My paternal grandmother was a storyteller. I remember her sitting at that big dining table in her house, telling us – her grandchildren, her children or whoever was there to listen – stories of her childhood, her family, her life, and her first and only love… Curiously, I don’t recall her talking about my deceased grandfather. Yes, he was not the love of her life and she was never shy about that. As a matter of fact, she was never shy about anything, always speaking out her mind. Maybe not that loud but definitely clear.
“Ok, Mom, tell us again the story of your long lost love”, said one of my uncles one day, with a smile full of sympathy and, yes, a tiny bit of sarcasm, I remember. Nonchalantly, she proceeded. It sounded like a random story, as if she was not its main character but, at the same time, you could see that she owned it: the story was hers. That always fascinated me. Her children had heard that story all their lives. I am not really sure how they felt about it. If there was any sign of indignation, consternation or revolt, they kept for themselves. They knew better.
Well, I am not re-telling this story… not yet. I am starting with one of her beginnings. Life is full of beginnings anyway, and they are not necessarily in order. This one starts like that:
My grandmother was eighteen years old in 1926 when she married my grandfather. It was an arranged marriage, very common in those days where she lived. As far as I know, there was no courting, she had no voice in the issue. Well, it was an arranged marriage, all right. Out of three sisters, it was simply her turn to get married. You must agree that if it was not hard enough for her to marry against her will, as she loved someone else, it would definitely added up the fact that her husband-to-be was a nocturnal bon vivant. A first-class, sociable, flower-on-the-lapel-of-the-jacket kind of man. Impeccably dressed, my grandfather was a handsome and charismatic man who fancied the night and all it had to offer. He was good in singing and playing the guitar, he liked the spirits, he liked women. During the day he diligently fulfilled his obligations as the breadwinner. At night, however, he’d leave home to go where he was supposed to be. My grandmother never took all that for granted, though. She duly noted all his actions; therefore, she never made it easy for him. Their Homeric fights left nothing for imagination, with furniture being broken, objects thrown out , yelling, rage in its raw form… Surely a spectacle carved in the memory of their eleven (yes, eleven) children- or whoever was around – front row or not.
There was this tragicomic episode that happened when my grandfather got back home in the morning from one of his rendezvous… exactly at the moment she was busy defeathering a chicken and most likely in not a such great state of mind. Sure enough, she didn’t hesitate to use it as a weapon to let his inebriated carcass have it. He was lucky in a sense, as the outcome would be more tragic and less comic if she were cutting vegetables, for example. I never heard of him being physically abusive toward her, but both made their children paid their tolls for it. After all, as far as I know, they were fruits of their despair and frustration. And despair and frustration got them right.
As I said, my grandmother was a storyteller but this particular story never came out from her lips. She didn’t talk much about her husband, let alone their fights. When I was born my grandfather was long gone so I never had the chance to listen to his version (actually, I am not sure he would have shared it, understandably). Nonetheless, I have no doubt that if she had ever claimed the story, her version would be better.
My dear grandma passed away many years ago and, being that remarkable and intense, she left a void in the family, almost tangible. Sitting at that table is a proof of that. Even with all the seats taken, the place feels empty because she is not there having her coffee, letting her words out, laughing, singing or reciting poetry. In her last years of life, she didn’t talk that much. Her arthritis made walking painful, macular degeneration blocked her sight.
“She never uttered a single word of complaint”, my Godmother, one of her daughters, often said, mesmerized. I believe that. Clearly the matriarch’s presence was not obliterated by any physical impairment as her mind was still sharp as a knife. She was tough that woman. Adored, revered by family and friends, there she stood majestic like a queen, a goddess, and I dare say, a sphinx-like figure. One of my aunts remembers the moment her mother passed away: “There was this subtle noise, like she was suddenly unplugged. And that was it.”
Yes, the family lost its backbone but her stories are very much alive, floating somewhere. My self-proclaimed job is, somehow, to retrieve these stories, put them together and write them down. They are too good to be out there, wandering, dissipating. I might not be a storyteller like my grandmother was but I will do what I can to keep her memories alive.