Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Living the life of Riley

When I am having a bad day and I am frustrated, I think of Nana, who went through so much in her life and realize I don't have anything to complain about.  She was a strong woman who stood a whole 4'10" tall.  The first half of her life was not easy to say the least.  She often said that the second half made up for it. Nana had many sayings, "Good things come in small packages, even poison, sometimes its the quickest way to go," "Living the life of Riley," "two heads are better than one, even if mine is a cabbage head."  One thing that always made me laugh was when she would say, "Men need women, but women don't need men. We never have and we never will."


Nana was my great grandmother.  She was born in 1905 and she died 16 days after her 96th birthday.   Her stories and her legacy live on through all her decedents, that include 3 children, 8 grandchildren, 16 great grandchildren and 8 great great grandchildren.  I had the honor of knowing her, learning from her and enjoying her company until I was almost 29 yrs old.  I grew up listening to her horrific, terrifying and mesmerizing stories.  She never pulled any punches when telling stories of her life, therefore neither will I.   Nana was the 2nd daughter of Italian immigrants.  Her early childhood was traumatic at best and I will tell that story at another time.  At the age of 18 Nana was matched with her husband. This was arranged by her father.  She always referred to her husband as "the Devil." I honestly did not know his name for years. When I was little, I seriously thought that he was the actual Devil, in human form and worried that I was a decedent.  I mean I was raised Catholic so my guilt meter was already set pretty high.  Nana, who was also Catholic, was married in a Catholic Church and said that she did not understand a word of the ceremony. She always said  "I did not say yes, no, I don't know, maybe, or nothin'.  I don't even know if the marriage was official."


She lived in New York and went to Chester, Pa to meet her fiance.  He was very handsome, with blond hair and light eyes.  "his family must have had some northern Italy in them," she would say.   She went on the visit dressed nice and wore her hair down.  It was long, wavy and auburn.  She sat in silence while the families talked.  The next month, he and his mother made a surprise visit to her home in Brooklyn.  It was a Saturday, she was cleaning and had her hair pulled up in a kerchief.  She heard a knock at the door and hastily ran to answer it.  When she opened the door, and saw her future husband and mother-in-law, she was embarrassed and ran upstairs to change while they waited.  When she came back down.  He smiled and said "I see you still have your long hair.  That is good. If you had cut your hair I would have killed you!"  She smiled but realized later that he was not joking.


Their marriage was not a happy one.  He was verbally and physically abusive.  He would not let her leave the house without him.  When he would go out with her he would make her walk ahead of him.  If another man looked at her he would beat her when they got home.  He was a brick layer and one of the best around.  He made good money but she never saw it.  She gave birth to all three of her children alone in the house.  She would send for the doctor and by the time he would get there the baby would be born and she would clean up and make him something to eat.  Her babies were her joy.  She adored them.   She was alone with her children most of the time.   They were very poor and she would steal when she had to, in order to get food for them.  There were people who knew of her situation and would sometimes drop off food.  There were a group of firemen who would collect pastries and doughnuts and bring them to her and the children.  They lived in a home with no heat, no running water and no electricity.  She had a well out back for water.  She told of many a winter when she had to chop the ice on top of the well and melt it to get water.  On very cold nights she would take bricks and put them in the fireplace in the fire to get them very hot.  Then she would wrap the bricks in towels and put them in the foot of the bed, that she shared with her three young children.  This would make sure their feet did not freeze in the night.




Her husband would be gone for days sometimes weeks at a time.  When he would come home, it was rarely a happy reunion.  He had many mistresses.  One in particular she even remembered her name.  (I wish I could, I think it was Margery)  Margery was a very pretty young girl.  She was in the local "tap room"  telling the firemen and the other patrons that she was engaged to Dominic.  They all said "who, Dominic? He is married with three kids and beats the hell out of his wife." They told her where Nana lived and said, "go see for yourself!"  Nana heard a knock at the door and this very pretty young woman asked her if she was married to Dominic. She said yes and invited her in. They talked for quite some time.  Margery showed Nana a jewelry box filled with jewelry that "the Devil" had given her.  This angered Nana more because they had so little.  She devised a plan.  She told Margery what time he was expected back that evening.  Nana asked Margery if she would come back to confront him.  When "the Devil" saw young Margery at the door, he was enraged calling her a whore and demanding to know why she was at his house.  Margery threw the jewelry box in his face and left.  Nana got breif satisfaction seeing his embarrassment and pain from the jewlrey box hitting him in the forehead.  She paid for that satisfaction with the worse beating of her life.  He had her in a corner and was punching her in the face and banging her head from one wall to the next.  He knocked out the teeth that she had left and she passed out.  When she woke up her oldest son and daughter were just getting home from the movies.  They found her on the floor.  Her son, who was about 15, rounded on his father and said, "If you put another hand on her I'll  kill ya!"  The Devil's response to his son was "Well you know it is time to leave when your kids are not afraid of you anymore."  And he left for good.  It was the happiest day of her life.  After enduring him for 18 years she was finally rid of him.  


She did find happiness later and married the great grandfather that I knew and loved.  (That is another story and a wonderful one at that.)  I tell this story for the same reason I believe she told her stories, just to put things into perspective. I think we all need a reminder at times that we don't have it so bad.  I have a loving husband who is an amazing father.  Yes, we get on each other's nerves at times, but it is really not that bad.  It's important to remember the good qualities of our spouse, even when they are showing us their bad ones. Our lives are what we make them.  Times are very different now.  If my husband started beating me, there would be no other choice but to leave.  But my point is, the majority of us don't have it so bad, but we make it bad. Nana had it bad, and was a victim for a long time, but she persevered.  Back then society was so much different that she could not pick up and leave. However, she eventually moved on and found happiness.  I have a great life and I thank my Nana every day for her strength and the lessons she taught.