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My Grandma’s House

My Grandma Benda lived in the same house for almost fifty years. On the east side of Duluth, Minnesota, home to Italians and Jewish immigrants, her house was perched high above the main street. Here the roads rose steeply up hilly streets. Her house was small, but it boasted a good-sized porch out front, with a swing. This is where she stood to welcome her grandchildren with hugs, food and obvious delight. It was an unfamiliar house, this place where my father grew up, the aromas different from my home, or that of my boisterous Irish relatives, who lived on the west side of Duluth. It was foreign and strange to me, maybe because my grandparents spoke only Italian, with my father translating for my brother and me. We lived in Minneapolis, just far enough that we visited seldom – just in the summers when my father was on vacation.

Grandma’s kitchen was my favorite room in her house. It was bright and scrubbed and shining, with a big black stove on polished legs. The porcelain metal table in the center of the room showed blue layers of enamel under its chipped exterior. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy, and neither one spoke much English. My grandma knew “eat, eat” and “milk” as she set her delicious food before us. Not that my brother and I needed any encouragement! The kitchen was full of wonderful, pungent odors that I learned to identify: garlic, tomatoes, freshly grated Parmesan cheese in a little glass dish. Presiding over this realm was my tiny Italian grandmother, little gold earrings in her pierced ears, her long hair (grey since the age of seventeen) pulled back in a tight bun. She wore soft carpet slippers on her feet in the house, and she was soft and squishy when she hugged me. Her name was Adeleide, and she was called “Heidi” when she was young.

In the kitchen, she served up her miracle of spaghetti, which I’ve tried to duplicate, but with no great success. Hers was golden in color, cut very small, with bits of fresh, red tomatoes mixed in. She served it up in big bowls for my brother and me, and we sat at the kitchen table. I remember risotto, too, rich with cheese, and polenta (it’s just johnnycake my Irish mother would sniff), which was really cornbread, to wipe up the last smidgen of spaghetti. She often put the leftovers in glass Mason jars for us to take home.

My Grandma’s raspberry bushes grew outside the back door, which led from the kitchen to the sloping backyard. She made raspberry jam every year until she died -- marvelously tart, yet sweet, with little seeds that caught in your teeth.

In contrast with the sunny kitchen, the rest of the first floor was darker. The parlor was truly that – a little-used sitting room with a horsehair-stuffed couch and a few chairs. In one corner, taking the place of honor, was a Victrola perched on a cupboard that held the prized Caruso records. I used to stare in fascination at the little dog pictured on the front of that record player, sounding out the words “His Master’s Voice.”

When my daughter and I visited the Smithsonian many years later, we saw a replication of a typical immigrant’s home of the early 20th Century. It could have been a reproduction of my Grandma’s house, I told Lisa. It was exact, right down to the marble topped table holding a large fern.

The dining room was brighter, adjacent to the kitchen, with a magnificent view of Lake Superior. This was the heart of the home, where people gathered to eat and talk. A huge fern took pride of place, basking in the reflected light.

My father told me later that my grandparents had chosen this house because of that view of the lake: it reminded them of Lake Como in Italy.

I often wish I could have known my grandma better, and maybe learned Italian from her so I could have heard from her own lips the stories about her life. I’ve pieced her history together from things my father told me. She came to America all alone by ship with two little children, knowing no English at all. To get to that ship, she had to travel from Bresia, in northern Italy above Milan, and then to Le Havre in France. My grandfather, who had come first to establish himself, met the little family in New York where they docked. Together they traveled to Minnesota and made a new life in America, escaping the poverty and lack of opportunity in Italy. But they kept a small part of their homeland alive in that house on the top of the hill on the East side of Duluth, Minnesota.

The Irish Bury Their Dead

May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, May the Lord hold you in the palm of His hand.

---An old Irish blessing

My mother’s favorite brother was Grover, eleven months younger than she. Theirs was an almost mystical association--she was born in January and he in December of the same year. It's called "Irish twins."

He was, in her words, a drunkard. It’s an old-fashioned word with a strong note of disapproval, but it‘s more descriptive of the activity of drinking. “Alcoholic” is a modern, antiseptic word, conjuring up treatment centers, group therapy, family tragedies. Drunkard, on the other hand, has a convivial, transitory quality to it. In my mother’s family, the boys drank, the girls worked. The division was as clear as Irish logic could make it. The drinking was blamed on the Great War, on the Depression, on the prejudice against good Irish boys who liked their ale of an evening. I suppose fifty years earlier, it was blamed on the poverty in Ireland, or the hateful English. Irishwomen are fiercely protective of their men. They may rant and rave at them, but turn the next minute to extolling the virtues of their darlin’ boys.

Periodically, my Uncle Grover would disappear for two or three months. My mother and her sister Alice would learn through various sources that he was drinking again. Holed up in some cheap room on lower Nicollet Avenue (before it was the Nicollet Mall), which some called Skid Row. He would go through whatever ritualistic ceremony was needed to purge himself of his personal demons. Then he would return, like some mythical knight returning from a failed quest, to my mother and the family, wearing a clean but ill-fitting set of clothes donated by some street mission. I’ve heard recently that President Ulysses Grant had the same type of addiction. He, too, never let on to any of his troops, but chose to disappear for several weeks.

We--my mother, father, and my brother and I -- moved often, from one rented flat or house to another. My mother was restless, easily bored, I think, and she longed for change. At one point when I was a baby, we all moved in with my Aunt Alice in her tiny house off Fourth Avenue. My brother says we were waiting for a new house to be finished. It must have been a crowded, flammatory type of situation. My poor father clocked hours of overtime, just to save his sanity, I think. He was Italian, and as far away in temperament and habits as one could get from his Irish in-laws.

My uncle came into this diverse group with his usual insouciance and no explanation for his absence. They took him, as they did almost everything, on faith. No one ever asked him where he had been for the past several months. Once, though, my mother noticed how his hands shook, and asked him if he wanted a drink. He drew himself up to six feet of handsome dignity and said, “Certainly not!” in such an offended tone one would have thought my mother has asked him if he were an Orangeman. In his sober periods, Grover regarded liquor as a curse invented by the English to demean Irish men.

That summer was unbearably hot. Small electric fans hummed constantly, and people dragged themselves slowly to work and to the market, waiting for the unrelenting sun to set, hoping for a breath of fresh air. Despite the mosquitoes, everyone sat outside until late at night in striped canvas chairs, dreading the enclosed heat of houses. The murmur of their voices rose and fell in counterpoint to the chirp of crickets.

That was the summer my uncle decided to trim all the bushes around my aunt’s yard, and he planned to prune the big lilac bush that grew near the front sidewalk. It was old and magnificent, a tangle of overgrown limbs from two different bushes that were covered with fragrant lavender and white blossoms in the spring. He topped the bush first, and then, rather than cut off the side branches, tied a clothesline rope halfway up the bush to shape its growth. He worked hard and long all one hot July day, and smiled with strong white teeth at all the ladies who passed by. He had about him an innocent charm that attracted women of all ages. Unambitious, a failure by most standards, yet there was something grand in his style, something almost courtly in his bearing.

As my mother recounted the story, he got cleaned up and told her, “I’m going downtown to see the boys.” He never came back. He fell on the street, stricken with heat prostration, but the Minneapolis police, who knew him from previous encounters, picked him up. They thought he was drunk and left him in a cell to sleep it off. When they realized his stupor was not due to alcohol, they called an ambulance, but it was too late. He was dead.

My mother and my aunt screamed like banshees and raced to the hospital, but it was no use, of course. He was thirty-nine years old when they buried him in the cemetery at Fort Snelling, while a bugler played taps. They folded the flag that covered his coffin in neat triangles and gave it to my mother. I found it many years later in an old cedar chest, carefully preserved in moth balls.

No one ever touched the rope around the lilac bush. It stayed there for years and years, through heat and melting snows until it rotted away, covered with the lingering scent of lilacs.

When my older brother and I get together now, we often reminisce about our relatives, all the family stories that the two of us share. His is the better memory than mine; I just put down what I recall and rely on him for details. A few weeks ago, he was in town and we sat down in my daughter’s kitchen and talked about old times. He read my piece about Grover’s tragic death, but then he said, “You have to write about Grover’s funeral -- it was a typical Irish wake.”

So, I asked him to tell me about it.

“Where was it held? What do you remember of it?”

“It was at Alice’s house,” he said. “Grover was laid out right there in the front room. You remember that bay window?” I nodded. “Well, they put the coffin right there. It was open, with a flag draped over the bottom half of it. He was in the First World War, driving trucks, I think, in France.”

As was still the custom in the thirties, the body was laid out at home -- in my aunt Alice‘s house. My brother remembers all the details vividly, although he was only five or so. All sorts of people came to the wake: neighbors who knew him and my Aunt Alice and my mother. And of course, other siblings, brothers and sisters from Duluth, Detroit, and Minneapolis. Friends of all of them came because Grover was an immensely charming and warm human being, full of stories as most Irishmen are. The ladies, in particular, were fond of him, this handsome man with a twinkle in his eye who had never married. My brother remembers some of the girls at my Aunt Alice’s office at the telephone company coming to pay their respects, and weeping at the loss.

In the back of the house, in the kitchen area, my aunt’s current boyfriend, Mr. Meyers, held forth with the bar. Because what’s an Irish wake without liquor? He doled out the drinks and “cocktails” as they used to call them. People milled around the casket, and when someone passed by the coffin, they would lift their glass in a toast to the deceased. Visitors drifted outdoors because of the heat, filling the large fenced-in yard. My aunt’s house was tiny, with a narrow front porch, but her yard was big, fronting on Clinton Avenue just off Fourth Avenue in Minneapolis.

As my brother recalls, another uncle had come from Michigan to help bury his brother. There was no question that he too was an alcoholic, like all my mother’s brothers. He partook liberally of Meyers’s drinks and was soon inebriated.

“He had so much to drink,” my brother said, “he was swinging back and forth on the bathroom door.” It was an astounding sight for a little boy, who wandered from group to group, enjoying the antics of these weird grownups.

It’s a reality of the Irish that they like their drink -- “a wee nip” -- to loosen the tongue because they also like to talk. Stories and reminiscences filled the house that day. My mother and her sisters rarely drank, but they could tell stories with the best of them. My mother was a natural born storyteller, with the Irish gift of gab. She told funny tales about all the goings on at her sister Agnes’ lodge in Remer, Minnesota, which was always open to friends and family in the summertime. Around a hundred miles east of Duluth, the lodge was a big rambling house that offered hunting, fishing, and like pursuits to vacationing family and friends.

Alice often took her pals from work up to Remer, and I know my brother and I stayed for several weeks each year with our folks. Grover was around then, too, helping to entertain everybody who arrived. I have a photo of him and one of Alice’s co-workers, his arm draped around the woman’s shoulders, a cigarette held loosely in his free hand. Both of them are smiling broadly, squinting a little in the sun.

I don’t remember my Uncle Grover, but my mother told of how he came and took care of her, “the baby” (me) and my brother when she developed some terrible infection in her lymph glands. She couldn’t do anything but sit in a chair and direct Grover’s running of the household until she recovered months later. He handled it all masterfully, never balking at changing diapers or doing dishes.

Alice laughed about the crushes her friends had on him, how they all vied for his attention. And Lottie recalled how their mother -- my namesake Maria -- always favored the three boys who went off to war and returned emotionally damaged. That isn’t how Lottie put it, of course. She just said acerbically, “there they’d be when us girls came home from work, sitting in front of the coal stove in the kitchen, waiting for Mama to fix them supper.”

My brother remembers our uncle as a kindly man, usually wearing what we’d call “work clothes.” It must have seemed odd to see him laid out in a formal suit.

I’ve been to a lot of funerals and wakes, and the family get-togethers after are often convivial. After my Italian grandfather died, I remember sitting with my dad and one of his brothers as they greeted mourners and sipped wine as they talked about “Pa.“ When my father died, a group came over to our house, too, but it was a quiet affair. Some Scotch, some wine, but nobody was obstreperous. In contrast, my Irish mother’s wake after her funeral was loud and jovial. People told funny stories about her, like the time she took my father up to her sister Agnes’s lodge when they were courting. Agnes asked him with a straight face to take the three Chesapeake retrievers out for a walk. Eager to impress, afraid of losing the dogs, my father hung onto their leashes as they took off into the woods. “All you could see were his yellow shoes disappearing down the road,” my mother would tell us, laugh uproariously at the memory. My Uncle Grover was there, too, but even he never let on to my father that the dogs were trained to run and then come back, all on their own.

We laughed so much at my mother’s wake that my oldest daughter (who was about ten) came to me, troubled that “people were laughing, and it was Ga’s funeral.” I tried to explain it, but I don’t think I convinced her.

It seems to me the Irish bury their grief in whiskey and storytelling, sending the loved one off in a blaze of alcoholic blessings.