The Stories Grandma Told

In celebration of the memory of my paternal Grandmother, Marie Ruggiere Gregory, whose birthday would be April 3.

In earlier posts, I’ve related the stories told by my paternal grandmother, Marie Gregory, of The Mortgage, The Irish Catholic Nun Who Hated Wops, and The White Spot.  But these were just a few of the tales of her life that Grandma shared with me when I was a young woman, dropping by her home to visit most Sunday afternoons.  I loved sitting there on her old brown couch, sunlight pouring in from the windows behind us, listening to her relate these memories—some disturbing, most hilarious—in her expressive Italian manner, hands gesturing; voice rising and falling in rhythmic inflections.

I only wish that I could remember all of her anecdotes; wish that I had written them down at the time, captured all these chapters of her life to share with future generations.  But there are a few I will never forget.

Many of her tales concerned her children, of course.  The one which she would relate with the greatest bitterness was The Silk Parachute.  In WWII, parachutes were often made of silk and, if damaged, could not be reused.  Someone had sent Grandma just such a parachute, and she, delighted, planned to sew a silk blouse from it.  Unfortunately for Grandma, her unruly brood of kids had a different idea.  She found them one summer morning clambering up to the top of the swing set with their kittens, each little feline safely ensconced in a tiny parachute cut from the silk.  The kids laughed hysterically as they dropped the little cats to float gently to the ground.

Grandma herself laughed aloud as she told me of an incident with my then 3-year-old father.  He wandered in to see her one summer afternoon with a pitiful expression on his face. He’d been dressed lightly for the summer heat in shorts and a tank-style undershirt, and the straps of the shirt had slipped down his shoulders, pinning each arm to his side.  “Ain’t ya sorry for me, Marie?” he asked her pathetically.

The children often played on the big, semi-enclosed front porch, and one summer afternoon she heard more than the usual raucous laughter and giggles emanating from that area.  Stepping to the door to investigate, she discovered that her younger son, John, had taken her expensive mantelpiece clock from the dining room credenza, strapped sparklers to each of the hands, overwound it, and then set it on the concrete of the porch before lighting the sparklers.  As the hands circled the clock face wildly,  fireworks tossing sparks everywhere, the clock jerked and “walked” across the porch, leaving the children helpless with laughter.  (Amazingly, both John and the clock survived this incident.)

Marie Gregory
Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s Senior Photo

Grandma’s sense of humor meant that she could tell tales upon herself, as well.  The very best of these may have been The Smoke Alarm in Her Purse.  Smoke alarms were still a fairly new development when Pat, Grandma’s older daughter, lived in an apartment complex which had just begun installing them.   Prior to the installation, Pat had put up her own smoke alarm, so she now removed it and dropped it off for her mother to use.  Grandma was on her way out of the door to go shopping when Pat arrived,  so she just shoved the alarm into her capacious purse and continued on her errand.  But upon leaving the grocery with her purchases, she stopped to light a cigarette…and triggered the smoke alarm.  There she stood, in the middle of the busy parking lot, the alarm blaring stridently in her purse, with absolutely no idea how to turn it off!

I, of course, laughed myself sick when Grandma related this tale.  And despite this incident, Grandma continued smoking to the very end of her days.

Grocery parking lots may well have been her Waterloo, for one of Grandma’s other stories concerned the day she purchased hard-to-obtain calf’s brains.  (We won’t even go into the whole “why would anyone ever eat brains with scrambled eggs” question, not right here, anyway.)  But I, arriving at her home one weekend afternoon, heard the story of her purchase.  The calves’ brains had been put into a styrofoam deli container, and Grandma had simply carried it out without a sack.  But as she headed to her car, she was nearly sideswiped by a careless driver and dropped the container.  Splat!  Brains all over on the asphalt.

“Oh, too bad!” I commiserated hypocritically.  But Grandma told me no sympathy was needed.  She scraped up the brains right back into the container, took them home, rinsed them off, cooked them up, and ate them!  (To this day, I would pay good money to see a video of my face as I was told this story!)

I have more of Grandma’s stories, too many of them for this essay. I’m certain my cousins must have others, as well; tales that I never heard, but would love to know. But what struck me as I compiled these memories was my wonder about what, someday, my own granddaughter might recall of the tales I hope to tell her of my life.  Will she, I wonder, even listen, or care?  Will she read the essays from this blog, which I am compiling into a book for her?

Or will she someday perhaps write her own essay, and smile as she titles it,  “The Stories Mimsey Told”.

You can find some of Grandma Marie’s earlier tales in the Archives: Racism Knows No Logic, 06/10/2020; and, Scrubbing the Sunbeam, 09/09/2020.

The Many Faces of Hate

§  To wear the mask of a stranger is to see merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision.  §

While a young woman, I had a coworker—let’s call her Angela–who endured troubling memories of her paternal grandmother. At the time I knew Angela, I’d just begun re-establishing a close relationship with my own paternal grandmother; years of family squabbles had kept us apart. So I was shocked to hear of the treatment this likeable woman had received from her grandmother.

Angela explained that Grandmother absolutely despised Angela’s mother—had hated her from the very day Mom and Dad began dating. It’s been 40-odd years since our conversation, but I still recall the troubled expression on Angela’s face as she told me that her mother and father tried countless times to heal the sorry situation. Sadly, nothing had ever worked.

But Grandmother’s hatred extended to, when they arrived, the children of the marriage. She never put aside her contempt for her daughter-in-law for the sake of her grandchildren, who were, after all, her son’s children. No, in ways both overt and subtle, Grandmother made certain that those youngsters knew that they did not measure up to her other grandchildren.  Her favored offspring were not “contaminated” by a birth relationship to the despised daughter-in-law.

Angela recounted Grandmother’s worst insult, which centered on the kids’ school photos. One wall of Grandmother’s house displayed her grandchildren’s school pictures.  But the photos of Angela and her siblings were not flaunted among the rest. Instead, they were hung in the bathroom, facing the toilet.

Hearing the ache and indignation in Angela’s voice as she described this stinging memory, I felt heartsick on her behalf. To be the victim of such spite and cruelty from a person who should have loved her unconditionally—well, it stunned me.

The memory of that conversation has never left me. Many times after our discussion I daydreamed, inventing scenarios to bring resolution and revenge to my coworker’s bitter experience: Of all the Grandmother’s children, only the marriage of  her son and despised daughter-in-law thrived. The marriages of all her other children failed, and bitter divorces meant that she was separated from her favorite grandchildren.   Or:  Mean Grandmother lived out her final days quite alone and helpless in a substandard nursing home, visited by no one except the despised daughter-in-law.  Or, best of all:   Those other, favored grandkids all grew up to be ungrateful little wastrels who scammed Grandmother for money, became drug addicts and alcoholics, and were jailed for multiple crimes. Meanwhile, Angela and her siblings lived quietly successful, happy lives, but obviously never bothered with the Mean Grandmother who had treated them so badly.

That’s not the way life works, of course. Mean Grandmother probably wound down her life warmly surrounded by the love and attention of the children, in-laws and grandkids she preferred, smugly self-satisfied with her contemptible treatment of her reviled daughter-in-law and unloved grandchildren.

Hatred can wear so many faces! It can be disguised as the face of a grandparent or an in-law; someone who should be both loving and beloved, but is instead malevolent. It can wear the face of an abusive spouse or parent, or even a job supervisor.  It can focus on skin color, or ethnic origin. It can manifest as religious or even generational intolerance. It can be masked in passive aggression, calling itself teasing when it is in fact intentional torment and insults.

Or it can wear the face of a total stranger.

This last really struck me, and is the reason I recalled my former coworker’s sad little tale, as I sat one recent morning watching a video examining the causes and motives behind the many mass shootings of recent times. Unlike the malicious Grandmother, these cases so often involve total strangers who go on a rampage, wounding and murdering innocents with whom they have absolutely no connection. Is it easier, I wondered, to do so? To harm those with whom a person has absolutely no relationship? To wear the mask of a stranger, and see, not other human beings with lives and loves of their own, but merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision? Is exterminating unknown strangers guilt-free?

Or does it all—murdering strangers or murdering the spirit of those who should be loved ones—come with consequence?

I have no answers. I only know that I clicked off that video, and sat, remembering Angela’s long-lasting emotional wounds. Then I sighed and selected some financial work I needed to do on my computer. But as I tapped the mouse, I noticed in surprise that my face was wet, and that tears had splashed onto my keyboard.

I had not even realized that I was crying.