What Our Grandmothers Gave Us

Issue No. 3: Words from the Wise
Words - Sarah Cuddie + Christina Ingemi

When I was born, I had 4 grandmothers,
plus two Great-Aunts and my Great Nanny
My mum was sick right after I was born
and my dad stayed with her
So in the middle of winter
my Oma and my Nana
found themselves taking care of little me
When they call on my birthday, this is always the story they tell
How it was cold and snowing,
and it was just the three of us
From the very beginning,
I was passed from grandmother to grandmother.

I remember being dropped off at her second floor apartment
Me and my two siblings would reluctantly drag ourselves
up a dark spiral staircase
I could hear her before I ever saw her
she would be yelling for my papa who was close to deaf
My parents followed behind the three of us as we entered the apartment
We timidly approached papa, gave him a kiss on the cheek
hugged gramma, getting swallowed into her double d’s.

Food is at the heart of many of my memories of my grandmothers
There was never any shame in second helpings,
Full plates of breakfast
Snacks whenever you wanted.

When I lived with her, no matter how small she would get
it was always “Chickanella, why are you going running?
Here have some cinnamon raisin bread.”

Diet culture didn’t exist around our tables
There was the prodding of when I would get a boyfriend
But never about when I was going to lose some weight.

I remember sitting at her kitchen table, anxiously pulling at the table cloth
Not understanding that her home wasn’t for introverts
There was enough space to have a bowl of pasta put in front of me
Beyond the bowl was a spread
of Italian bread from the North End
Butter that had been sitting out
A glass bowl with nasty fruit slice candy
Dried fruit
A bunch of other random things that she found at the store
and a deck of cards.

My Nana’s always bustling around to make sure everyone is comfortable
“Do you want a cool drink?”
“Put your feet up”
Sometimes she lists the whole contents of her fridge and her pantry
Offering us anything she has
She keeps Hershey kisses for us in a little bowl on the dining room table.

I told her I had a dream about papa and she responded with, “are you hungry, Chickanella?”
in the moment, I didn't realize she wasn't just asking if i was hungry
She was keeping her heart beating.

With each of them, there has been the slowing down, the shorter steps
I’m not a tall human, but I remember
the moments when my grandmothers started feeling small
Not in their love
in that shrinking feeling where they eat less and stay still more.

I remember how her hugs felt different
Less of her body, but no less love
No less honesty
No less aggressively shoving money into our hands as we were leaving.

The loving,
The way they put all of their grandkids first
That has never changed.

It was before Christmas and my mom wanted me to call,
to come out to her
because I would be bringing my partner to our christmas eve party
I never called.
Even though I thought she was fine with it and maybe already knew.

My Great Aunt Alice was out raging on the dance floor at a gay wedding
when she was in her 90s
More than one actually
When people make the excuse that old people are all prejudiced
I just don’t think it has that much to do with age frankly
I think it has more to do with your character.

She was the first member of my family my partner met.
My gramma put a giant bowl of spaghetti in front of her and said
“Oh he’s so handsome.”
and I gently reminded her
Gramma, she’s a girl
without any hesitation,
“Oh she’s so Beauuu-tee-ful.”

I wouldn’t describe my grandmothers
as woke
but interracial marriage,
same sex marriage,
working motherhood,
none of that shocks my Nana or my Oma or my Great Aunt Alice
I think in their own ways,
they figure that the rest of the world will iron itself out.

A few days later I would hear her
screaming at her friend Peggy on the phone,

I think that’s the heart of it,
If our grandmothers could have wrapped up happiness
And gifted that to us
They would have done it
No matter what that looked like.

She gave me anything I mentioned liking
One day I came home to a costco box of frappuccino coffees
And every time I stubbornly don't ask for help,
I know she gave me that too.

My Grandmother gave me books
She also handed me my anxiety and my depression,
though I didn’t know that until later
I knew she wanted things to be right
I knew she kept copies of the Chronicle Herald
probably going back to before I was born
Hundreds of little pill bottles full of buttons.
She held onto things like I do.

I sat next to her at Christmas one year
she was looking around at her eight of nine kids
and their kids
and their kids’ kids
and she leaned over to me and said
“Look what I made.”
She was a matriarch.
A gentle force
A reminder that
this was my bloodline.

I was only 11 when Grandmother died
I didn’t know I was crazy like her yet
I didn’t know that anxiety was anything other than a feeling
My anxiety was just emerging, and then she was

She gave me my unwillingness to take shit from anyone
A short fuse and fierce heart
Like when her eldest son came home late for dinner
and didn't want to eat her food
so she smashed his plate over his head  
I feel her in the moments when I want to smash a plate over someone’s head,
In the moments where it feels as if fierce love keeps us alive.

I wonder if in some ways it does keep them alive,
Did keep them alive
If caring that much for everyone around you,
If all that love makes it worth sticking around.

Feelings that strong
Feeding four generations and the beta fish, everyday  
Even if it meant needing a quick nap at the kitchen table.

Remembering to wrap my Christmas and Birthday gifts in different paper
Even though I have a December birthday
Even when celebrating means a long drive or a long distance phone call.

Staying up until I got home from work
to have some peaches and watch one more episode of Chicago Fire
Handing over a blanket
she knit,
because I was always cold.

Talking about how scary the world can be
And her being so proud to know that I won’t stand for it
Losing one grandmother felt painful
Realizing I will have that pain so many more times makes me angry
And afraid.

I am angry that 90 years was all she got.
I wanted to call her.

I know I should call her more.