Minor saints

My grandmother's small gestures of love live on between me and my son.

By Janis Cooke Newman

Published May 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the nursing home where my grandmother lives, there's a sign that's meant to help the residents locate themselves in time and space. Today is March
3, it says. The next holiday is Easter. The next meal is lunch. You are in New Milford, N.J.

Few of the residents pay much attention to the sign. Their bodies, which have grown old and unpredictable, may be located in early spring in New Jersey, but their minds have become more flexible with regard to time and space.

My brother cannot find my grandmother's room. He walks us around a circular hallway several times, past an ancient man caved into his
wheelchair who keeps shouting, "Meh! Meh!" at my brother, as if he recognizes him. My 4-year-old son, Alex, sticks close to my legs, and I
worry he will be afraid of these old people who look at him so covetously.

When we find her, my grandmother is lying on a bed, her body barely
asserting its shape on her housedress. I think that if we'd come much later all we would have found would be the dress flat on the bed. Coarse gray hairs grow from her upper lip and her nose is bent to one side, as if the bone has gone back to cartilage. I have to remind my grandmother several times who I am, and at first I think it's because it's been more than a year since I've traveled across the country to see her. But 10 minutes later, she refers to me as her dear Polish friend and I understand that her lack of recognition has nothing to do with absence.

"Did you see my mother?" she asks me, and I have to tell her that the small Italian lady I remember as a gray head leaning out of a second-floor window has been dead for 40 years. In fact, everyone my grandmother asks about is dead; her brother, her sister, her daughter (my mother). She becomes so accustomed to this response that when she inquires about my other brother, George, she doesn't wait for us to tell her that he is home with his new baby. "He's dead, isn't he?" she shouts, pleased with having figured it out for herself.

My grandmother's voice has changed, grown old and sexless. I used to love to listen to her talk. When she was a child, her mother took her to Italy, to show her off to the family that had remained behind. While they stayed in a small town outside of Naples, the rest of the world began a war, and my grandmother was not allowed to return to America for seven years. Ever since, her English has been idiosyncratic, as if the Italian had somehow slipped itself between the English words and their meaning. "He'd take his pants off for you," my grandmother would say when she wanted you to know how generous someone was. "My foot got loose," she explained one, when we asked her how she could hit another car while stopped at a red light.

"Do you love your mother?" she now asks my son in the voice I don't recognize. And Alex hides behind my shoulder and nods his head.

From the time I was Alex's age, I would spend every Saturday night with my grandmother. She'd open her sofa bed for us, the one that was called a Castro Convertible, and we'd watch the Million Dollar Movie on television together. During the commercials, she'd make tea for me, sweet and pale with milk. Afterward, I'd fall asleep with the metal bar of the Castro Convertible pressing into my hip, the sound of her thunderous snoring in my ears.

A large woman carrying a tray comes into my grandmother's room and shouts at her. "Lunch time, Mary," she says, and lifts the plastic dome with burnt edges that covers my grandmother's meal. The food is brown and white, soft and steamy.

"I don't like the food here," my grandmother tells me. "I don't like the way it smells."

"I don't blame you, Nana," I say. "It smells awful." And my grandmother narrows her eyes at me and laughs, thrilled by our scandalous behavior. I look to see if Alex is watching, but he's busy turning over the tissue-thin pages of my grandmother's Bible.

When I was a child my grandmother would take me with her on Cassar bus tours. Washington. Gettysburg, Pa. Atlantic City. We'd sit side by side on prickly seats that would make the backs of my legs itch, watching the sights fly past the big windows. On the trip to Atlantic City, we wandered along the splintered boardwalk and my grandmother bought me a bag of fortune cookies. That night I fell asleep in a bed littered with little paper fortunes.

My grandmother took me everyplace with her. Nothing seemed to make her happier than my company. "You're my favorite," she'd tell me, and in her presence I was no longer a skinny bookish child with teeth so crooked I couldn't close my mouth over them. I was Karen, the Mouseketeer I would most often pretend to be, putting my pajama bottoms on my head and turning the flannel legs into long blond hair.

Before we leave the nursing home, I kiss my grandmother's cheek where the skin has begun to smell sour, and assure her for the sixth or seventh time that I will arrange for her to have her hair permed.

"Do you want to give your Nana a kiss?" my grandmother asks Alex. He stands behind me, chews on the edge of my jacket.

"He's shy," I tell her.

My brother's children only know Nana as the elderly woman who had to be locked out of her own basement because she kept going down there to look for her parents; the old lady who had to be declared incompetent because she tried to withdraw all her money from the bank to buy cans of Italian tomatoes. They don't know the woman who spent 30 years traveling across the George Washington Bridge by bus to New York to sew strips of vinyl together for baby carriages. The woman who made her own ravioli, covering the kitchen table with them until they rose like small hills under the dishtowel.

Alex will never know that woman either. His only memory of her will be of a very old person who kept wanting to touch him.

The next day, as Alex and I walk past the shiny black marquee of Radio City Music Hall, I tell him, "My grandma used to take me there."

"When?" he asks, and I find myself telling him about the Christmases when my grandmother and I would come into New York to see the Rockettes. We'd stand in the line that snaked around Rockefeller Center, freezing in the icy wind. When we'd turn the last corner, my grandmother would send me across the street to the Sabrett Hot Dog stand for roasted chestnuts. We'd eat two or three, then stuff the rest into our pockets to keep our hands warm.

I tell Alex all of this in a rush, not certain whether he's understanding any of it, or if he has already lost interest. But a day later, as we're driving up Sixth Avenue in a taxi, he points to Radio City Music Hall and says, "That's where your grandma took you." So I tell him about how after the Rockettes, my grandmother and I would go to the Automat for dinner. She'd give me a handful of quarters and let me feed them into the enormous vending machines, releasing the plates of hot food from behind little plastic doors.

Alex makes me tell the story of the Automat over and over. He wants to go there, wants to make the plastic doors pop open on the plates of mashed potatoes, the turkey sandwiches. But like the people my grandmother has asked about, the Automat is gone.

Over the next week, I tell Alex more Nana stories. The Easter mornings we'd get up early for sunrise service, the only ones awake in the dark house. The way she'd press dollar bills into my palm, closing my fingers over the money and telling me not to say anything to my brothers. The St. Joseph's Day cakes she'd make for me every spring, crescent-shaped turnovers filled with puried chick peas and oil of cinnamon.

"What did they taste like?" Alex asks me.

"They were sweet," I tell him, "and a little spicy."

"Can we make them?" he wants to know.

I've only cooked St. Joseph's cakes once, using a recipe my grandmother dictated to my mother. I remember that I scraped the skin off my knuckles pushing the chick peas through the colander, burned myself on the hot oil the turnovers were fried in.

"Yes, we can make them," I tell Alex, thinking that perhaps these pastries meant to celebrate a minor saint will give him a taste of what it was like to grow up with Nana. Thinking also that they might help me remember what it felt like to receive her special dispensation.

Janis Cooke Newman

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