piece and place it in the basket. As she unraveled a rolled shirt, she pressed the hot iron firmly on the fabric until it was smooth and clean and ready for the hanger. She often ironed my dresses and would regularly ask me to pick the one I wanted to wear when I woke up from my nap.
She kissed me, tucked me in bed for a quick nap saying in Italian, “vai a dormire” which I knew meant go to sleep now. When I’d wake up from my nap, she helped me put on my freshly-pressed dress of choice tied at my waist with a crisp bow, then she’d comb my curly hair and pin it with a pretty little barrette or bow. That signaled to me it was time to go. Hand in hand we started our short walk up to the busy Walnut Street just a few blocks away.
Watching Grandma, I learned how to be a caring neighbor. A regular stop along the walk was Indovina Market, the corner Rexall Drug Store, and of course Lutz’s Bakery. Spending a few minutes at each stop, Grandma would ask about families and their health and she would remind me to smile and say thank you for our purchases. I learned the value of money from my Grandma. She never seemed to have very much, but she always made sure she placed several coins into my little hands so I could buy penny candy or a drink at the soda fountain.
The stop at Indovina Market was always the last one, since we left with bags full of specially selected tomatoes that Mrs. Indovina prepared just for my Grandma. Later, I heard Grandma refer to these tomatoes as “touched” which I found out were ones that had been there a few days. She bought other produce like greens for soup and fresh vegetables and fruits but Mrs. Indovina knew that my Grandmother made sauce every week and these tomatoes were perfect for sauce. I often wondered how we managed to carry all those heavy tomatoes all the way back home, but my Grandma was very strong and so was I.
When Grandma made bread she had me guess how many dozen of rolls we could make from the dough. She played math games with me by telling funny stories about how many rolls came out of the oven, how many were gone by the next day and how many were left. She would lay coins out on the table and ask me to count the money to determine how much I had and what I could buy or save in my piggy bank.
Grandma and I rolled meatballs together and because of the fun she created in counting, when I am making meatballs today I find myself counting as I roll them in my hands, …one, two, three, rather silly at my age but I do it with automaticity.
Sometimes Grandma took me to a nearby neighborhood about ten minutes by “street car” or taxi where we’d go to the Regent or Liberty Movie Theaters. We’d stop for lunch at Anton’s or for ice cream at Isaly’s. Other times she took me shopping at Woolworth’s where she always found a real bargain on something she needed. We never left the store without a little lollipop or Beeman’s gum for both of us.
I learned which buses went where by their numbers. When we took a taxi, I watched Grandma tip the taxi cab driver with coins from her coin purse. Grandma always gave a generous tip and seemed to know all the bus and taxicab drivers by name. They knew her as well greeting her with a huge smile and the usual, “how are you today Mrs. D’Andrea?”
My Grandma also gave money at church, on the street to homeless, and to the firemen in our neighborhood. She said that if you have money, you should give it away to those who need it. She often gave me coins to give away as well.
I loved listening to the familiar Italian words spoken by my grandmother whenever she visited us. It seemed as though she could not speak unless her entire body was involved in the process. When she told a story her hands and arms involuntarily waived in the air as she delivered every detail with intentional emphasis.
When I had her all to myself, I can remember sitting on her lap and listening to her sing our favorite Christmas song, “Tu scendi dalle stelle.” I can hear my Grandma’s voice singing this beautiful traditional Italian Christmas song even today. We sang this song together especially during the Christmas holidays, but Grandma would sing this on demand even in July.
My grandmother’s Italian culture shaped much of my upbringing and learning. I observed and internalized a multitude of family traditions that I share today with my children and grandchildren.
My grandmother often told me that she was not smart, because she had not gone to school. She longed to finish school but under the circumstances was not able, so much of what she learned she taught herself. She taught herself quite well, and she taught me too!
I highly recommend having a Grandma, we can learn so much from them. If you don’t have a Grandma, maybe you might borrow one.