Today is my grandmother’s birthday. Her name was Vincenza Tortorici Masi, known to all her friends as Vinny and to all kids in my neighborhood as Grandma. She would have been 101. I know some things about her childhood, but I wish I knew more. I wish I had asked her.

I read MAUDE by Donna Mabry, an obscure book recommended to me by Amazon analytics that cost less than $2.00 and I devoured it in a hotel room in Baltimore. The author tells the story of her grandmother in the first person. The interrupted childhood that Maude experienced, serving as a midwife and caretaker from the age of 7, the deprivation during the Great Depression are reminiscent of my own grandmother’s youth, and early adulthood which she spent caring for her 4 younger siblings and an ill mother. Vincenza’s father drank and once chained her and her brother up in a bathtub, an event she brought up frequently in the days before her death. When I finished reading Maude early in the morning I felt the loss of the book and the loss of my grandmother and mother keenly.

I still learn about my grandmother’s life. When i went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, they passed around a box that resembled a pencil case or a small child’s shoe box. This little box filled with pasta and beans was the “Relief” Grandma had told me about during the Depression, which was expected to feed my grandparents and infant mother for a week.

In the PBS special The Italian Americans I learn that in my grandmother’s early years, Italians worshipped in the basements of the Catholic churches because the Irish priests considered the Italian  devotion to the saints paganistic. The feasts we would go to as children each
year  were established to bring the saints and the culture into the American sunlight.

What I know about her was she loved to cook and found doing the laundry soothing. She loved to dance. She told stories that I believed when I was very small. Where is Philip? I would ask. In my pocket she would reply and I thought it true.

I wish I had asked more.