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.

My “Nosy” Encounter

§   Thinking back on this incident, I’m both sad and proud. Sad, because I can see why vicious hate speech is so common in our society; proud, because I avoided my first reaction to grab the little snot and slap her. §

Well before the advent of the current social distancing, I was tooling about the Super Big Evilmart, when I happened upon an acquaintance (and, following what occurred, I suppose I’m glad that she was merely an acquaintance, not a friend, and now is no longer either). This woman was shopping with her pre-teen daughter and the daughter’s friend, and stopped to make conversation for a few minutes.

At a slight pause in the “Hi, how are you, what’s been happening” remarks, the pre-teen daughter, with a maliciously gleeful look crossing her young face, broke in with a question of her own. “Why is your nose SO BIG?!” she demanded. She and her friend broke into uproarious giggles at her non-joke.

The young woman’s mother, looking uneasy, exclaimed her daughter’s first and middle names.  (As we all know from childhood, one name = Mom Conversation; two names = Mom’s Mad; three names = Duck and Cover!)  Her tone was that scolding timbre that mothers use exclusively to upbraid their misbehaving offspring. The girls paid her no mind, continuing to giggle, collapsing upon one another in their Mean Girl success.  The mother looked away from them, facing me with an sickly smile, unable to quite look me in the eye. Notably absent, though, was any apology from her for the girls’ misbehavior or even verbal acknowledgement of their insolence.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: I know that my nose is, indeed, quite large. NoseWhile perhaps not of Cyrano dimensions, nevertheless one could probably mold at least two, if not three, average-sized noses from my beak. I’ve worn this honker on my face for 66 years, so I have no illusions about it. But those of my generation who weren’t headed off to Hollywood didn’t rush out to the cosmetic surgeon to have every body part from eyelids to labia altered to meet some insanely unrealistic cultural standard. Still, had I ever possessed both the funds and the time, I might have chosen to have my nose “fixed”. But, there you have it: it’s my nose, and I’ve worn it for a lifetime. It serves its purpose—to keep me breathing—and I’ve learned to accept it.

But it’s one thing to know I have a nose the size of Montana, and quite another thing to have some obnoxious, flippant little smartass point it out. My nose was bequeathed me via the Italian genes in my family, and staunchly half-Roman as I am, standing there in that humiliating situation, realization struck me in one blinding flash of comprehension: Although my family members casually and even proudly refer to one another on occasion as “Wops”,  it is done only amongst ourselves. Woe betide the outsider who uses such an appellation to reference us!

The same rule, then, applied to my facial appendage. I could say all I wanted that I have a snozzle the size of farm machinery, but no one else, ever, got to make that comparison.

So, after waiting the required beat for this kid’s Mom to grab her offending offspring by the upper arm and haul her forward to face me while demanding, “Apologize! Right this instant!”—well, with none of that forthcoming, I waded into the fray with my reply. “That was rude, cruel and unnecessary,” I addressed Miss Preteen, narrowing my eyes and dropping my vocal tone into the “verging on nuclear meltdown” registry. “It doesn’t show you to be ‘cute’; it just shows you to be badly behaved and not particularly intelligent. And it reflects badly on your mother, who I’m sure did not raise you to be so ill-mannered.”

The two girls stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. But the truly remarkable reaction was that of the mother. She just gathered up her bags in a close embrace and remarked, “Well, we’ve got to be getting home.” She turned and made a rapid exit with both girls trailing in her wake, casting wide-eyed glances at me over their shoulders.

Reflecting on the incident now, I’m both saddened and proud. Sad, because I can easily see why vicious hate speech, insults, trolling, and threats are so common in our society, from our reporter-insulting President on downward. Proud, because my actual first reaction, carefully reined in, had been to grab the little snot and slap her until her head rolled off her shoulders and bounced across the floor. It took an amazing amount of personal restraint for me not to do this, so, as I say, I am proud.

It’s painfully clear to me now that manners, as well as self-restraint, are rarely being taught to, far less required of many of  today’s children. And that is, I think, a tragedy, and one that we, as a society, will come to greatly regret.

And Speaking of Prejudice…

Marie Gregory

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960; the bias against the faith not fading until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today aren’t taught about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about the largest mass lynching in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Gregory trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.