My grandfather went to work at a factory. My grandmother? She cared for all three children (each four years apart, meaning my mom was only becoming a teen when her brother was a full-blown adult). But she did more than that: she cleaned houses, cleaned them from top to bottom almost every day of the week. She cooked Sunday dinner for the family (she, a Slav, had to learn to make Italian food for her Sicilian husband and his relatives). All of this even though her in-laws didn’t approve of her (what was an Italian doing marrying a Polack anyway?). Still, she kept at it, cooking and cleaning all the time, keeping an immaculate house, charging dirt cheap rent to the barber on the first floor, rearing her grandchildren in spite of her kids’ many screw ups. And screw up they did, though I won’t go into any detail here.
Suffice to say she kept loving those kids and those grandkids no matter what they did, at times putting up with what amounted to outright abuse. She half-raised me, even as the family was falling apart. She kept cooking and cleaning even when family would come home loaded (and she, of course, is a teetotaler, has had one cigarette in her entire life, claims rum cake gets her tipsy!).
Then, on one November day in 1997, my grandfather dropped dead while raking leaves. They’d been married 50 years. Did that change anything for her? Of course not! She kept doing what she’d always done.
About this time, she took up a sort of second profession: she began keeping the elderly (and she herself was in her 70s!) company at the ends of their lives. She’d take them to Friendly’s, visit them at the nursing home—you name it, she did it.
I have one very distinct memory of her closet piled high with wigs. “Why the heck are these here”, I thought with my kid’s brain. These were her inheritance from one of these women, a fabulously rich, kindly old lady, who had tried to leave my grandma some sum of money, money snatched away by blood relatives who barely knew the deceased. Did she say anything? No, of course not.
When my mom passed in 2011, she kept on keeping on. She cries sometimes, laments her loss. But no matter. She perseveres.
In visiting my grandma, one thing becomes very apparent: how much she cares, cares about everything and everyone. I’ve seen her breakdown in tears thinking about how children go hungry. I’ve seen her lose full minutes contemplating why people kill themselves. I’ve seen her leave her own house or car to bring water to (very possibly undocumented) landscape workers, just because it’s hot outside. My grandma brings candy to the thrift store where she shops just so the workers can have a nice treat (hell, she takes orders from them, bringing the candy they want brought). She’s given away more money to loved ones than you can even imagine—and all she’s got is Social Security and her husband’s dwindling pension.
I’ve never heard her say a bad word about any group of human beings.
What has been her reward, her final payment for this life of suffering, near poverty, and love? Diabetes, a dead husband and daughter, dead siblings, a fractured family, relatives who won’t talk to her, painful conversations with loved ones who won’t acknowledge the extent of what she’s done.
I don’t deserve her and neither does this world.
But that’s the point isn’t it? She’s an example of someone in this world but not of it. She’s no churchgoer, but she believes in God, keeps a crucifix in her bedroom. This is a woman who has never relented in the face of abject suffering, a woman whose determination to love knows no bounds. What could give more hope than that? What could possibly be a better reminder of what is possible, of what good can be done, regardless of earthly rewards or the evil machinations of this sinful world?
She has been an example—an exemplar—to me; I pray she may be one to you too.