I learned to be good grandma from a person I never met, whose voice I never heard, whose friends I never knew, a person who died before I was born.
She was my Sicilian great-grandmother, called Mamma Pepina, and I recently found a photograph of her taken when she was very old, perhaps in her 90s. Petite, scrawny and dark-skinned, she wears a homemade dress with long skirt and a wide collar. I look nothing like her now, and I won’t even at 90.
And yet, if I am a good grandma — and I think I am — and if my sense of how to be a good grandma comes from previous generations — and I think it does — it comes primarily from her.
In an era when children were seen and not heard, Mamma Pepina listened.
That listening, the gentle bending down to child level or sitting together over “tea” or playing with blocks on the floor, the sweet physical closeness of grandparenthood, I learned from my mother, Rose, when I watched her be a grandparent to my young children.
When I asked her about it, she said, “I learned from Mamma Pepina.”
Mamma Pepina came to America to raise Rose, the youngest of three, because the family needed help. She arrived just before World War I speaking only Italian. I imagine she had to learn to negotiate her new world very quickly.
I wish I had asked my mother more about this tiny lady she loved so well. All I have now are two short stories that my mother wrote in her 40s when she took a writing class.
This week, thinking of Mother’s Day, I pull them out.
I first read a description that Rose wrote of Mamma Pepina long after she died. I notice how much more complete my mother’s description is than the one I wrote above. She’s writing about a real person in her life, not just drawing ideas from a photograph.
Rose writes, “Mamma Pepina was in her early 60s. She was slight of stature. Her hair was all white with some yellow shading. It had a natural wave. She parted it in the middle, made long braids, and then entwined them in a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore a fringed black shawl and several layers of skirts as was the custom in her Italy. One of her legs was shorter than the other as a result of a fall from a mule when she was a child and, although she wore a built-up heel, she did have a barely perceptible limp.”
The story goes on to tell about a day at an outdoor New York market when Rose, age 5, begged for a doll and Mamma Pepina finally gave in, only to have a 12-year-old ruffian snatch it away. Mamma Pepina cried out, ran, and tried to get the doll back, but the boy disappeared in the crowd. Her words afterwards to her granddaughter carried great import because Rose never forgot them.
Rose writes, “After explaining to a few people gathered round us just what had happened and accepting their sympathetic mutterings, Mamma Pepina shifted the weight of the shopping basket from one arm to the other and with her free hand grimly grasped my tremulous one and said, ‘I guess it wasn’t meant for you.’ ”
If that quotation makes Mamma Pepina sound harsh, remember that despite having little money, she gave in on buying the doll. In a second story, Mamma Pepina nurses Rose, age 6, through a terrifying month of typhoid fever and rejoices when she becomes naughty, a sign of recovery.
The love in this second story is palpable. Rose writes, “Mamma Pepina was always there to blow away the hurts, to soothe, to play, and best of all to tell funny stories about when she was a child in Italy.
“Somehow, Mamma Pepina always made things come out all right.”
Although these two stories give me a strong sense of Mamma Pepina, her teachings reached me primarily through my own mother, Rose, who lived them out with me and with my children, until she died in 1987.
Today I am “Grandma” to two young boys who are the great-great-great grandchildren of Mamma Pepina.
Last Christmas, I watched my younger grandson, age 1½, struggle to put a letter in a mailbox, slowing figuring out that it has to go in lengthwise and won’t fit any other way. As we stood there for a long time putting more letters in the box, and I was more patient than I am in any other part of my life, I knew I come from the tradition of Mamma Pepina.
Perhaps, many decades from now at Mother’s Day, my grandsons will compare notes on what they remember about me, just as I contacted my brother and my cousins this week to ask about Mamma Pepina.
If my grandsons lose me early, as my children lost Grandma Rose, they won’t remember a lot of detail. But already I am passing on the essence of my mother, as she passed on the essence of Mamma Pepina in a line that is not unbroken but is surprisingly strong.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]