I knew my Great Grandma. She was a sinewy woman with strong hands that could hold a face with a vice grip squeeze. Francesca D’Aguanno began in Castellammare, a village on the northwest coast of Sicily. Farms and small vineyards dotted the landscape and were managed within corrupt feudal systems. The unification of the Italian territories into one Italy left poor Sicilians poorer and more desperate. Francesca lived a frugal childhood. She worked hard in the fields and at home. Anything could grow from the rock and depleted soil she and her mother toiled. Francesca’s Coming to America story is an epic tale, but I will reserve that for another time.
Instead, let’s fast forward some 65 years when I knew her as my 89-year-old Great Grandma. She would not speak a word of English but clearly understood the nuances of the language. She had long white-gray hair with a steel gray streak that originated from her widow’s peak and wrapped into the bun at the nape of her neck. I never knew her with more than three teeth. She demanded attention to her priorities and held no patience for a rebuttal.
One day, my dad wanted to take the family fishing. The boat was running well, the bay was calm, and bluefish were biting at the Fire Island inlet. Grandma and Great Grandma were visiting. My mother’s mother would not go on a boat. She did not swim and feared seasickness. But Great Grandma was game. There was nothing that scared Great Grandma.
She tied her paisley print kerchief tightly around her deeply wrinkled chin and buttoned her black coat over her black dress. Great Grandma hopped on the boat. She waved away a helping hand but accepted a boat chair. “Andiamo!” There was nothing frail about Great Grandma.
The fishing reports were true. Bluefish were in a frenzy at the inlet. We put out our lines. Great Grandma sat in her chair and propped her feet on the transom. It didn’t take long for the lines to zing. Great Grandma gripped a fishing pole, cranking the reel with some help to hold up the pole. She threw back her head and laughed with such a joyous cackle. In Sicilian, she ordered someone to hurry, gaff her fish, take the hook out, put the line back in. ZING! Another one. It was an exciting afternoon. She celebrated all of the fish that made it into the cooler and lamented over the ones that were lost. Such carelessness! There was nothing that got by Great Grandma.
The afternoon was a success. Heading home, Great Grandma recounted the adventure, holding onto my mother’s hand. I had never seen her so happy. Once safely home, Dad had to clean all of the fish. Great Grandma put on an apron and retreated to the kitchen. Dad dug a hole in the garden to fill with carcasses and fish heads. When he presented Great Grandma the mound of clean filets in a colander, she shrieked. She slapped the colander on the kitchen table, spraying loose fish. She stalked out of the kitchen and into the yard with a parade of her wasteful American relations following her. Her arms were raised as she screeched her dismay. Dad had to dig up the fish heads. How could she make fish head soup without fish heads? There was nothing wasted with Great Grandma in charge.
Great Grandma picked up the decapitated heads and washed them thoroughly from the garden hose. She scolded and shook her head. My mother, father, and grandmother understood her volleys and offered words of apology and penance. My sisters, brother, and I stood mute. There was no arguing with Great Grandma.
She cooked fish head soup that night. It stunk. Looking at those fish eyes boiling in the pot dissipated any desire to eat soup, baked fish, or an Oreo cookie. There was no one like my Great Grandma.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.