By Marybeth Bonfiglio | May 22nd, 2012
Dear Grandma Mary and Grandma Salvatrice,
I never met you. Your hands never held mine, my head never laid against your bountiful chests. Your spicy slow cooked pasta sauce with hog hoof and egg or your rustic pork and kraut with Austrian herbs never touched my tongue. We never looked into each others eyes to know the love only a Grandma has for her grand-daughter, to see your son or daughter flicker in my gaze. To know how I hold your baby boys rebel-fire and your oldest daughters unconditional mother-love. It’s wasn’t easy growing up without a grandma. It’s hard explaining you to my daughters with just names, ideas and stories. It’s pure absence, an absence without even a moment to lean back into, no memories of your bright blue eyes, shiny red lips and black heels with golden flapper buckles, or commands in Italian and matriarch, polyester dresses and pointy silver glasses. There are only guesses and thoughts, the warmth of you that I make up in my head, a myth of sorts, but one that carries me on with you in my psyche, in my bones.
I am here to share your voice, no doubt, it comes through more often than not. I am here to live out the dreams, to bridge and heal the centuries, to bring into fruition the work you inherited. The raising of the children alone in the depression on virtually nothing, state assigned clothing, the scrubbing and cleaning and cursing the wild boys who yelped, and smoked and beat on each other. The hardships of the depression, the fear, the mystery of being a woman and mother between the ages. What a moment to come of age, on the fringe of an evolution, with no public voice of your own. Living a gypsy life and then dealing with the cultural misplacement of movement from one country to another, searching for home and security, a place to feed your young and live out a dream. The work of having 10 children, watching many of them die in front of your eyes. The businesses starting and failing. The long hours in the factory. The death of your husband. The face to keep. The new life to create. The lack, the scarcity, the patch-working bits and pieces together to make the family whole. You did it.
I want you to know what I am doing. The work I do right now isn’t for me. It’s for you back then and also for them of the next 100 years. I am here to zoom in on the details and pull out the threads of disharmony, sing them love songs and sew them back in with a different rhythm all together. This is the magic, the alchemy that I know you passed down to me in your blood. This is what I held in an invisible bag around my neck as a child when I buried my head in the soft summer grass and sat against the trunk of the chestnut trees for hours and listened, when I mixed flower petals with water and stared out my window on autumn mornings and saw the energy dance like angels in the clouds. They liked to call it Catholic, but I know there is more than one word for Love and Ceremony. I know it’s winged mother wisdom, mantra spoken out loud, internal prayers of giving, allowing for death and resurrection in every moment, and a howling belief in what can’t be seen until attention is paid. It’s Earth magic and folklore. It’s herbs in honey, spells in vinegar, bleeding into the ground and whispering secrets into the night. It’s Etruscan goddesses birthing the world, catching it with their hands and flowing forth the milk of life. It’s Proserpina who illuminated your shadow sisters and the Willendorf woman who showed you how to claim your space. It’s what your mothers knew and what their mothers lived fully and began the midwifery legacy. We are made of old country magic, of the soil and peaks of the Alps and the volcanic dust from the islands. We are the Parnassus Apollo butterfly and the Peregrine Hawk. I know these gifts are as sacred as the Rosary and the novenas, the assumption and the crucifixion. They are all you. They are all holy water for the soul. And I am nothing but what you brought forth and then some.
I am deeply aware of you in my marrow and not only do I hold you from here, I celebrate you. I honor you. I adore you for walking this walk for my parents, for me and especially for my daughters. You paved my way. You cut back the thorny bramble and chased the predators out of sight. You have given me the match to spark and enhance fires, to give voices where they have been silent or too scared to speak.
Forever you will be small pieces on my altar: a white silk scarf with the embroidered with the initial M, a worn old photo. You will be stories stuck in my eternal heart told by my mother and father and my siblings who were lucky enough to know you. You are the spirit wind that surrounded me as I gave birth to your great-granddaughters, you are the whispering songs during the night walks on the desert trails, you are the flashing lights when I kneel and pray on the wet forest floor. You are the recipe when I stir the herbs into the sauce and the secret ingredient when I cork the amber bottles.
I hold all of that forever and pass it on in words and beads and walks gathering plants in the woods. But it’s time for me to let go of the other stuff, the stuff that’s been carried on into me… branded in my cell memory, into my nervous system, and the particles that do not serve me or you or the future. I let go of the hardship, the poverty, the un-belonging in a foreign land. I let go of the survival and suffering. I release the dogma and the guilt. I let go of the stuff that keeps me poor, angry and not believing that I can create my own life. You have already done the dirtiest work for me. Because of you and your lives, I freely thrive. Create. Make beauty plentiful and serve it on a crystal platter to my many circles and beyond. I receive everything, not only what I need but a few things that I might want. I release my past, kiss it goodbye, and I let go of your past too, because I know you are floating on the cosmic cloud of the consciousness and you have no past anymore, you are just all that there is.
My dear, wise, perfect grandmas, thank you for housing me as an egg in my mother as you held her in your womb. Thank you for pushing her out, which pushed me out. Thank you for standing behind me as I sing my children to sleep at night and for passing me nutrients from beyond as breastfeed three daughters. Thank you for taking the risks, embarking on grand adventures, seeking a dream so far off you didn’t even know it was landing right now on my lap. Thank you, grandmothers. I wish I knew your lips kissing me goodnight, but I still know your voices, I hear your songs. They are clear. And I hear them harmonizing, telling me I am free. Thank you my strega noninnas for your permission to liberate from what no longer exists. Thank you for this life.