Short story snafus
The Grandmothers Mary was an entry I wrote for a short story contest, non-fiction category. In Ego-Wants and Soul-Needs, I spoke about a few bad choices I’ve made based on my ego’s advice (there are more but I’m not writing an encyclopaedia). One was entering a short story contest even if I knew my writing was not the genre that fit. There’s value in trying new things, but when it’s for the wrong reasons (appearance, approval) it never has the value you’d hoped. Even if you do really well. But I digress.
I mentioned I would probably post said short story. So the following is the first part of my non fiction submittal. Both my grandmothers continue to have a profound impact on my life. Even if the short story thing was a wash, committing to paper a memoir of these two ladies’ lives was definitely worth it. After all, when everything is said and done, memories are what we’re left with.
The Grandmothers Mary
My grandmother’s name was Mary, but that wasn’t her real name. Everyone called her Mary, and it was on her cheques and credit cards and the sticker on The Gazette she had delivered to her door every morning. But her real name was Vincenza, and she was the daughter of Italian immigrants.
Her father, Egidio, was a railway worker who inspected miles of track daily, making the necessary repairs. He and his wife, Lucia, had six children though only three survived. Miscarriage? Stillborn? Died in infancy? It was never clear. Regardless, Mary grew up with two brothers, Nicolo and Paulo, who later worked in the asbestos industry and died prematurely of lung cancer. When I was little, she called me doll and lollipop. I called her Nanny.
Nanny told me that when she was young, pasta came in crates lined with blue fabric to keep it white. ‘When they were empty, we used them to put all the medicines.’ Their oven was a steel box placed on the stove. ‘It was a wood stove, not electric like now, and we moved the box around on it, depending on how hot it needed to be.’ Nanny was all about cooking. She learned as a child, standing on a stool to stir the pot of red sauce as my great-grandmother, still a young woman but already very ill, supervised. In my imagination, the blue-lined box was never far away, overflowing with either pills or pasta.
‘One day, my mother took the three of us to Sainte-Anne’s Basilica, to ask a favor. It was a long ride, all the way to Quebec City. When we were there, she lit a candle and asked Sainte-Anne to spare her. She said she needed to take care of her children. But the candle burnt out quickly, spiraling over on itself and falling into the water. My mother said, ‘I think you have given me my answer.’’
Lucia wouldn’t live to be a grandmother. When she died, at thirty-two, Mary was only ten and Nick and Paul were even younger. Her father could not and, at the time, about 1930, was not expected to care for young children. ‘He was always out with the women,’ she said. Nanny went to stay with an aunt, on her mother’s side. Her maternal grandmother lived there, too. Sometimes, her uncle complained that he had too many mouths to feed, but her Nonna would sneak her cheese, bread and olives.
Eventually, her father married a ‘French Canadian.’ Egidio spoke only Italian and Aurore only French. Nevertheless, they had seven children with names like Armand, Rollande, Wilfred and Monique. The youngest were the same age as Nanny’s. Perhaps this was why she broke with tradition and preferred the Québécois versions over the Italian ones as the names for her children.
Mary had married Jimmy, but that wasn’t his real name either. And although she always called him Jimmy and he called her Mary, officially, and admittedly sweetly, they were Vincenzo and Vincenza. My father was the eldest of four and the family lived on Walker, in St-Henri, in one of the old-style triplexes that lined the street. That part of Walker, including number 789, was torn down to build the metro, in preparation for Expo ‘67. Jimmy and Mary had already moved further west and would move again, mid-sixties, to a duplex bought the year I was born. That’s the house I remember as Nanny’s, with a yard that backed onto a schoolyard, a skylight over the bathtub and a pantry that smelled of Pastene breadcrumbs.
When I was very young and we visited, we stayed over. I’d go to the kitchen as soon as I woke, always hoping to be the first up. But Nanny would be waiting for me while Grandpa was finishing his breakfast. He’d sit at the head of the table, washed and dressed, except for the clean, pressed shirt he donned just before leaving. He was a printer by trade but had long left the shop floor for union business. In his undershirt, over a second coffee, he’d smoke a cigarette, his hand cupped to catch the ash. I was eleven when he died and Nanny never remarried. She never even dated, not once. Mary would survive Jimmy by thirty-six years and when she passed, at ninety-four, she was twice my age, making her a grandmother for half her life.
Those overnight trips to Nanny’s house took place several times a year. We had moved to a small paper mill town, two hours from Montreal, when I was only eight weeks old. My father had been chosen as the new financial controller of the plant. Nanny had worried; she was a lifelong city dweller, after all. Was there running water? Electricity? Yes and yes, they assured her. They even got the Montreal Star. The town was called Grand-Mère, after a rock formation that had sat in the middle of the Saint-Maurice River. It resembled the face of an old woman in profile: a grand-mère, a grandmother.
Legend said a beautiful Algonquin girl, daughter of a powerful chief, was to marry a brave warrior. The chief had agreed to the marriage provided the young man bring him a canoe full of quality furs. The lovers parted on the rock in the middle of the river, promising to be eternally faithful. The young woman waited but her fiancé never came home. At the end of her life, she asked Spirit to leave her beloved a sign of her devotion, should he one day return. Lighting struck the rock where they had said goodbye, turning it into a likeness of the old woman’s face, looking out over the water. The rock was called Nokomis, meaning Grandmother. It was moved when a dam was built, each stone numbered, transported and carefully reassembled in a park next to the public library. Stairs were hewn and as children we’d run up and down Grand-Mère rock. Or, as we locals called it, The Rock.
Nanny rarely visited but she did for my first communion. She came with her daughters and their spouses and even her father, Egidio, a quiet man whom we called Nonno. My great-grandfather was already ancient in my eyes but he lived to ninety-eight.
In contrast, other Nanny Mary visited often. Mary was her real name and her father had emigrated from the Ukraine to Smith Falls where he owned a farm. (Part two next week).