My grandmother died 10 days ago. On October 19th, at 7:20 am, I received the phone call I had been anticipating for months, years even. My father was on the other end. He relayed the news that, before she died, Margaret Simeone smiled.
Obviously, I had to go home for the funeral. I had to find black clothes and book bus tickets. Because my mother and grandmother are Catholic, but not Kennedy-Catholic, no one would speak at the funeral mass. In the days following the funeral, I have been racking my brain for a way to properly express how I feel about the passing of my eternally polite and jaunty grandmother. Perhaps this, sent into the vast nothingness of cyber-space on the day her body is lowered into the cold Massachusetts ground, will make some mark. Perhaps it will make her life and her love story live on longer than my memory.
(Originally written in December, 2008)
My grandmother told me this story when I was fourteen. We were on a family vacation to Florence and I was sharing a room with her. I had to share the room with her because my sister had the night before. She was a dreadful snorer, so my sister and I traded off nights. My grandmother was 89 at the time, and felt a sudden need to tell me the history of the family. She must have wanted to make sure those memories and stories were real. I kept trying to fall asleep, but she kept droning on. I was selfish then, and don’t know if I would act differently now, but even as she tried to have her memories stick to someone else, she vanished into the muggy Italian air.
I don’t remember if this is the story she told me.
Margaret and Luigi met on a boat traveling from New York to Naples. Neither of them were from New York. Margaret had spent her life in Chicago, and Luigi lived outside Boston in a town called Fall River. They met on the boat in the early summer of 1951.
Margaret had quit her job to go on vacation with Rose and Gloria, two of her ten sisters. Margaret, Rose, Gloria, three more sisters lived in the same apartment building in Chicago. Margaret was a nurse at the Hektoene Institute in Chicago, Rose and Gloria were teachers. Gloria was not the first daughter named Gloria. Two years before she was born, another girl with that name had been born. She died within a few months so the name was saved and given to the next girl born. All of the Casella children, which included Margaret, Gloria, Theresa, Angela, Ann, Rose, Virginia, Irene, Lucille, Lorraine, and the lone boy, Phil, were incredibly close. In their little red house on the outskirts of Chicago, the girls had to share rooms, and sometimes beds, depending on how many girls were home.
My grandmother used to remember anything. She would call me Lorraine, but could describe Alice Thompson’s favorite dress down to every detail, including the silver clasp at the neck. She hadn’t seen this Alice in more that 60 years, but she would tell me about the red velvet and white trim. She would tell me about her parents, and how her sisters performed in the Chicago’s World Fair.
In 1951, Margaret was 36 and still unmarried. But she quit her job to go on vacation. On the boat, at some point during the voyage across the Atlantic, she must have noticed Luigi Simeone. Luigi was tall and Italian. His eyes were green and his hair was blonde. Upon first glance, he must have looked like his head was in the clouds, as he never noticed anything going on around him. He sat on his deck chair every day, just listening to the water. Finally, Margaret approached Luigi and introduced herself. At least, she tried to. She sat down on the deck chair next to his and smiled at him. He didn’t notice, didn’t even turn his head. Not wanting to seem rude, Margaret continued to sit on that chair for the rest of the afternoon. The next day, Gloria introduced them. Finally, Luigi noticed Margaret. She wasn’t very tall, but she had big brown eyes. Her eyes were what he remembered of her. He couldn’t see anything else. Years later, he remembered her wearing a blue and white striped sailor blouse, but Margaret contends she wasn’t.
For the rest of the voyage, Margaret and Luigi sat together on the deck. Margaret was always nervous and tried to be funny. Every time she tried to tell a joke, she regretted it. She knew she wasn’t as funny as other women, as her older sisters. Luigi would, in addition to her eyes, remember her risquÃ© sense of humor.
Who cares? My personal family history is certainly only interesting to my family. Yes, there are captivating moments, but doesn’t every family have those? Why should a reader, who is not my mother, care about what was served for dinner the night my grandfather died? Isn’t it the written equivalent of a slideshow from a vacation no one has attended? What is the use of me pressing specific keys on a plastic keyboard and writing this story? I imagine this story would be boring to anyone not related to the characters. But still, I am sitting and writing this story. In some way, I want the boring details to be read by someone else, to validate their existence.
The boat arrived in Naples and Margaret and Luigi went their separate ways. Margaret and her sisters traveled to Rome, Florence, and to a small town in the arch of the boot. The town had been where their grandparents had been born. It was a place they heard about at every family dinner and summer picnic. The three girls took a train to the small town, but were surprised to find that the town was empty and the buildings were riddled with bullet-holes. The town was a casualty of the Second World War.
Luigi himself was almost a casualty of that war. His reason for traveling to Italy that summer was not for tourism or adventure, but as a homecoming. He had been born in Gaeta, Italy, in 1920. His father, Giacomo, lived in America, and had since before Luigi was born. Luigi lived in Gaeta with his mother Angela, his Aunt Clara, his cousin Tonino, and his grandfather. Giacomo and Angela were first cousins. Perhaps that is why Luigi was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa. From the age of 15 on, his peripheral vision decreased slowly and progressively. While in his childhood, he enjoyed sitting in a tree eating apricots and reading spy novels– by the time he met Margaret, his vision would have been reduced to one blurry dot. But still, he remembered her shirt and her eyes.
My grandmother is now even older than she was that night. She’s 93 and, right before a recent surgery, lost almost all of her memory. She forgot me, my sister, my mother, and her husband. She only remembered one of her eleven sisters, Theresa. Ultimately, we all returned to her. For those few days, we didn’t exist. When I see her, I feel a rush to record my memories, otherwise my life will vanish too. The essence of humanity is in our memories. I am made up of my memories.
My first memory was of my baptism. I watch the memory from the alter of the church. The memory is tinged in sepia, but I can see my family surrounding the font. I always took great pride in being able to remember my own baptism. A few years ago, I told my mother about this memory. She laughed and said that I was remembering my sister’s baptism as my own. Since then, I’ve tried to pinpoint my actual earliest memory, but I can’t wipe that specific memory from first place. I remember visiting my mother in the hospital after my sister’s birth and I remember insisting that she be named “Baby Beluga.” But in the face of logic, I resolutely swear that my first memory is the one of my supposed baptism.
Do memories then stand alone, entirely reliant upon human interpretation? If our memories lie to us, what is our existence built upon?
As a child, Luigi was a member of the Mussolini youth. He sang songs about “Faccieoto nero,” the little black-faced Ethopian children who were so happy to have Italy invade their country. When war broke out, Luigi was 19. His brother, Pasquale, had been a captain in the Navy and Luigi was “strongly encouraged” to join as well. By this time, Luigi was functionally blind. He also happened to be an American citizen, by virtue of Giacomo’s citizenship. Clara woke him up early on a morning in early spring and they both boarded a train to Rome. There, Clara took Luigi to the American Embassy where he renounced his Italian citizenship. He arrived in Cohasset, Massachusetts, a few months later. He lived with his uncle Nicolo and attended second-grade classes until he learned English. Within ten years, he was a Math Professor at Southern Massachusetts University.
Why should you, the reader, be interested? It’s a question I ask again and again. Why would anyone care to read about the inner workings of my mind and the dynamics of my family? I wouldn’t share this information over dinner with a friend. Perhaps I am the only one who feels this way. Every week it seems like a new crop of glossy memoirs hit the shelves of bookstores everywhere. Some memoirs recount love (maternal, paternal, romantic, or otherwise) lost, others discuss tragedy and redemption. Others still are collections of memories only tied together by their somewhat famous owner. These books soar to the tops of charts and are eagerly read by those seeking a glimpse into someone else’s mind.
With the expectation of soul-searching prose, I feel the need to be superficial. Otherwise, isn’t that a practice better suited for a therapist’s office. Even with my doubts, why do I still write?
Am I searching for the voyeurism of the reader, a voyeurism to match my exhibitionism?
But, Luigi wasn’t thinking of those things in the summer of 1951. He was thinking about Margaret. He strolled through the streets of his hometown, thinking about her voice. He walked from his family’s summer house to their winter house, a mile apart. Down the street from his winter house, Luigi climbed a set of narrow white steps to the church where he had been an alter boy. Standing outside of the door, looking over the city, he could faintly see the green ocean and the while beach dotted with a patchwork of rainbowed umbrellas, each color designating membership in a specific a beach club.
In my senior year of high school, we learned about Plato. My teacher, Mr. Adams, was young (he turned 29 that year), bald (we would watch his hair grow in the spans between shaves), and impossibly cool (he was a DJ, he made fun of other teachers and students, and he had a Myspace page). That year, he taught whatever interested him. We learned about Post-modernism, Gnosticism, American Exceptionalism, and globalization. The first thing we learned, however, was about Plato’s cave. Humanity shackled to the dank floor of a darkened cave, watching only the shadows of reality playing across a stone wall. We were told that what we understood as a chair would never be perfect, that our conceptualization of “chair” would never be fully realized in a physical form. Every step away from the idea of “chair” corrupted it further. Where does memory fit? Is it a step in the other direction? Memory idealizes the ideal.
At the end of the summer, both vacations were drawing to a close. Luigi boarded the ship to New York, still thinking about Margaret. Suddenly, he heard her voice by his side. By some cosmic coincidence, they were on the same return boat. They parted in New York, exchanging addresses. Luigi visited Margaret in Chicago for Thanksgiving and proposed. They were married December 22nd, 1951, in Chicago. On the 27th, they moved to Fall River.
I look back at this essay and wonder. Is this story my own? I could try to argue the case that this charmingly improbable love story is a central part of my life and identity, but I know that isn’t true. It’s just a story. By writing this story, all based in fact, I am creating a work of fiction. I’m creating a new version of myself, applicable only between the whites of these pages.
They lived together in Fall River until 1988. They bickered, loved, fought and raised a daughter. Her name was Angela, but she was called “Gigi.” Gigi was Luigi’s pet name as a child. He sang “Faccietto nero” to her as she lay in her crib. He taught her the answer to Calculus problems and would show her off to his friends in the Math Department. He called her Fatsarella as a child, and she called him Gramps when she grew old. On November 18th, every year, he would stop whatever he was doing at the moment of Gigi’s birth and face the direction of the hospital. His birth into fascism did not translate into his adult political views and he would yell at the “right-wing, Republican, scum” on television. Every week after Gigi went to college, he would sit down at the typewriter to write her a letter. Margaret would have to check, every so often, that Luigi’s hands hadn’t shifted over a few keys.
I used to be afraid of dying because I was afraid of losing my memories. If my memories evaporated, what was the point of ever existing? I swore to record my memories, to bind them to something other than my body. Now, a few years closer to that ultimate end, I wonder what the point of recording my memories is. Would anyone care to read them?
One evening, my grandmother was reading letters at her desk while my grandfather was watching a public television fund drive. She read a letter from a family member who was ill. She said, “We really should do something.”
My grandfather said, “Write a check,” thinking she was talking about the fund drive.
“Not a check, we’ll send cookies.”
“They don’t want cookies, they want your money.”
The story has taken on mythical qualities. No one in my family can tell and not dissolve into laughter. It loses those qualities in writing. It’s not that I am unable to make it funny, or that it isn’t as funny as my family thinks it is. No, it’s the act of writing it and then seeing it on a pixilated screen in front of me. By writing down the story, it loses its humanity. It becomes a shadow of a memory. There is no form.
In 1987, Gigi married Ben Yagoda. Luigi, Margaret, Ben, and Ben’s parents stood in front of a blossoming dogwood tree and smiled into a camera. Gigi was 36, the same age as Margaret was when she married Luigi. Together, Gigi and Ben traveled to Gaeta. They wandered the same streets as Luigi had, and they sat on the same beach. They saw the rock in the ocean where Luigi would sunbathe as a teenager, dressed “ala Tarzan,” as Luigi would say. Ben and Gigi sat with a bowl of apricots under a blue-and-white umbrella from the Hotel Serapo.
In writing this story, I was tempted to embellish. To tie up loose ends. I gave into that temptation many times. I don’t know what my grandfather looked like when he met my grandmother. I don’t know at what rate his vision declined. I don’t know how my grandparents met on the boat, or what the weather was like when they were married. I don’t know much of anything, except what I have been told. I know that when my mother reads this, she will notice a thousand things that are absolutely wrong, even if to me they are truths central to the story of my family.
Am I not also embellishing by omission? To create the “me” of this story, I have to ignore all other “mes”. I’m not writing about my sister, besides an offhand reference. I’m not writing about my father or his family. I’m not writing about any experience of my own. I could fill pages and pages with anecdotes about my fraught relationship with my grandmother. But it is easier to tell the story, to stay within the boundaries.
Perhaps I have been intellectually dishonest. This story is not based in facts, but in memories.
In the January of 1988, Gigi was pregnant. Margaret and Luigi had been visiting Gigi and Ben in Philadelphia for the holidays. After a dinner of steak and turnovers, Gigi and Margaret did the dishes. Luigi sat down to watch television. While waiting for The Nanny to come on, Luigi had a heart attack and quietly died. I was born three months later. Margaret was in mourning for my whole life.
When someone dies, they never existed as we do now. They have no memories. Every thought they ever had, if not recorded, is erased from history. When a plane crashes, we lose what the passenger in seat 30F first thought of Catcher in the Rye, or when 25C first came to enjoy coffee. When a car of jubilant teenagers crashes on a windy highway, we never know what that last joke was. Again, I feel that rush to record my memories, otherwise my life will not have happened. But again, is that urge for my own peace of mind? Do I really believe that one day someone will read my recorded memories and I will have then existed?
It’s hard for me to imagine my grandmother with a risquÃ© sense of humor, or any sense of humor for that matter. When she was younger, did she imagine that she would always be funny? Always be smart? Always be able to dance the tarentella? What will I have lost by the time I am 93?
In writing, I have the power to grant importance– to divide existence and oblivion. I have decided that it isn’t important that the night my grandfather died was the last time my mother ever made turnovers. I’ve decided that my paternal grandparents aren’t important, despite all the love I have for them. I’ve decided that the rest of the Italian vacation I began by describing is also not important.
What have I done? Have I successfully created a new me, to be discarded with my next essay? But I’ve ignored my entire life. I haven’t written about myself at all. I’ve barely written about anything that has actually happened to me. It would be foolish to believe that this story influenced the person I am today in any way. From where in the story of my grandparents do I find my tendency to watch three movies in a row, or my affection for driving with my left foot? The only thing I have from this story is a story.
The story is built upon a story. My grandmother told my mother this story, and then I learned it in bits and pieces as I grew up.