I once knew a woman. She was wonderful. She liked to have her hair perfectly done up with lots of hairspray, bobby-pins and sometimes even a matching bow. She was witty, and funny, and sometimes, frankly, offensive. She was marvelous. She was perfect. She was my grandmother.
Her name was Anna Marie Varrato Lewis. She was born in Wallingford, Connecticut. She grew up in Pennsylvania, the oldest daughter of a coal miner. She came from a very large Italian-American family. She had five brothers and five sisters – a total of eleven children in all.
One night in 1946 her life changed. She probably got ready to go out like she would any other night, putting her hair up with lots of hairspray, bobby-pins and maybe even a bow; not knowing that this one night would be different. That it would shape the lives of many people. It’s because of this night I am sitting here writing today. It was the night she met my grandfather, Thomas F. Lewis. She walked into the bar. He noticed her immediately. He watched as she ordered her drink. She looked around. Then she noticed him. He was on the stage. The band starting playing and he started to sing. I don’t know what went through her mind, but I can guess. His voice must have sounded wonderful to her ears because it wasn’t long after that they ran away and got married.
Then the children came, as most do in these types of stories – first, my uncle Tommy, my grandfather’s namesake, Deborah next, then Gary, Cheryl, and then Donna, my mother. My grandparents also adopted a boy named Thomas Buck, Bucky for short. They were foster parents to numerous children over the many years of their marriage, proving their character. Their children grew up, got married and had kids of their own. This is where I come in.
I am lucky enough to come from one of those extremely large families where cousins are more like siblings and your aunts and uncles are just an extension of your parents. It is because of my grandmother that I was raised in such a way. We were together every weekend. Football Sunday’s in the winter, picnics in the summer. This is where my grandmother felt most comfortable, in the middle of a large crowd, all eyes on her.
My grandmother never really was one of those cookie baking types of grandmothers. Yes, she cooked. But it was mainly meals – sauces, eggplant parmigiana, sausage and peppers, some classic Italian green olive concoction I never liked and never learned the name of. She also made amazing stuffed breads.
Her brand of love was always sharp tongued and open armed. She loved all of us equally. She loved all of us differently. She respected our choices in life, even if she didn’t agree with them. If any of her grandchildren ever needed anything she was there for them, be it her couch, or her cash – which she didn’t always have a lot of, but nevertheless insisted on giving the little she did to those whom she loved. She was kind and caring, sweet even. She spoke her mind. And woe betided anyone who angered her. She constantly fixed her hair and my father took particular pleasure in messing it. I can still hear her screaming at him after he dared to touch the bobby-pins or maybe even her bow.
I remember this time when I was about seven. My parents were out for the night and I was staying at her house. She lived in a high rise. She asked me and my sister’s friend Shelley to take the elevator upstairs to her boyfriend Andy’s apartment and borrow a vacuum. I ran out with just socks on my feet, no shoes. We got the vacuum and boarded the elevator, Shelley and I, and an elderly man I had never seen before. When the elevator reached my grandmother’s floor I went to exit but before I could the man grabbed me tightly by the arm, dragged me back into the elevator, and placed his foot in front of the door to stop it. He then started to yell in my face that I was never to ride this elevator without shoes on. I was scared to death. I started to cry. I ran back to my grandmother’s house and told her the story. She was livid. She immediately marched me upstairs to the apartment of the man I described and rang to doorbell. When he opened the door a crack, she asked me if that was the guy, I shyly nodded yes. Without a thought she pushed the door open, grabbed him by the shirt, pushed him farther into his apartment and proceeded to tell him that I was her granddaughter and he had made a big mistake. As her granddaughter I could do whatever I pleased. He was scared. He kept saying, “Sorry Tootsie.” I remember her saying “don’t say sorry to me, say sorry to the girl.” And he did. He apologized. I remember thinking my grandmother was a superhero. I was right. She was.
At some point my cousins and I realized our grandmother wasn’t like most others. She swore at us. She called us names. She laughed with us. One winter she went home to Pennsylvania right before the Holiday and for Christmas she brought us back pieces of coal – not because she was in one of the largest coal mining areas in the states, but because we were “little bastards” who “ didn’t deserve gifts.” It may sound harsh to the unknowing reader, but to us it was amazing. We loved it. As kids, there was nothing greater than hearing our grandmother say all those words we were not supposed to say, all those words most other adults whispered around us. As we got older we realized we could play that game too. So, we started calling her and harassing her at all hours of the day, and night. In the beginning she would fall for it, like the time my cousin Caitlin and I pretended to be a local Chinese Restaurant. We called to “verify” her order. We did it nine times, with horrible Chinese accents (which she fell for) as she continued to scream into the phone that she didn’t order any damn Chinese food and to stop harassing her about it. After that though, she learned the game. Instead of scaring her we would inevitably get a “fuck you, I’m calling your mother.” We are probably the reason why my grandmother was one of the first people I knew to have a caller ID next to her phone.
As we got older, so inevitably did she. And my grandmother passed away on February 11th, 2011. I was lucky enough to be in the room with her, along with most of my enormous family, when she departed from this life. I think that is exactly the way she would have wanted it. That is where she was in her element; the center of attention, all eyes on her in the middle of a large crowd. Her living family surrounding her during her last few moments on earth, and those who had already passed waiting for her on the other side, surrounding her with love when she arrived there.
The shock waves reverberating after her death still haven’t settled. They are felt at each and every family get together, which we now have, no matter the reason, in her honor. I know she is with us. Laughing at us and saying “You’se kids” whenever we do something silly. Her love ran deep. So deep, that death can’t even take it away. And the values she taught all of us will live on forever as we teach them to our own families.
I will always remember the last time I saw her. She was dressed in a beautiful violet dress with a matching jacket. Her hair was done up with lots of hairspray, bobby-pins and maybe even a bow.