Seventy three years ago today, the greatest gift I have ever received was born--my 'gramma.'
Born to Italian immigrant parents, my 'gramma' grew up the oldest of four girls. At fifteen, she dropped out of high school to become a 'working woman' of the 1950's. While she didn't complete high school, I could always tell her days working at Alden's in Cicero, Illinois were some of the fondest memories she carries with her. I love the way she tells stories, often forgetting them as she is half-way finished.
She went on to raise four children of her own, my mother being one of them. Despite enduring years of an unsupportive home life, my grandfather's once-upon-a-time alcohol addiction and her battle with breast cancer, my 'gramma' has had a sense of humor for as long as I can remember. You see, in my family, you laugh to keep it from hurting so much. Even if you can't talk about it, you can laugh about it. This isn't always the healthiest of coping mechanisms yet it remains.
I'll never forget heading upstairs to visit her as a little boy, where I would sing along to Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire' or the Christmas-time classic, 'Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.' My grandparents lived on the top floor of a four-flat building my great-grandpa owned. This particular unit had been passed around my family until my grandparents eventually landed there. How will I ever forget taking naps on her bed (it was always more comfortable than mine) or the way she always seemed to know how to make toast just right. Her laughter still hits a soft spot. She would draw me pictures of my grandpa lying on the couch, making sarcastic comments then calling him 'lazy.' She gave me spelling lessons, albeit inaccurate ones, like when she told me that grandma was spelled, 'gramma.' As I got older and addressed the misspelling, she simply shrugged, "Oh well!" calling me 'college boy.' The truth is, I never would have made it through college if it weren't for my grandmother's support. I know she made sacrifices for me to be there even though I've never asked what they were. The entire first year of college I had nightmares that occasionally woke up my roommates. I worried about her.
When I was 12 years old, I got caught stealing adult magazines from a local store. I can still remember the shame I felt in disappointing my 'gramma.' The look on her face as she asked, "Why would you do that? If you needed money I would have given it to you..." I asked her not to tell anyone since I was so embarrassed. She kept her word to this day, a few threats notwithstanding. As a grown man, I'm able to laugh at how childish the entire scenario was and shrug it off. However, the weight of my 'gramma's' promise still bears much significance. She was the first of few whom I knew I could trust.
It has long since been the tradition in my family that the strongest connection always lies with your 'gramma.' This was true for the former generation and it certainly holds true for me. While I won't ever fully understand everything my 'gramma' faced, or why she resiliently dealt with some things as long as she did, I know that she is a source of immeasurable power. She quit smoking cold turkey when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she's never turned back. She is the glue to a family that is no stranger to feuds. She has a way of always making it feel alright, even when it's not.
She was the first person that taught me what it meant to do the right thing. She instilled the value that when you know you need to do something, you do it. She taught me it was a 'sin' to waste food. I can hear her voice in my head every time I see someone about to throw away leftovers. Sometimes I can even see her puckering her lips, shaking her head, whispering, "It's a sin!" Even though she's a bit of a packrat (understatement of the year), she fostered a value that taught me to never take more than I would use. If someone was letting something go to waste and I could use it, I should. She was my first lesson in recycling.
When it comes to our family, she has held an unwavering commitment to helping raise her children and grandchildren (particularly my brother and I), long after she should have retired so she could begin living her life for herself. She adopts the struggle(s) of everyone in the family when she sees them faced with an obstacle, even though she doesn't have to. She never complains about the things she feels are her duty. In actuality, she doesn't really engage emotional meanderings outside of admitting when she is wrong. While I have never heard my 'gramma' say the words, "I love you," she called me today (her birthday) to say, "I'm sorry," for jokingly calling me an 'idiot' the other day. That's just the kind of woman she is.
She's made mistakes in her life, I know she has because she's human. But in the eyes of one grandson, no mistake can hold clout given the role she's played in allowing me to experience one of the most significant relationships I will ever have in my life. Not only has she taught me what it means to be empathetic, she has taught me what it means to sacrifice selflessly. Every opportunity I have ever been afforded has one way or another been shaped and supported by her. No matter how hard I practice selflessness, I will forever fail in comparison to her.
If I ever told my 'gramma' that she led me to down a pathway to social justice, she'd probably ask what that even means. She didn't only help me understand what it meant to be part of a collective or that resources need to be distributed equitably, she showed me what beauty is. When I felt like there were obstacles I couldn't overcome, she helped me see possibility. She showed me what it meant to know someone was standing in my corner, even when she didn't have the words to say she was.
Today, I celebrate the life of Lillian Phyllis Severino Fields. Happy birthday! You are the greatest gift I will ever receive. Everything I have ever been, am or will be is because of and for you. I love you gramma.
...and even though you can't say it yet, I know you love me too.