April 29, 2011

When Grandma Came to Live with Us (2 by Margaret Ullrich)

     The first change came the next day.  Grandma refused to sit and eat with us.  She said she was used to eating what food was left after 'The Family' had eaten.  She just stood by the kitchen cabinet, as she said she'd done in the houses where she'd worked.  In those houses there were dining rooms.  Since we ate in the kitchen it was hard not to notice Grandma standing in the corner.  Ma started crying again.  After the rest of us had eaten, Ma took her plate to stand and eat with Grandma.  After a few days, Pop got mad, cursed in two languages and threw a dish of spaghetti.  Ma continued to eat with Grandma.

     The next change affected Sunday Mass.  We usually went to the 10:00 o'clock High Mass.  It was quite a show: the choir sang lots of songs, the incense was heavy and all the candles were lit.  The mix of songs, smells and smoke was almost as good as a rock concert.  Grandma didn't speak English.  She didn't want to risk meeting anyone who might want to talk to her.  The least popular Mass was at 5:00 am.  It was attended by the nuns and people who had odd work shifts.  Ma and Grandma started going to it, too.   

     Another problem was Ma's shopping.  We lived in Queens.  Years earlier my Aunts had introduced Ma to doorbuster sales in Manhattan.  It was a bit of excitement, taking the bus to Flushing, then taking two trains to get to 14th Street.  Ma loved getting to Klein's department store before the doors opened, being carried along by a huge crowd of people, then diving into the tables loaded with the doorbusters.  

     One of my earliest memories is of returning from a sale.  I was on an aisle seat in the train, barely able to see over a huge clove-studded ham that was as big as I was and was sitting on my lap.  I remember feeling woozie from the smell.  Grandma decided that going into the city was a waste of time.  She didn't want to be left alone for a whole day.  And what if the phone rang while Ma was out?  Ma agreed doorbusters weren't worth the risk of a phonecall.

     The weather was another problem.  Malta is near Italy.  Grandma expected certain weather at certain times of the year.  She did not expect snow.  Her first New York snowfall frightened her so much she threw her apron over her head, ran to the closet and started praying the rosary.  Ma couldn't change the weather.

     Grandma had her pride and wanted to work to earn her keep.  She insisted on doing the cooking, saying that Ma never did know how to cook.  Cooking was Grandma's field of expertise, if you only wanted to eat Maltese food.  Over the years Grandma managed to work off some of her anger by chopping vegetables and muttering names, like Nixon.  

     Grandma also took charge of the cleaning.  She said things like vacuum cleaners were just for lazy Americans.  She also did the laundry.  She ignored the care labels, insisting hot water was necessary to get things clean.  Ma wanted her to feel at home so she let Grandma take over our house.  It wasn't enough.

     In Malta Grandma had been an independent woman.  She was in her own country.  She spoke the language and knew her way around.  She had family, friends and activities in her town and in her parish.  She did her own shopping.  She went for regular medical care.  Her income was supplemented by cash from her four children.  Her son took care of house maintenance chores.  She could come and go as she pleased.  

     It was very different from the life she led with us.

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