My mother’s grandmother was the matriarch of the family. Every detail of home life was dictated by her. Despite the strict force, the woman aimed to keep her charges well, safe and loved. My mother told this story many times. She was raised in a multi-generation home on West 9th Street in Brooklyn.
The Day Begins
Grandma had rules and routines. After my father had died, when I was eight years old, my two brothers, mother and I lived with my grandparents. While my mother worked long hours in a dress factory, Grandma took on most of the childcare. Grandma’s house rules were unspoken but clearly understood. She was a slight woman standing barely five feet tall, yet every muscle fiber twitched with strength and purpose. God help the child who thoughtlessly attempted to challenge her or innocently forgot.
The day began with Grandma’s morning ritual. Before anyone stirred, she was dressed and had tied a stiffly starched white apron over her black dress (she was always in mourning). A large pot of coffee brewed on top of the stove. Grandma then carried a day-old newspaper to the basement and lay pages on the floor. She sat on a three-legged stool she had placed in the middle of the papers, released her gray hair and brushed out the tangles. Once every hair was smoothed, she pulled the mass into a tidy bun at the nape of her neck. Grandma returned the stool to the corner, rolled the newspaper with the stray hairs, plunged the mess into the trash and climbed the stairs to the kitchen.
Coffee was ready. Grandma made herself a three-minute egg and poured exactly four ounces of orange juice into a jelly glass. She dipped the stale heel of bread into coffee then into the egg yolk. She ate sitting down in the quiet. With breakfast satisfied and her dishes washed, she was ready to take on the individual breakfast orders of the household—so long as it was a soft-boiled egg, toast, coffee and/or orange juice.
My brothers and I greeted Grandma with a kissed on her cheek. Sitting down to breakfast was mandatory—no arguments. It did not matter if you woke up late or promised to meet your friend at the corner. While we ate breakfast, Grandma spoke Sicilian, reminding us of our afternoon chores. As a small child, I spoke fluent Sicilian, but once I went to school, the words could not come out just as the English words would not form in my grandparents’ mouths. I understood Sicilian perfectly just as they could understand English.
After breakfast, there was bed inspection. No one was allowed to leave with their bed unmade. The sheets had to be pulled and tucked, and the blankets evenly lay on top of the mattress and over the pillow. Of course, the floor had to be clear of socks and pajamas. My room was always neater than my brothers. While they finished picking up, Grandma brushed and braided my hair. She would sweep the loose hairs later in the day.
Finally, we were ready for school. Grandma handed each one of us a brown bag lunch that held a sandwich, fruit and one of her baked cookies. We each delivered a kiss on her cheek. She gave me an extra tight hug. The stiff apron scratched my tender cheek. I would feel the tingle of the hug on my cheek while walking into the outside world.