Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Eleven, eleven, eleven, and one more eleven

Today is Veterans Day. On Veterans Day I always remember my grandmother.

Not that Grandma was an actual veteran if you use the primary definition: a former member of the armed forces. But in some ways, she was a special kind of veteran if you consider the secondary definition: someone of long experience. And she certainly was a fighter.

November 11 was first to become Armistice Day in 1918, later to become Veterans Day. Armistice Day was the day World War I ended on the Western Front. In a railway carriage in the Compi├Ęgne Forest in France, the Allies signed an Armistice with Germany to ceasefire at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" (Paris time).

To add to the stream of elevens, my grandmother turned eleven years old on that day in history. It was a defining moment for her generation, and my grandmother felt a special connection to it.

World War I was simply called The Great War before World War II. I’m sure that until World War II, those that had gone through the First World War thought they had seen the worst hostility and suffering the errors of man could produce. More than 16 million people died in the war, which had to seem unthinkable until World War II shattered that gruesome record with 60+ million deaths.

My grandmother lived most of her life struggling. She was near the top of the birth order in a Sicilian-American family of 11 (there's that number, again) children, 10 of whom were girls. She only completed her education through the eighth grade because she was needed at home. Too young to really enjoy the roaring twenties before the stock market crash of 1929, by the time the Great Depression started, she was a young wife and grieving mother who had already tragically lost her first-born child to an unknown heart defect before the child was 2. Two more children came along quickly, but there was no work, no money, and no prospects for my grandparents. Life was about survival.

My grandfather, a gifted artist and draftsman, did any job that would pay the bills, including digging ditches for the WPA. He often spent hours en route to and from a job, navigating buses with a book in his pocket to help him pass the time. My mother remembers a childhood of living in scruffy apartments over stores and eating nothing but pasta with nearly rotten vegetables no longer suitable for sale on her grandfather’s vegetable cart, while listening to the panic in her parents’ voices as they argued under the enormous stress of poverty and uncertainty. As a small girl, my mother would walk her younger sister home from school and manage the household until her parents came home, including handling the damper on the old coal furnace—a very risky duty for a child—because her parents were off working at whatever odd jobs they could find. Life became even more gloomy as my grandmother’s mother fell terminally ill and, for 3 years, my grandparents, mother, and aunt lived in my great-grandparents’ house so that my grandmother could care for her dying mother and manage the house for her father. My mother says that it was a terrible time: stressful, depressing, and lean, with a grim specter of impending death haunting each day.

World War II allowed my grandparents to finally earn a steady income. Having no sons, the war did not intrude on their immediate family unit, but their extended family had the same devastating losses and after-effects of war as nearly every American family during that time. My grandmother worked in a factory during the war and lost a thumb on the job.

Finally, things began to look up for my grandparents, who, not long before becoming empty-nesters, fulfilled their fondest dream and became homeowners. They bought a tiny house outside of the city,what we’d now call a “starter home.” They thought they were the richest people in the world.

They endured more worry as a grandson nearly died after being hit by a car and went through years of surgery and recovery. A son-in-law died of a heart attack in his thirties, leaving their daughter to raise 5 small children. Just before retirement, my grandfather suffered a fatal third heart attack.

By that time, my grandmother was solidly a veteran—a veteran of adversity and survival, a veteran of shattered dreams and keeping dreams alive, a veteran of cruel losses and unbreakable family ties, a veteran of poverty and unthinkable stress and hardship and duty.

She fought many health battles of her own in the following years, losing both legs and, eventually, her mind to diabetes. But, still, she was an incredible fighter. We were called to her deathbed time and time again, yet she pulled through many times before finally succumbing. I think, perhaps, because she had spent her entire life fighting for life and happiness,she just didn’t know how to stop fighting. She was a member of a generation of fighters, survivors, veterans.

Today, I first and foremost remember and appreciate veterans of armed services. But I also remember all veterans and those in service, past and present, military and civilian, who fought—and continue to fight—for a better world amid hardships and obstacles that I can’t even imagine.

And, with special fondness, I remember a strong and courageous woman whom I loved very much; who showered me with little grandmotherly gifts and my favorite cookies; who gave me treasures like my first Christmas stocking and a cherished Minnie Mouse handkerchief; who always worked hard; who faced heartache after heartache with indomitable strength; who made wonderful Sunday dinners; who drove 1000 miles with a turtle in a coffee can because she thought I would like it as a pet; who made the world’s best Sicilian pastries; who wrote me letters and made me feel important for receiving real mail; who had a beautiful face, a beautiful smile, and an infectious laugh; who had a quick temper, a fierce spirit, and a ton of love for her family; who was a fighter and a role model; and who was always proud to say that on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month she turned eleven years old.

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katshepherd said...

This is beautiful. An amazing tribute to an incredible woman. Thank you for sharing and for helping us all see her beauty and enduring light. I see her strength in you.

Paula said...

As my sociobiologist boyfriend likes to point out, all behavior comes from our roots in "genes and environment" (a little shorthand quote that we use constantly.)

The influence of this strong, wise, generous, gentle, profound and loving woman is SO evident in YOU--what a gift to read of her and come to know both of you better. Thank you <3

Kathy said...

This is so wonderful and beautiful, made me cry even, reminding me of my own beautiful Sicilian grandmother who I miss ever single day. Thank you for sharing yours. xo