Some people are lucky enough to know their grandparents, to have spent their formative years visiting them and perhaps learning from them. Adriana Trigiani grew up in a large Italian family and was able to develop close relationships with both of her grandmothers, and she has compiled her memories of them into a guide/memoir, Don’t Sing at the Table: Life Lessons From My Grandmothers.
She traces their lives in parallel fashion, talking about their career choices, their families, and their take on marriage and child-rearing. Yolanda “Viola” Perin Trigiani and Lucia “Lucy” Spada Bonicelli had different dispositions, but as women of the same time and similar background, they had a lot of overlap in how they conducted their lives.
Viola and her husband, Michael, owned a blouse-making factory in Martins Creek, Pennsylvania. The blouses they produced would eventually end up in high-end department stores, and Viola took her job seriously as “The Boss” of the employees, while Michael was the one who met with suppliers and other salesmen. She could be a hard-ass with high expectations, but:
If an operator was absent, Viola would sit down at a machine and cover for her. There was no difference in her mind between the manager and the employee. Her belief was that you got the job done – no matter what.
Similarly, Lucy and her husband, Carlo, operated their own business. Carlo worked as a shoemaker, and Lucy was a seamstress specializing in one-of-a-kind creations. Together, they opened the Progressive Shoe Shop in Chisholm, Minnesota, with Lucy’s work area in the back and the family’s home on the upper floor of the building.
Lucy preferred creating for the individual client. She never tired of the challenge of the one-of-kind, but she fretted about pleasing her customers. In the custom clothing business, the pressure was as real for Lucy as the factory life was for Viola. A jittery bride could wield as much pressure as a buyer under deadline to deliver goods in the garment district.
Both women never gave a second thought to work. Staying at home with the children was not an option because, even if they felt financially comfortable, work was what was important, and just as satisfying as family life, and it was what provided a good foundation for their children. They supported their children’s interests and did everything they could for them, but the stay-at-home culture did not exist in the same way it would later.
Growing up, Trigiani would often hear, “Chi e canta a tavola e piu stupido che fuma a letto,” an Italian proverb meaning, “He who sings at the table is more stupid than one who smokes in bed.” Her grandmothers used it tell the kids gathered around the table that they were there to eat, not to perform, talk over one another, or fool around. I am with her grandmothers here. I am all for pleasant dinnertime conversation, but most of the time, I end up telling my kids, “Eat!” when they’re busy making monkey noises or arguing over who exactly left the mess made in the living room.
So while I liked a lot of the sections on being dedicated to your work and your family, some of the advice rubbed me the wrong way. The chapters on money, scrimping and saving and never carrying too much debt – well, they just nudged me closer to an anxiety attack. Of course, attempts at financial security are not a bad thing, but for people who are already struggling, as many of us are today, it’s hard not to think, “Well, must be nice to have it all figured out from the beginning.” That said, this is written from a granddaughter’s perspective, based on what her grandmothers told her. We see the successes, and Trigiani was likely not told of all the struggles.
One thing I definitely disagreed with was the subject of tattoos, a topic on which Trigiani appears to agree with her grandmothers.
These days, we have a need to make whatever we were born with our version of better, and in so doing, leave our permanent wisdom carved into our bodies and not engraved on the souls of our children.
This is the same woman who confesses, in a previous chapter, to having a “tackle box” full of makeup. And how is that not trying to make what she was born with better? Yes, we’ve all seen some stupid and misguided tattoos out there, but no one gets to police that. Consider me firmly in the camp of tattoos being works of art, something we do to mark important passages in our lives, or to remind us of what we hold dear. Raising our children with our own ideals and having tattoos are not mutually exclusive.
Religion gets its own section as well, and despite her grandmothers’ hopes, Trigiani admits that she is not a perfect Roman Catholic. She still identifies with the religion, but knows that she is not as dedicated as they were. Still, by her account, she didn’t see her grandmothers as judgmental when it came to other spiritual practices.
The development of faith and a spiritual life that sustains us is not about religion; it’s about cultivating the ability to be still. We must nurture our souls with the same diligence with which we care for our bodies, and in the same fashion that we have built our intellect through the development and study of ideas and the celebration of our particular gifts and skills.
Well, even the lazy Buddhist in me can get behind that.
Don’t Sing at the Table isn’t perfect. Trigiani can go on a bit (see the very long sentence in the excerpt above), and all the “We must” declarations made me a bit twitchy at times. She clearly set out to write a glowing tribute to the women who helped make her who she is today, but at times, it felt a bit too glowing. She makes passing reference to Viola being a proud, difficult woman, but I wanted a bit more reality mixed in with the advice. For me, the best learning experiences do not come with “Do this” directives, but admissions of being flawed individuals (just like everyone else) and how one makes life work anyway.
My grandmothers and I do not have the same relationship as Trigiani did with hers, but I recognize that it is a gift that I know them at all. Right now, my children have a close relationship with my mother, and they also know their remaining great-grandmothers, which I’m thankful for in the absence of their grandfathers.
The best thing I’ve learned from my grandmothers is the importance of taking care of myself, mentally and physically. I’m certainly not great at it, but I’m more conscious of making an effort, especially since I became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. My grandmothers have very different levels of health, and it is through their decisions that I see what could be in store for me. My mom’s mom turns 90 this year, and she was a born 2-pound preemie who later survived polio. She still drives, lives on her own, and can tell you how the stock market is doing. And while we do not agree on a lot of matters, one could definitely do worse than to have lived a life like hers.
What about you? What have your grandmothers taught you?
(Full Disclosure: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and will continue to be fair in my reviews.)