Grandma Speciale was a short and solid Italian woman with wavy silver hair that faded to almost black just at the nape of her neck. She spoke with a strong Italian accent even though she’d been here since she was fifteen. She favored house dresses with tiny floral prints and sensible shoes. Grandma was all no nonsense, even when it came to her grandchildren. Any misbehavior was not tolerated, and was met with a swat to our behinds, but even in anger, she was mild compared to our mother. She was often up at the house to visit, sporting the usual kleenex in her hip pocket, which she would produce every few minutes to blow her nose or wipe her eyes. Grandma must have suffered from allergies. When we were outside, my grandmother also spat. She’d hawk one up and eject it at the sidewalk without comment. I took no real notice of it. This was my grandma. And after all, she was a farm girl from the old country. She put on no airs and basically, what you saw was what you got. It took me years before I realized upon refection that this was not something I’d seen anyone else do, least of all a little old lady.
Once in a while, she had me to the house she shared with Grandma Morse just down the street from us in Florida. When my parents married, my father had made the unusual decision that both women would live together. As far as I know, it was not a choice they would have made. But it was not their choice, I’m sure. Neither one had a husband or other children who could support them in their retirement years, so they always had a house near us thanks to my father. The two women couldn’t have been more different. One was catholic, one was jewish. They didn’t seem to like or dislike each other, at least in front of the grand children, but according to everyone else, they fought with each other often.
Grandma Speciale did all the cleaning and cooking, while Grandma Morse simply seemed to exist on her own plane, doing whatever she liked, which seemed to be precious little. Her activities revolved around the soaps and reading some, with little to no interaction with anyone else. I don’t remember either Grandmother with friends outside the family. They didn’t seem to have any. They were simply a satellite to our home. Their place was a brick ranch house, with a living room decorated in classic 50s style. From the front door were bluestone steps down into the living room area, which included a built in bar to the far left and a dining table toward the back sliding doors overlooking the garden. Near the dining table was the door tho the small kitchen. The living room had danish modern furniture with sculptural metal art hanging on the pale patterned stone wall. There was a curving green sectional couch, wall to wall carved moss green carpeting, and a few murano figurines of fish and birds scattered about. Back up the steps near the door was the hallway to their two bedrooms.
I would pack my little red suitcase with the elastics inside that held a little matching comb and brush and walked back down the street with Grandma Speciale for an overnight. I loved going there. I would walk to the front door of the little ranch house, and I was at home. She would take my little suitcase and lay it on the other twin bed in her room, and we would be ready for the day. Grandma Morse would be sitting on the plastic covered couch in her spot with her hands in her lap. She would offer me her cheek, which I would then kiss. As I kissed her, she would murmur in her wobbly voice, “Hello dear.”, and that would be pretty much all of the interaction I had with her for the rest of the day. It only occurred to me years later that perhaps she was less interested in me because I was not all jewish, a big no-no in jewish families of her time, and maybe this was a disappointment to her. There might have been other reasons too, with respect to her feelings about my mother and her former career choices. In any case, she was not much interested in me, but it never seemed to matter, because I had someone else there who clearly loved me and wanted my company.
Grandma took me to the beach where we would collect shells. She liked to play Italian music on her record player and she taught me how to polka while she sang the words to the songs as we went. With this kind of a ruckus in the living room, Grandma Morse would quietly leave the room to watch her soaps in her bedroom.
It seemed exactly right that the Grandmother who was so special to me had the very name “Special” as well. She had a garden in the back, even in Palm Beach, in which she grew what she could in the sandy Florida soil. I would help her tend her potatoes, tomatoes and onions and we would pick and eat oranges from her tree. I drew pictures for her that she would approve in her matter-of-fact way, or we would make sculptures out of the shells we’d found on the beach. She would keep them there on the shelf for years to come and every visit, we would add to the collection. Grandma taught me to fish too. It was one of her favorite pastimes, often walking up the street to our house to use the dock. She would arrive in a straw hat, with her tackle box and a plastic bucket. After saying her hellos she would proceed out back to the waterway, where she would spend the afternoon. After she taught me to fish, I would often join her there.
Sometimes she would tell me about her childhood in Sicily, about the groves of olives and fields of vegetables. Her father would hold feasts on Sundays where all the relatives would gather. She spoke wistfully about how families there were close then, no matter what, not like the ones here in this country. She told me of her father, whom she’d adored; how kind and indulgent he was. At this point, she would always wipe a tear from her face. I could see how much she missed him and the life she’d left behind so long ago. Grandma also told me about her mother, and how different she was from her father. Her mother was strangely cold and calculating and I got the idea that she didn’t care much for her.
By evening, Grandma Speciale would begin to make dinner for us. She made a wonderful chicken soup from scratch which and she would let me help putting the little Pastena stars in last. I was never allowed in the kitchen at home. My mother always worried it would annoy the cook who might quit as a result. Doing things in grandma’s kitchen was an exciting and exotic activity for me and I loved it. At mealtimes, I would be given a tiny glass with wine in it when the others were having wine. The wine was always Mogen David. It was what Grandma Morse drank on jewish holidays. My Italian Catholic grandmother apparently saw no reason to waste money buying other wine. I remember distinctly how on one particular Jewish holiday I sat at their table and as my jewish grandmother raised her wine and said a hebrew prayer, the other said simply, “I’ll drink to that.”
After dinner, she would clean up, and we would have jello with whipped cream in front of the living room TV with Grandma Morse, watching Mitch Miller, Bonanza, The Defenders and Perry Mason, which were the favorites of the house. When the shows were over, Grandma Morse would retire to her room, and I would go with Grandma Speciale to her room. She would tuck me in, turn off the lights and turn on her Zenith transistor radio for music while we went to sleep. It was a treat to listen to that little radio, its dial a night light in the darkened room. The palm trees outside brushed the window and threw striped shadows across our beds. I felt safe there and it felt like an adventure too.