My grandmother, Josephine Brucellaria Mazziotti was the last grandmother in America. After she died in 1983 I noticed a decline in the number of grandmothers. I think they all went out into the workforce. Some because of a legitimate need for supplemental income and others because they thought that by virtue of the generation into which they had been born, they had missed something. So, the grandmas ventured out to find whatever it was that modern women were supposed to experience. Others simply let grandpa talk them into moving to warmer weather. Not so Josephine. Because of her dedication to her grandchildren, I have only ever wanted to emulate her. Ever since my five children were small, people have asked me what I planned on doing when they were all out of the house and on their own. The pressure I felt to come up with an answer was sort of like what children feel when someone asks them what they want to be when they grow up. I would reach inward to my very simple mind and always come up with the same answer: I wanted to be the kind of grandmother that Josephine was. How unfeminist of me.
By all accounts, as they trickle in from the few remaining Italians in our family, Josephine had an unhappy marriage to Anthony Mazziotti. My mother never had many warm recollections of her childhood. She was the third of three children and there were ten years separating her and her next sibling, my Aunt Lorraine. She was born a few months before the crash of 1929 and by then her mother, Josephine, was feeling the strain of being married to a man who fancied himself an entrepreneur. He left a job working as an airplane mechanic to do who-knows-what, creating a financially unstable condition at home. All hope was eventually dashed by the Great Depression. My mom recalled one incident of coming home from school with a piece of art work only to have my grandmother slap her in the face when my mom approached her for approval of her creation. She never forgot the shock and hurt she felt, but as an adult she understood that Josephine suffered under the yoke of marriage to Anthony. My grandfather died seven years before I was born, leaving my grandmother and mother, age 17, to fend for themselves. My grandmother worked for awhile to support them and eventually things got better, but generally speaking, Josephine never had much in life. She and my mother moved in with my great-grandparents, Baldassare and Clementina Brucellaria, and when they died soon after my grandfather, Josephine occupied the home at 6757 S. Hermitage in the Englewood area of Chicago permanently. When I was born in 1954 my parents were living in a rented apartment across the street. From the moment I was born my grandmother was a constant presence in my life. She was there when I was a baby and even after my parents bought a house in the Ashburn neighborhood farther south and west, I spent my weekends at Grandma’s keeping her company.
Actually, my fondest childhood memories are of my Grandmother’s house in the old Italian neighborhood known as 69th street. The original inhabitants of that area were Dutch and Swedish. As those ethnic groups began to prosper, they moved to the suburbs and were replaced by Italian immigrants who had spilled over the borders of their original neighborhoods closer to the downtown area of Chicago. My great grandparents had lived in one of those neighborhoods but soon bought the home that I knew as my Grandmother’s house. They owned two lots – one for their house and one that became a saloon that my Grandfather Anthony operated. Eventually they sold off the extra lot and building and it was bought by the Schuba family who continued to run a saloon known as Lefty’s – my father’s favorite watering hole.
On Friday nights my father would head back to the "old" neighborhood to have a few beers with his buddies. He would bring me along so that I could spend the weekend with Grandma. He would get there in time to listen to the ball game and I would get there in time to have a bowl of Cornflakes with Josephine before we went to bed. I would wake on Saturday morning to the smell of fresh perked coffee and toasted Italian bread. My grandmother would make soft-boiled eggs for me to accompany the 10 pieces of toast I would eat. It was a treat to have toast at her house because she didn’t have Wonder Bread; she had bread from Naples Bakery on 69th Street. The day would be spent following her around as she tended her garden, hung laundry, or made pies. She had an old wringer washer in her basement, never owned a dryer and she made the best pies ever. Blueberry, Lemon Meringue, Coconut Custard, Banana Custard. To this day I rarely ever eat pie in a restaurant because they can’t compare to hers. Often she would spend the day making spaghetti sauce with meatballs or neckbones or sausage. Saturday evening I would wait patiently on my Grandmother’s front porch for my Dad to arrive at Lefty’s for the evening. As soon as I saw his car I would run next door to the saloon. This was the highlight of the weekend. My Dad would sit me on a stool and he would buy me pop and a box of pretzels: the stick kind in that little flat box. I would enjoy being with the guys, but it wasn’t long before it was time for the kid to get out of the bar and head back to Grandma’s. I don’t know how serious the law was about 6 year olds in bars, but my father was very serious about me not picking up any bad language, which would flow in proportion to the beer. So, back to Josephine’s for Cornflakes and Lawrence Welk.
Sunday morning consisted of the usual breakfast and yes, I drank coffee. Josephine did not have a problem with kids indulging in caffeine. At the corner of Hermitage and 67th street, the bells would be ringing at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. I would head off to Mass by myself since the Italian side of the family rarely graced the inside of a church. My poor mother had to walk down to the church when she was nine years old and ask the priest if he would baptize her. Happily, I was not without family at church. Sitting in the back I could usually see my Irish grandparents in the front. Joseph and Rosalie Moran lived just three blocks west of Josephine in the same neighborhood. As soon as church was over I would touch base with my Grandma and then walk over to the Irish side and spend the afternoon eating Oreos and hard candy with my other grandparents. This is where I was able to indulge my love of dogs because Joe and Rosalie owned a little black dog named Tinker. And that is why my Irish grandparents were always known to us kids as Tinker Grandpa and Grandma. I loved that little house on Wolcott too. Tinker Grandma decorated in an early American style and although my mother thought it tacky, I never understood what the problem was.
When the visit was over I headed back to Josephine’s where my Dad would retrieve me to go home. Many times Josephine would also be retrieved along with the spaghetti sauce and pies. The weekend would culminate in a huge Sunday dinner complete with beer or pop as a treat and yes, I drank beer. My father did not have a problem with kids becoming accustomed to drinking alcohol as part of a meal. When the meal was over I would beg my grandmother to stay overnight with us. I hated to part with her. Since she rarely had anywhere to go she usually stayed with us for a couple of days before my dad took her back home.
I loved that Italian neighborhood more than I cared for my own. The "old" neighbor hood had trees lining the street and the yards all had trees and flowers. In contrast my new neighborhood had just been constructed on prairie and farmland. There wasn’t a tree to be found and for some reason my parents’ generation preferred that sterile barberry bush look with manicured lawns. But in the old neighborhood I could sleep outside at night on the porch rattan lounge chair and listen to the breeze blowing through the great pear tree that hung over the house. This was a real fruit-bearing pear tree and when the pears were ready to be harvested, the slightest breeze would cause them to fall from the branches hitting the house with a loud thud. I remember nights trying to fall asleep with the constant thudding of the pears as the wind brought them down. The next morning Josephine would head outside to see what kind of harvest she had only to find that the squirrels had helped themselves to one or two bites of each pear. This is when I was privileged to hear my grandmother curse and swear in Italian through the garden, as she would pick up pear after pear only to find it contaminated by the squirrels.
I live in a suburb of Chicago that has huge oak trees. When I relax outside in the summer I close my eyes and am transported back to that neighborhood as I listen to the sound of the wind in the trees and the barking of a dog in the distance. I have a garden, which contains the very peony bushes, and forget-me-nots that grew in that yard on Hermitage Ave. Clementina Brucellaria planted the peonies, and the forget-me-nots were a Mother’s Day gift to Clementina from my mother. Soon, my grandchildren will be old enough to stay with grandma and grandpa for the weekend. They will follow me around as I garden, hang the laundry and make pies.